In recent years you've no doubt noticed an increase in restaurant menus, grocery store aisles, and bakery cases that offer gluten-free products. What's the big deal? Is it some new health trend like eating a macro-biotic diet, boosting anti-oxidants to help fight free radicals, or eating only local and organic ingredients for better health? Not exactly.
Gluten is a protein found in foods processed from wheat and related grains including barley and rye. It gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape. If you pay close attention to food ingredients, it's in just about everything. And though many of us can go through our daily eating routine without giving this little compound a second thought, to some people, gluten is not a friendly ingredient. It turns out, more and more people have discovered they either have an intolerance to gluten or have celiac disease, an abnormal immune reaction to partially digested gliadin. Neither ailment is very fun, for the body or, until recently, for the taste buds.
Imagine a world with no pasta, no warm bread fresh from a bakery oven, no chocolate-y cake at a friend's birthday party, and no after work beer with your pals. This is what it's like for those who can't eat gluten. But people like Karen Morgan are shaking up the gluten-free world with alternatives to conventional cooking and baking through her Blackbird Bakery website, her cookbook "Blackbird Bakery Gluten Free" and her new cooking show, "Gluten Morgan," which officially launches through the Whole Foods Network, Thrive today.
Morgan was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2002 and has been living gluten free ever since. Before her diagnosis she struggled with nausea, fatigue and a whole list of other symptoms that made her miserable. But finding out she had celiac disease was no walk in the park either. As a baker by profession and married to a chef at the time, the news was a rude awakening.
"Believe you me, it was a very unpleasant start," says Morgan. "I was no daisy to live with and trying to redefine my culinary status was the equivalent to learning Cantonese over the weekend. The worst of it was going to the grocery store, having to buy these pricey packages of food that tasted like dog food. In fact, I tried giving it to my neighbors dog and he turned his nose up and walked off. That's when I got really pissed off and knew I had to do something about it.
Armed with goggles, a lab coat, a no. 2 pencil and a legal pad, Morgan devoted five years to hammering out recipes in her kitchen that fit a gluten-free diet, and still satisfied the taste buds on all levels. She ignored all existing gluten-free cookbooks and blogs in order to focus solely on creating original and unique recipes.
Imagine a world with no pasta, no warm bread fresh from a bakery oven, no chocolate-y cake at a friend's birthday party, and no after work beer with your pals.
"I kept it simple by setting my standards very high. Every recipe had to have the same taste, texture and appearance as their gluten contemporaries otherwise it was back to the drawing board," says Morgan. "Beyond that, I knew that the only way to give gluten free a little street cred in the food world was to have a paradigm shift. So when I first came onto the scene, every time I'd bake for someone, it didn't matter if they were gluten-free or not, I just served them without telling them that what they were actually eating was gluten-free. When I did tell them that what they were raving about was gluten free, their jaws would drop and they would be like, 'no way!'"
Morgan describes the experience of watching her customers react to eating gluten-free baked goods like watching a Mastercard commerical ... priceless. "It got people to notice and see that gluten free was just as indulgent and satisfying as the traditional fare, which still makes me grin from ear to ear," says Morgan. "When life gives you lemons, make gluten-free lemon meringue pie."
And so The Blackbird Bakery was born in 2008. Though it started as an online catering business, it is now a resource for new recipes and insight on gluten-free living. Morgan now offers lifestyle consultations on how to live in a world with no gluten. Her work has grown wildly in popularity as her treats get served on the pillows of the Hotel San Jose guests for SXSW, in swag baskets at the Golden Globe awards in Los Angeles and claims the likes of Courteney Cox Arquette, David Arquette, Laura Dern, Ben Harper, Jennifer Esposito, and Kelly Slater as her clients.
In 2010 she released her first gluten-free cookbook on baking and the first run sold out in three months, which no one was expecting, least of all Morgan. "I think it's because it's the first gluten free dessert cookbook of its kind: there is a full page picture of every single recipe — most gluten free cookbooks have few to no pictures — and it's got a definitive edge to it," says Morgan. "It's not your average bear. I've even had a few people admit that they keep it on their bedside table."
And her latest endeavor? A new cooking show, Gluten Morgan. The concept and name for Gluten Morgan is the brain child of Jessica Agneessens, one of the lead producers with the Whole Foods Network, Thrive. "She really didn't want to do a typical dump-and-pour cooking show, especially a gluten-free one," says Morgan. "So after we first met, we bounced some ideas around and both agreed that the theme and pulse had to be in keeping with the Blackbird Bakery mission, which is to make gluten-free fun, easy, and just as delicious as what came before."
Currently the team has produced five episodes the first of which can be viewed at thrive.wholefoods.com.
Even if you don't have a specific aversion to gluten, Morgan's creativity warrants a try. Personally I've tasted her chocolate cupcakes and chewy gingersnap cookies and wanted to lose myself in a whole box of them. With the show, the goal is to show the gluten-free world that food can be every bit as good if you put a little effort into it. "I want Gluten Morgan to reach everyone who wants to learn how to live, love, and bake the gluten free lifestyle. Or at least take a peek at it, even if it's with only one eye."
Morgan will celebrate the launch of the show today at the Gibson Bar from 6 to 8 pm and the event is open to the public! Gibson will be pouring their specialty gluten-free cocktails and Morgan will serve complimentary sweet and savory gluten-free bites.