Friday, November 25, 2016

FishLips Waterfront Bar & Grill * Gluten-Free

FishLips Waterfront Bar & Grill
610 Glen Cheek Drive
Port Canaveral, FL   32920
Phone: 321-784-4533
Fax: 321-784-4535
fishlipsbar @

We were looking for any place that would be open late and everyone we talked to recommended FishLips as the favorite place. It was certainly the best choice!! They have two floors...and at 10:pm it was very noisy upstairs with the band. So my group chose the much quieter first floor near the windows. Service was quick and cheerful. As someone who lives with Celiac disease I've gotten in the habit of automatically asking for a Gluten-Free Menu. Imagine my surprise when the waitress immediately said 'of course'! She handed me a GF menu complete with appetizers, entrees and even dessert!! I ordered the Chicken Isabella - Grilled Sun-Dried Tomato glazed Chicken topped with fresh Mozzarella Cheese; served with Orzo Salad, Asparagus and drizzled with a Balsamic Reduction - and it was incredible. There were eight of us for dinner and everyone was very happy with their meal. I even ordered dessert to go back to the hotel...just because I could!  Peanut Butter Explosion, a White Chocolate Mousse, Peanut Butter Cups and Chocolate Chunks drizzled with Carmel. It was so good I wished I could go back again for another one.  This is one place on my 'must go back' list next time we travel to Port Canaveral for another cruise.  (Carnival Cruising, Sensation)

Carolanne Le Blanc
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771

Friday, November 18, 2016

Gluten-Free Bread Pudding

Gluten-Free Bread Pudding

I grew up in a large family...and Bread Pudding was nearly a weekly staple.  In those days raising six kids meant buying day old bread from the bakery.  And buying day old bread meant ending up with lots of bits n pieces of dried breads of all sorts.  My mom could work magic with those stale bits n pieces making the best Bread Pudding with raisins or dried fruit.  And my dad loved his warm from the oven with Hershey's Chocolate Syrup on top.

So when I was told I would never be able to eat bread again...oh, how I mourned for my mom's Bread Pudding. My mom never really had a in a way I never will be able to enjoy her Bread Pudding again.  But I have discovered Rudi's Gluten-Free Bread...and Paula Deen :-)  And I have to add that I really don't like the ends or heel's (as we called them) of any bread.  So I store the first and last slice of every loaf in the freezer until I have a bag full.  Then I pull out Paula Deen's Bread Pudding recipe and get prepared for a trip back to childhood.  She actually has about eight different recipes...and if you know Paula's recipes at all none of them are particularly healthy...but they certain do taste amazing!!

From Paula's Home Cooking
Servings: 8 to 10 servings

2 cups granulated sugar
5 large beaten eggs
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups cubed Gluten-Free Bread, allow to stale overnight in a bowl
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
1 cup chopped pecans

For the sauce:
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 13 by 9 by 2-inch pan.
Mix together granulated sugar, eggs, and milk in a bowl; add vanilla. Pour over cubed bread and let sit for 10 minutes. In another bowl, mix and crumble together brown sugar, butter, and pecans.  Pour bread mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle brown sugar mixture over the top and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until set. Remove from oven.

For the sauce:
Mix together the granulated sugar, butter, egg, and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir together until the sugar is melted. Add the brandy, stirring well. Pour over bread pudding. Serve warm or cold.

Carolanne Le Blanc
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771

Gluten-Free Fruitcake

This is another Alton Brown recipe that I’ve tweaked a bit to be Gluten-Free.  I like it because it has none of those candied thingies.  My daughter prefers the Gran Marnier instead of the Brandy…but of course you could use any distilled alcohol that you prefer and it will be Gluten-Free.  Trust me…this is one great cake!!  I’ve managed to convert some of the most difficult Fruit Cake Haters with this recipe.

