Actress Jennifer Esposito, known for her roles in Spin City, Crash, and Summer of Sam, opened her adorable gluten-free bakery, Jennifer’s Way, in the East Village in March.
Since then, Esposito, who was diagnosed with a particularly debilitating case of Celiac disease in 2009, has spent endless hours in the kitchen baking her ridiculously scrumptious goods—from bagels and breads to cookies, cupcakes, and soft pretzels.
But she’s also positioned herself as a sort of spokesperson for the city’s Celiac disease sufferers, offering weekly lectures at the shop, writing educational blog posts, and speaking out against gluten-free frauds. She’s working on a book that will come out in May. “This is a real labor of love,” she says. “I believe that food can kill you—it obviously was doing that to me—and it can cure you.”
And as eschewing wheat has gotten trendier, Esposito is increasingly seeing the world of “gluten-free” goods as a minefield for those with serious sensitivities. “I wanted a place that felt safe. There’s no gluten even allowed in here,” she says, referring to her East 10th Street bakery.
We caught up with Esposito to find out more about her mission to help Celiac sufferers eat safe, wholesome foods, and about why she thinks that’s only getting harder:
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with Celiac disease? The social aspect is really hard. And also just the freedom, of walking down the street being hungry and grabbing something. You have to plan your day, your trip, your vacation, where you’re going to be this evening…it’s a lot. It’s a really difficult disease for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons is that family and friends really don’t get it. They think it’s an allergy or a fad or you want to lose weight or it’s in your mind, and it’s really not. It’s really devastating when people around you don’t get it.
With those experiences under your belt, what kinds of problems did you want your bakery to solve for people? At first, I was eating a lot of packaged gluten-free stuff and getting sicker and sicker and sicker, because either they weren’t completely gluten-free or they were cross-contaminated or they just had so much sugar and other crap and preservatives. So I was still ill. There are a lot of gluten-free bakeries but they’re not all completely gluten-free or they are but they use a lot of sugar, salt, a lot of white rice and tapioca, stuff like that that I don’t want. The majority of everything here has a protein base, so it’s either quinoa, brown rice, almond, or millet. What we use to moisten is apple sauce, olive oil, zucchini, maple syrup. So you’re getting all of these nutrients, too.
And in addition to the bakery, it seems like you’re positioning yourself as more of an educator or spokesperson in the Celiac world. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I’m finishing my book now. A lot of people came to me about a cookbook, and I said no. Yes, food is obviously a big obstacle here, but I don’t want to focus on food, I want to focus on the disease, because it’s a disease first. When I was diagnosed, I had no resources. I was told to go gluten-free, and I barely knew what that meant.
But it’s getting better, right? It seems like there are a ton more resources and products now compared to a few years ago. Simply, in one word, my answer would be no. I don’t think it’s better. I think it’s worse, actually. I think there are so many companies that are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, putting gluten-free on the label just to sell a product. I don’t ever wish anything bad on these people, but if they saw what happens to someone when they get contaminated with gluten, and if it was their child, they would have a better standard for their products. It’s really not fair. I know better, but many people do not, and they see “gluten-free,” and they’re picking it up and they’re getting sick, and it’s not fair.
So basically the people who don’t have Celiac or an allergy but are eating mostly gluten-free because they believe it has health benefits are making it worse for you? They really are. I went to this restaurant, and I had a new waiter, and I said “You know, I have to be completely gluten-free.” He said, “Yeah, I know,” and I felt the attitude. I spoke to the manager, and she said, “Oh you’re one of those who actually needs it, because I have to tell you, 90 percent of people that come in here, they just want it, and the kitchen doesn’t know how to decipher who’s Celiac and who’s not.” That’s not fair. For me, I get some gluten in my system, and I’m talking an eighth of a teaspoon, and it can really destroy my gut. For me, the next day, the day after, I can’t walk. I’m not exaggerating. My limbs, the inflammation, the pain…it’s not okay. —Lisa Elaine Held
For more information, visit www.jennifersway.org/bakery