When Jax Peters Lowell was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 1981, waiters looked at her cockeyed when she asked whether soups or salads on the menu had traces of gluten in them. Twenty-six years later, she can walk into a restaurant or grocery store and see clearly what has gluten and what doesn’t—and a lot of that is all thanks to her.
Philadelphia-based Lowell is the godmother of gluten-free living. In her first book, Against the Grain: The Slightly Eccentric Guide to Living Well Without Gluten or Wheat, she chronicled her struggle to live gluten-free in the ’80s, long before there were cookbooks, blogs, talk shows, and whole bakeries dedicated to it. At the time, it was groundbreaking. She went on to write the bestseller The Gluten-Free Bible: The Thoroughly Indispensable Guide to Negotiating Life without Wheat.
“There was no awareness at the beginning. No one had heard of it. It wasn’t on doctors’ radars,” says Lowell.
Now, there is almost too much information (and misinformation) out there about gluten and gluten-free diets, she says. Lowell wrote her latest book, The Gluten-Free Revolution, to clear up some of the misconceptions. It’s filled with recipes by renowned chefs like Alice Waters and Thomas Keller, helpful tips on how to deal with your social life if you’re gluten-free, and how to decode gluten-free labels on your foods.
While it might sound like just another specialized food book, through her eyes (and probably a lot of people with Celiac and gluten-sensitivity), it’s still a key revolution in the making. We chatted with the pioneer about how the industry—and her life—has changed since she was first diagnosed.
What was it like when you were first diagnosed? At first, I was positively ravaged by Celiac Disease. It was at the same time when I finally got diagnosed that I learned I wasn’t going to die. That’s how bad it was. The food that was available was inedible.
The first book I wrote, Against The Grain, was published in 1995, after a long journey in the 80s, getting well, and getting my skills. I basically wrote the book that I wished I’d had when I was diagnosed.
What were some of those things that you felt were needed? The book was full of assertiveness training, negotiating, how to get a chef to listen to what you needed, and resourcefulness.
I was a creative director at an advertising agency then, and I knew the power of bringing attention to something in the right way. I believed that if I wrote a really big, flashy book, people with Celiac wouldn’t be as sick, and we could all eat better.
People thought I was crazy at the beginning, but with my new book, I want everybody to enjoy this incredible gluten-free bounty.
It’s amazing how much has changed with regards to awareness. Why do you think gluten-free diets have become so popular, even for people who don’t suffer from an auto-immune disease? I honestly think that this trend has exploded the way it has because of the way our food supply is, and GMOs, and processed foods.
And some people do it for weight loss, yes, but a trend doesn’t get this big and stay this big if people weren’t really feeling unwell. It’s no accident that 64 countries in the world do not allow U.S. GMO wheat into their borders.
I have friends who are gluten sensitive and when they travel to France and Spain, they say ‘I had a croissant in Paris and bread in Spain.’ I tell them, ‘Well, you were eating your grandmother’s wheat. It probably didn’t bother you.’ One of the fights I think we need to have as a culture is to insist that our GMO foods are labeled as such.
How has the experience of going out to eat changed over the years? When I started the first book, I had to beg the chefs to give me something gluten-free. Molly O’Neill [chef and columnist for The New York Times] didn’t know what I was talking about at the time.
For more information, visit www.jaxlowell.com and check out The Gluten-Free Revolution: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know about Losing the Wheat, Reclaiming Your Health, and Eating Happily Ever After
(Photos: Celiac.org; Jaxlowell.com)