Gluten-Free Fruitcake

1 cup golden raisins
1 cup currants
1/2 cup sun dried cranberries
1/2 cup sun dried blueberries
1/2 cup sun dried cherries
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
Zest of one lemon, chopped coarsely
Zest of one orange, chopped coarsely
1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped
1 cup Grand Marnier
1 cup sugar
5 ounces unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)
1 cup unfiltered apple juice
4 whole cloves, ground
6 allspice berries, ground
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 3/4 cups G F all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken
Grand Marnier for basting

Combine dried fruits, candied ginger and both zests. Add Grand Marnier and macerate overnight, or microwave for 5 minutes to re-hydrate fruit.

Place fruit and liquid in a non-reactive pot with the sugar, butter, apple juice and spices. Bring mixture to a boil stirring often, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for at least 15 minutes. (Batter can be completed up to this point, then covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before completing cake.)

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine dry ingredients and sift into fruit mixture. Quickly bring batter together with a large wooden spoon, then stir in eggs one at a time until completely integrated, then fold in nuts. Spoon into a 10-inch non-stick loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Check for doneness by inserting toothpick into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it's done. If not, bake another 10 minutes, and check again.  This is the tricky part…because this cake is so dense it’s easy to pull it too soon.  I’ve actually had raw cake when I thought it was done.  Now I opt to leave it in a little longer.  I figure the spritzing done over the next two weeks will compensate for being a little too dry coming out of the oven.

Remove cake from oven and place on cooling rack or trivet. Baste or spritz top with Grand Marnier and allow to cool completely before turning out from pan.

When cake is completely cooled, seal in a tight sealing, food safe container. Every 2 to 3 days, feel the cake and if dry, spritz with Grand Marnier. The cake's flavor will enhance considerably over the next two weeks.

Carolanne Le Blanc
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771

Friday, November 4, 2016

Common Courtesies

It’s the Holidays and parties abound!  It’s a time for visiting with friends and loved ones, and it’s a time for entertaining in our homes.  I grew up with Miss Manners and proper etiquette.  Not only did we learn about respect and common courtesies at home…but we learned them in school as well.  It still amazes me that now-a-days so many of our children never learn these simple tips. So here are some basic Common Courtesies that will help make visiting or entertaining more enjoyable for all.

 ** Respond to your Invitationplease, please, please let your Host/Hostess know if you plan to attend or not…even if it’s to say maybe.  Your RSVP helps in planning for the correct number of guests.  If you don’t respond to your invitation and you just ‘show up’ you’re being more than just rude – and you can’t complain if your Host/Hostess isn’t prepared for you to be there.

 ** Don’t forget to show up if you’ve extended your RSVP make certain you honor your promise.  If life happens and your plans change, notify your Host/Hostess as soon as you become aware you cannot make it or you may be late.

 ** Be on time be respectful, ‘fashionably late’ is not fashionable; it’s downright rude.  Don’t create liars out of your friends and acquaintances - don’t force people to give out fictitious times just because they know you so well.

 ** Bring something to eat or a small gift never arrive empty handed.  Always bring something to contribute.

Special dietary needs:
 ** Bring something you enjoy if you have special needs pay attention and bring something to share that you can enjoy without worry.  Don’t be the one standing by the table shouting, “isn’t there ANYTHING here that I can eat??”

 ** Learn how to say “No, Thank you.” – be respectful, if offered something you can’t eat don’t proclaim loudly, “Are you trying to poison me??”

Using your favorite baking dish:
 ** Mark your possessions for easy return whenever possible, use dishes you don’t mind losing.  If you use a prized possession, make certain you mark it with your name and phone # and don’t be afraid to call a day or two later to claim it.  It’s a perfect opportunity to say “Thank you for inviting me.”

 ** Learn how to say ‘Yes” when someone asks if they can bring something, always say, “YES”!!  Don’t create future monsters - the ones who cause others to complain, “They NEVER contribute anything!!”

 ** Learn how to say “Thank You” when someone offers to contribute make certain you say Thank you, even if it’s something you wouldn’t use in a thousand lifetimes.

