Gluten-Free Freedom

Tired of eating at home? Being gluten-free in Eugene is getting a little easier

One percent of the population has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that results in a reaction to eating the gluten from grains that can lead to damage of the small intestine.

Well, it’s actually more than that, says Nadine Grzeskowiak, a registered nurse in Corvallis who helps patients live a gluten-free life. Grzeskowiak airs a podcast about the disease and also has authored a book called Dough Nation: A Nurse’s Memoir of Celiac Disease from Missed Diagnosis to Food and Health Activism.

But Grzeskowiak doesn’t want to say how many actually have celiac disease because she’ll disclose that in an upcoming book.

“It’s going to come out that it’s much bigger than one percent of the population,” she says.  

With this slice of the population dealing with intolerance to gluten, which is in nearly everything, it can put a wet blanket on enjoying a culinary scene that has attracted the Food Network’s Guy Fieri several times to Eugene. 

There are a few spots to choose from that are completely gluten-free, such as Elegant Elephant Bakery Company and Sundial Cafe. But other restaurants are starting to cater for those restricted to gluten-free diets. 

Celiac disease is the body’s response to a toxin, Grzeskowiak says. This genetic predisposition, when exposed to grains (such as barley, rye and sometimes oats), results in an autoimmune response that can lead to neurological issues. 

Yakov Levine has been a nutritional health coach at Natural Grocers in Eugene for four years. He says he sees about two to three people with sensitivities to gluten or celiac. 

“My philosophy is not necessarily to find all the same alternatives that are gluten-free and replace them,” he says. “It’s often other proteins and other grains that can be problematic, as well.”

Levine says that, as a nutritional health coach, he aims to empower people to cook at home more than eating out. 

“You know what’s in there,” he says of cooking your own food.

In some instances, gluten doesn’t even have to be in the food for someone to get sick from it. Airborne gluten can be a problem for those with celiac who eat at restaurants, bakeries and pizzerias. Gluten can be in the air for about 72 hours, Grzeskowiak adds, referencing FDA estimates. 

She says that she won’t eat at a restaurant that isn’t 100 percent gluten-free because the health risks are too great. If someone with celiac consumes gluten, it can take awhile for the body to recover.  

Luckily, in Eugene, if you don’t want to deal with washing dishes at home or baking without wheat, there are a handful of establishments that are totally gluten-free to avoid accidental consumption. 

Jessica Scarola, owner of Elegant Elephant Baking Company, a completely gluten-free bakery, says celiac disease runs in her family. She says her father was diagnosed with it about 18 years ago. She has it, and two of her children have it as well. 

More than six years ago, Scarola says, she found herself with lots of downtime, and she would often get coffee with her friends; it was then she had the idea to start a gluten-free bakery. 

“You’re there for two or three hours if you’re having a great time,” she says. “During that time, I’d get a tea or a coffee and I’d just sit there. I was nursing at the time, so I was famished — I was ‘hangry.’ My friends would get their food. There were not [gluten-free] options available.” 

Today, Elegant Elephant Bakery Company’s products can be found throughout Eugene, and she now owns Vanilla Jill’s, which offers gluten-free comfort food and ice cream. 

Before the diagnosis, Scarola says she and her family essentially ate food that was convenient. The silver lining of the diagnosis was being forced to reinvent herself as a baker.

“My diagnosis was a journey: ‘Oh, my gosh. I can’t eat any of the things I am used to eating,’” she says. “I just started cooking and baking, which was honestly was one of the best things that happened to me because it turned out I had a true passion for it.”  

Scarola’s gone on to blend her own sets of gluten-free flour at the bakery — and has plans to sell the flour replacements in the future. She says it can take five to six flours to match flour similar to something containing gluten. 

The bakery settled into a brick-and-mortar establishment in October 2018, just a few weeks after she gave birth to her youngest son, Wesley. It’s an intimate space, but it offers customers several gluten-free cookbooks to read while they eat or wait for their food. That’s because she wants her bakery to be a resource for those dealing with gluten-free diets. 

Scarola calls herself a “selfish baker” because recipes she puts together are based on foods she says she misses, as well as specialty orders customers say they miss. 

What she says she misses — and has since developed a gluten-free recipe of — is cinnamon rolls. She dreamt of eating cinnamon rolls from Cinnabon. “I was stuffing my face with Cinnabon, and I woke up in a panic and thought: If I ate a bunch of gluten in my dreams, will I get sick?” Scarola says. 

The result was a cinnamon roll that, in my gluten-eating experience, can easily compete with Cinnabon. 

Because she and her kids have celiac, she says it’s serious business when they eat at restaurants. 

But Scarola says she’s appreciative that there is a growing understanding of what celiac is and what it means to cater to the customers.

There are a few restaurants Scarola likes to go to that have gluten-free options that are also kid-friendly. Of course, there’s Sundial Cafe, where she had eaten the day before talking with Eugene Weekly. For those with gluten-free options, some of her favorite restaurants in Eugene are Tacovore, Sushi Pure and pasta from both the Oregon Electric Station and Placido’s Pasta Shop. 

One of the biggest reliefs for people with celiac might be that Hot Mama’s Wings has a dedicated fryer that’s gluten-free. That means there’s still a place to get your hot wings, tots and fish-and-chips fix. 

It’s a standard go-to restaurant for Scarola and her family. And it’s now the place to go for my girlfriend (who has celiac disease) and me.

The Gluten Free RN is located at 215 SW 4th Street, Corvallis. Sundial Cafe is open Tuesday through Sunday, 8 am to 4 pm and is located at 2435 Hilyard Street. Elegant Elephant Baking Company is open Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 am to 6:30 pm and is located at 120 Shelton McMurphey Boulevard, Suite 150. For a list of where to find its baked goods, visit Natural Grocers is located at 201 Coburg Road. Hot Mama’s Wings is located at W. 420 W. 13th Avenue and is open 11 am to 10 pm Tuesday through Sunday and 3 to 10 pm Monday.

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