 ** Set understandable time frames ‘around 7ish’ is not a true time.  Many a Host/Hostess have actually learned to lie just to get people to arrive on time - saying it’s 7:00pm when the time will truly be 7:30pm. Set an understandable time and stick to it.  There will always be rude guests who show up late...don't punish the ones who do arrive on time by waiting around for them.

Be prepared for some special dietary needs:
 ** Be flexible make allowances for others.  Provide an alternative whenever possible, example:  Juice or water, fresh fruit or raw vegetables.

 ** Don’t be offended don’t push the matter if someone refuses what you’re offering.  Saying, “a little bit won’t hurt you” might just actually kill someone.  Accept a “No, Thank you” gracefully.

Finding someone’s favorite baking dish:
 ** Returning it to the proper ownerif the dish is marked, so much the better - return it as soon as possible.  If the dish is not marked and you don’t hear from anyone within a week or two - well, you’ve just inherited a new dish.  Don’t be upset if someone recognizes it several months later and wants to take it home again.

 ** Never return anything dirty or empty returning a dirty dish is simply insulting.  Returning an empty dish symbolizes a future without prosperity.  It’s customary to place something inside, a small gift or food of some sort - symbolizing a prosperous relationship with the other person.

 ** General rule is simple bring enough to serve at least 6 people, regardless of the number of people expected to be there.  Don’t forget, if everyone brings enough for 6 there will be plenty to feed even 200!!

 ** When do you bring somethingalways when joining a large group, always when visiting a new location, always when meeting new people, always when you’re nervous and afraid you won’t fit in.

 ** When can you get away with NOT bringing anythingif the person you’re visiting is someone you feel comfortable burping or farting in front of chances are real good that you can get away without bringing something to the occasion.  In fact, by then your Host/Hostess will probably EXPECT you to show up empty handed.

 ** When in doubt:  askdon’t be afraid to ask what’s needed.  You may get a desperate plea for something needed or special instructions to blend in with the occasion.  After all, you wouldn’t really want to bring liver and onions to a chocolate party, or wine & beer to a recovering alcoholic.

 ** What to do if you don’t cookthe answer to this one is simple * SHOP :-) There are many delicious ways to fill the need at your local grocers.  Don’t forget to check your own pantry first; you just might have something tucked away in the freezer for a special occasion.

 ** What to do if you’re broke check the pantry first, it’s amazing what you can bring together to make a great dish.  Example:  1lb hamburger, 1 box macaroni, 1 can stewed tomatoes cooked and combined makes a great dish.  It only takes 10-12 teabags and a bottle of spring water to make a gallon of iced tea.

 ** Even more broke how about a bag of potato chips, a bottle of soda, or a box of cookies.  It’s amazing what you can buy for a couple $$ if you shop a little bit.

 ** Just plain destitute Recycle, recycle…in other words, remember that item you received and just couldn’t do anything with??  Chances are good someone else may just appreciate it more than you do. 
NOTE:  Be careful with this one, you don’t want to be the one other people snicker behind their hands about.  “Don’t invite that one!!  They always bring their trash with them!!”

 ** What to do if you're living in a tentGood rule on this one is to keep it simple.  Something that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking is your best bet.  Believe it or not some of the most appreciated items are fresh fruit, water, or chocolate.

 ** What to do if you’re living in a cavethis one’s pretty extreme, it’s the person with nothing but ketchup in the fridge, along with some unidentifiable green stuff in the corner; peanut butter in the pantry next to a loaf of bread that’s hard as a rock and not a single clean dish anywhere to be found.  What does someone like this contribute??  What does anyone really WANT them to contribute??  Well, if there’s a fruit tree growing in the yard they just might have it covered.  If not, hopefully, there’s a 7-11 on the way!!

Carolanne Le Blanc
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771

Friday, October 21, 2016

The best Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookie ever!!

This is an old recipe revisited for those of you truly enjoy a great chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie.  It's actually an Alton Brown recipe that I found very easy to convert to Gluten Free.
The Chewy Gluten Free Recipe courtesy Alton Brown, 2007

2 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups All-Purpose Gluten-Free flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 375 degrees F.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.

Pour the melted butter in the mixer's work bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar. Cream the butter and sugars on medium speed. Add the egg, yolk, 2 tablespoons milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
Chill the dough, then scoop onto parchment-lined baking sheets, 6 cookies per sheet. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown, checking the cookies after 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet for even browning. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Carolanne Le Blanc
Email: GlutenFreeInFlorida @
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771

Trick or Treat - Gluten Free

Schar - Europe’s #1 gluten-free food brand. Over 30 dedicated gluten-free items in the US make Schar your gluten-free solution for bread, pasta, cookies, snacks, crackers & pizza.

Trick or treating is easy gluten-free. There are many main stream candies that are naturally Gluten-Free (see list below). What can be trickier are the parties and gatherings around Halloween. Here are a few suggestions to help make the day filled with fun not worry:

*   Make sure your trick or treat-er has a good meal before setting off. They are bound to be excited and not want to sit down – so tempt them with something fun and nutritious. What about chicken nuggets in the shape of pumpkins, or Gluten-Free spaghetti with meatballs? Their tummies will be full so they won’t be as tempted to fill up on treats while they're out.
*   If they're just too excited to sit down and eat, then on the go type of meals may be the answer. Try cheese and apple slices, carrots and hummus, or deli meat and cheese roll ups. Even a Gluten-Free peanut butter sandwich is a healthy meal for any ghost or goblin that can't wait to trick or treat.
*   Make sure to review the list of safe candies with your trick or treat-er before they leave home.
*   If a Halloween party is on the agenda then call the host ahead of time to find out if a meal or snacks are being served.  Offer to provide part of the meal or snacks – this ensures that there will be Gluten-Free options for your child.
 *   Offer to host the party! This will enable you to provide a completely Gluten-Free party that will be fun, delicious and no one will know the difference.
For classroom parties:
*   The key is to talk to the teacher ahead of time. Make sure she has a list of safe candies and treats. Offer to provide a hypoallergenic snack for all such as popcorn balls, baked apples – or even fresh ones!
*   There are many non-food related Halloween activities that the class can enjoy: Carving or decorating pumpkins, scavenger hunts, Halloween related books and stories create a Halloween play, research how pumpkins became a symbol of fall, investigate native foods and their growing cycle.
*   Encourage the teacher to take on a neighborhood project – collect canned goods for a homeless shelter, collecting monies for UNICEF or other local charities.
*   For treats think outside the candy aisle. There are lots of goodies that are non-food related. The offerings can be adapted to the age of the children. Treats can be; Halloween pencils or pens, stickers, small Halloween pumpkins and figurines, glow sticks, pen flashlights, even coins for UNICEF.
Here is a quick list of safe Gluten-Free candies. It is important to remember Halloween is also about dressing up, carving pumpkins, and getting friends together. Emphasize the nonfood aspects of the day. Please note that the candies listed below are Gluten-Free to the best of our knowledge. We cannot guarantee that they are Gluten-Free nor do we know what measures are taken by the manufacturers to avoid cross contamination.
M&M's,   Milky Way DARK ONLY,   3 Musketeers,   Baby Ruth,   Butterfinger,   Chunky,   Dove,   Hershey's Kisses,   Hershey's Bar – Plain,   Junior Mints,   Mounds,   Oh Henry,   Payday,   Reese's Peanut Butter Cups,   Snickers
Non Chocolate treats:
Brach's Candy Corn (Autumn Mix, and Pumpkins), Pez,   Pixie Sticks,   Nerds,   Sweet Tarts,   Tic Tacs,   Spree,   Starbursts,   Jolly Ranchers,   Tootsie Rolls and Pops,   Laffy Taffy,   Lifesavers,   Lifesavers Gummies,   Fun Dip,   Peeps Marshmallow Treats (Not Cookie Flavor),   Most Gums,   Haribro Gummy Treats,   Sour Patch Kids,   Ring Pops,   Skittles,   Sugar Babies,   Mary Jane's,   Charleston Chews
*   Pumpkin face shortbread cookies
Ingredients:   Schar shortbread cookies, vanilla cake icing, red and yellow food coloring, chocolate chips, green cake decorating icing, any other decorations you and the children may want.

Method:   On a cookie sheet lay out the shortbread cookies. Mix the red and yellow food colors into the vanilla icing until you get a nice pumpkin orange.  Spread about 1-2 tsp of orange icing on each cookie Use the chocolate chips to create the pumpkin face. Use the green cake decorating gel or icing to make the green stem.
*   Spaghetti with Meat Balls
1 cup Schar Bread Crumbs
2 large eggs
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup Shredded Parmesan & Romano Cheese
2 tsp minced Garlic
2 Tbsp minced fresh Italian parsley
1 tsp Italian Seasoning
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1lb 80% Lean Ground Beef
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
1. Add bread crumbs, eggs, water, cheese, garlic, parsley, seasoning, salt, and pepper to large bowl; stir to combine. Add beef; mix by hand until just combined (overmixing will toughen meatballs).
2. Scoop up about 3 Tbsp meat mixture to form balls; smooth by rolling in cupped hands. Arrange meatballs on baking sheet, about 1 1/2-inches apart.
3. Bake 15-17 min or until internal temp reaches 160 degrees (check by inserting thermometer halfway into thickest part of meatball). Transfer to clean platter.
 *   Pumpkin Shaped Chicken (or fish) Nuggets
Chicken breast (or flounder cut into pumpkin shape with a cookie cutter)
1 cup Schar gluten free breadcrumbs
1 cup crushed potato chips
½ tsp Pepper
½ tsp Garlic salt
½ tsp Oregano, crushed
1 Egg, beaten

Heat oven to 400
Lightly coat the bottom of a baking pan with oil. Mix together the dry ingredients. Beat the egg. Cut the chicken or fish into desired size and/or shapes. Dip the chicken or fish into the egg then into the coating mixture. Place the chicken or fish in the pan. Repeat until all chicken is coated.
Bake for 20 – 30 minutes depending on the size and thickness of the pieces.
*   Pumpkin Cheesecake
1/4 cup butter
1 cup ground walnuts
1 cup crushed Schar shortbread cookies
1/4 cup brown sugar
Use the ground nut and crushed shortbread cookie mixture as if it were graham crackers. Mix with butter, brown sugar and a dash of gluten-free flour. Press into pie pan. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.
4 packages cream cheese
4 eggs
1 ½ cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup sour cream
½ tsp vanilla
1. Preheat oven at 450.
2. Make crust, bake and set aside to let cool.
3. In mixing bowl cream together the cream cheese, sugar.
4. When sugar mixture is creamed and fluffy add pumpkin.
5. Add eggs one at a time.
6. Add spices.
7. Pour over nut crust.
8. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes.
9. Turn oven down to 350 and bake for 55 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes ut clean. 
10. Mix sour cream, sugar and vanilla together.
11. Remove cheesecake from oven. Spoon sour cream mixture over top of cheesecake leaving room around the edge, covering any cracks.
12. Return to oven and bake for another 15 minutes at 350.
13. Remove from oven and let cool for one hour, then refrigerate.
14. Best when refrigerated over night.

Carolanne Le Blanc
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771

Friday, October 7, 2016

Should We All Go Gluten-Free?

By KEITH O’BRIEN  Published: November 25, 2011
(Re-Printed without permission)

The singer was a no-show. The Gluten Free Expo in Sandy, Utah — one of the nation’s largest events dedicated to foods untainted by wheat — was going to have to start without the national anthem. But Debbie Deaver, the expo’s founder, didn’t have time to worry about that. The song, to be honest, was the least of her problems.

Deaver had slept four hours in the last three days. The 34-year-old woman — who has celiac disease and therefore must avoid eating gluten, a key protein in wheat — was running on prayer and Diet Dr Pepper. She needed sleep, and syrup.

A day earlier, a shipment of maple syrup failed to arrive, forcing her to scramble to find a topping suitable for the expo’s enormous gluten-free pancake breakfast. A last-minute donation of 35 cases of Marion berry syrup would have to do. And then there was the issue of actual attendees. With the sky spitting rain outside and temperatures hovering around 40 degrees on a dark October morning, Deaver was becoming convinced that no one was coming to her expo in suburban Salt Lake City. “I’m getting nervous,” she admitted as she scanned the empty concourse of the sprawling, glass-walled South Towne Exposition Center just 30 minutes before the show started. “People aren’t showing up.”

But seemingly all at once, they did. When Deaver opened the front doors at 9 a.m., she was stunned by the huge crowd waiting to get inside. At the sight of these people — her people — Deaver stopped cold in her Puma sneakers and began to cry.

“I’m just so excited about those gluten-free pancakes,” she announced to the crowd. “Is everybody ready to eat some pancakes?”

Four hundred people surged into the expo hall in the first 10 minutes, 1,200 in the first hour and nearly 6,000 by the end of the single-day event. They came from as far away as Arizona and Nebraska, like pilgrims to a sort of gluten-free Mecca. Once inside, many were soon listening to one man: Dom Alcocer, a 33-year-old marketing manager, who stood on a chair in an expo booth, barking at the attendees and throwing gluten-free granola bars into the crowd.

“Ohhhhh! Dropped pass!” Alcocer shouted to one person. And then, to another: “Nice catch!”

The crest on Alcocer’s golf shirt said Gluten Freely, as did the sign above the booth promoting a Web site of the same name. But Alcocer wasn’t here representing some Internet start-up. He was from General Mills, the Minnesota-based food-manufacturing giant, which perhaps more than any other mainstream corporation has begun focusing on gluten-free consumers. In the last three years, General Mills — best known for Cheerios, Betty Crocker and that wheat-filled Pillsbury Doughboy — has put gluten-free labels on more than 300 products already made without gluten, reformulated the recipes of five Chex cereals, introduced gluten-free dessert and pancake mixes and, most recently, asked Alcocer to make America’s go-to Web site for the gluten-free life.

“So General Mills funds you?” Annika Lovell, the mother of a 6-year-old with celiac disease, asked. “You’re part of them?”

“Yes,” Alcocer replied. “We are from Minneapolis. We are General Mills. And we are Gluten Freely — here to bring everything together in a one-stop shop for you guys.”

“That’s awesome,” Lovell replied. “I’m so excited.”

Alcocer was excited, too, as usual. The Cornell University graduate was once a captain in the Air Force, where he worked on decoys to confuse enemy missiles and became a Global Positioning System expert who negotiated international treaties on behalf of American interests — heady, scientific stuff. But this job, he said, is just as important as his former military duties. He’s in charge of selling products to a large and once-unknown consumer population: gluten-free America.

“We’ve got food everywhere,” Alcocer said from atop his chair at the expo. “It’s coming out of everywhere. You can’t slow it down. We won’t slow it down.” He paused and smiled. “It’s like I’m selling cars up here,” he chuckled. “How do I get you into a Nature Valley bar today?”

Food companies are always trying to take advantage of the latest dietary trend or health craze. (Low carb, anyone?) But the story of how we got to a place where celiac disease is suddenly mainstream, prevalence rates are rising, perfectly healthy people are opting to eat gluten-free and General Mills is coveting these customers is an especially unlikely business narrative.

I should know. It’s a story I’ve been following for years, ever since I was told I had celiac disease in 1999. I was 26 and until that point healthy. But then I started shedding weight like a sailor lost at sea, and became increasingly gaunt and anemic. So pale, so tired. My doctors told me to prepare for the worst. Cancer, probably. But a biopsy of my small intestine found no tumors in my gut, just withered and destroyed villi. I had celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder. And though it was serious — the disease, when undiagnosed, has been associated with an increased risk of death — I would live. My villi, the tiny, fingerlike protrusions in the small intestine that help the body absorb nutrients, would recover as long as I stayed off gluten, found in wheat, and similar proteins in barley, rye and malt.

But I wouldn’t eat — not really. Gluten-free packaged foods — in which wheat has been replaced by alternative ingredients like rice, sorghum and tapioca flours, among others — were almost impossible to find in the 1990s. Most of what did exist was dreadful: think cardboard. It was also hard to find people who understood the disease itself. Doctors believed it wasn’t much of a problem in this country.

“Nobody really was ready to accept the 1 percent prevalence of celiac disease,” says Dr. Stefano Guandalini, founder and medical director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, who came to the U.S. from Italy in 1996 and found very little awareness of celiac disease. Even experts ignored it, Guandalini says, noting that a prominent medical textbook published as recently as 1999 questioned how widespread it was. “The chapter on celiac disease,” Guandalini says, “quotes a prevalence of 1 in 10,000 in the U.S. and adds that this is mostly a European condition — and the prevalence is decreasing. This is the formal, official teaching in ’99.”

But Guandalini didn’t buy it. And neither did Dr. Alessio Fasano, another Italian who was practicing at the University of Maryland. The genes were here, Fasano recalls thinking, courtesy of our European ancestors, and so was the gluten, a natural component of wheat that provides the elastic qualities that make for delicious baked goods. But the protein is also difficult to digest. And even a healthy intestine does not completely break gluten down. For those with celiac disease, the undigested gluten essentially causes the body’s immune system to lash out at itself, leading to malabsorption, bloating and diarrhea — the classic gastrointestinal symptoms — but also, at times, joint pain, skin rashes and other problems. In Italy, Fasano routinely saw celiac disease. Surely it was in the U.S. too. Hence, in 1996 Fasano published a paper, asking, in the title, a simple question: “Where Have All the American Celiacs Gone?”

The same year that he published the paper, he founded the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. He started small; Fasano had only one patient the first year. In a 1998 paper, however, he reported that he had randomly screened 2,000 blood samples for the antibodies that typically indicate a diagnosis of celiac disease and discovered that 1 in 250 tested positive.

Still, doubts lingered. So Fasano set out to do a more comprehensive study — or, as he called it, “the most insane, large epidemiological study” on celiac disease in the U.S. to date. More than 13,000 subjects in 32 states were screened for the antibodies. Those who tested positive underwent further blood tests and, when possible, a small-bowel biopsy to confirm the presence of celiac disease. The results, published in 2003, were stunning: 1 in every 133 people had celiac disease. And among those related to celiac patients, the rates were as high as 1 in 22. People were listening now — and everything about gluten-free living was about to change. “Believe it or not,” he says, “the history of celiac disease as a public health problem in the United States started in 2003.”

As awareness of the disease became more widespread, Fasano expected celiac diagnoses to increase. That, in fact, is what has happened. Since 2009, Quest Diagnostics, a leading testing company, has seen requests for celiac blood tests jump 25 percent. But Fasano didn’t anticipate other developments. He now estimates that 18 million Americans have some degree of gluten sensitivity. And experts have been surprised, in general, by the rising prevalence of celiac disease overall. “It’s not just that we’re better at finding it,” says Dr. Joseph A. Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “It truly has become more common.”

Comparing blood samples from the 1950s to the 1990s, Murray found that young people today are nearly five times as likely to have celiac disease, for reasons he and others researchers cannot explain. And it’s on the rise not only in the U.S. but also in other places where the disease was once considered rare, like Mexico and India. “We don’t know where it’s going to end,” Murray says. “Celiac disease has public health consequences.” And therefore, it has a market.

Gluten-free products aren’t just selling these days; they appear to be recession-proof. According to a recent Nielsen report on consumer trends, the volume of gluten-free products sold in the past year is up 37 percent. Spins, a market-research-and-consulting firm for the natural-products industry, says the gluten-free market is a $6.3 billion industry and growing, up 33 percent since 2009. Niche companies like Amy’s Kitchen, Glutino, Enjoy Life, Bob’s Red Mill and Udi’s Gluten Free Foods are reporting incredible growth.

Major corporations have also been moving into the marketplace: Anheuser-Busch introduced Redbridge, a gluten-free beer, in 2006, and Kellogg rolled out gluten-free Rice Krispies this year. Other companies have begun adding labels that indicate when their products are gluten-free — that is, when they contain fewer than 20 parts per million gluten (the proposed federal standard). Both Frito-Lay and Post Foods have begun such labeling in the past year. It’s the golden age of gluten-free.

Celiacs aren’t the only ones who are grateful. Athletes, in particular, have taken to the diet. Some claim to have more energy when they cut out gluten, a belief that intrigues some experts and riles others. Guandalini dismisses the idea as “totally bogus.” Yet no one can argue with the success of the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic. Within months of revealing this year that he had a gluten allergy and had altered his diet accordingly, Djokovic posted a remarkable 64-2 record. By September, sportswriters barely let a moment pass without asking about, as one called it, his “off-court eating habits.” After his victory at the U.S. Open final, a reporter wanted to know what he ate for dinner the night before, for breakfast that morning and what he planned to eat that night. “I’ll give you a simple answer,” Djokovic said with a smile. “Last night I didn’t have any gluten, and tonight I will have a bunch of gluten.”

The reporters burst out laughing. Some even clapped. It was funny. But celiacs everywhere winced. Djokovic’s answer didn’t just trivialize the seriousness of their disease. The answer made it official: gluten-free was a full-blown fad. And while that meant more products on the shelves, it also signaled the possibility that this moment might not last.

Back at General Mills in Minnesota, however, Dom Alcocer insists that gluten-free is here to stay. What he sees, he told me, is a growing number of Americans who have no choice but to be gluten-free. Earlier this year, ConAgra Mills, a leading flour supplier, published a report characterizing gluten-free specialty products as a $486 million industry. That’s much smaller than the $6.3 billion figure from Spins, but it doesn’t include mass-market items like Chex cereals. What’s more, David Sheluga, the director of consumer insights at ConAgra Mills, found something significant about who’s buying gluten-free specialty products and why. More than 80 percent of the market, he estimated, is being driven by core consumers — people on the diet for medical reasons. In other words, Sheluga says, even if some occasional customers give up on gluten-free products, it will have little impact on sales. “That core,” Sheluga says, “is not going away.” These are the customers General Mills set out to reach four years ago when a few employees began floating a radical thought: What would happen if they made Rice Chex gluten-free?

General Mills has for generations boasted about the quality of its wheat flour (“Makes the Bread of Life”) and other wheat-laden products. “We love gluten,” Jodi Benson, a longtime General Mills employee, told me when I visited the company’s headquarters outside Minneapolis last month. “We are,” she added, “the very best of gluten.”

Still, a senior food scientist named Dean Creighton was willing to try to take the gluten out of Rice Chex when the idea was first raised in late 2007. In nearly two decades at the company, Creighton had never tried to remove gluten from a product. But he had tinkered with cereal recipes. “That’s my job,” he explained. And he was pretty sure that he could make Rice Chex gluten-free. He just needed to solve the problem of “brown notes.”

Chex is at its best when it has what experts call brown notes: a toasted flavor and brownish hue. And what contributed to the sweet brown notes was malt syrup, a glutenous ingredient that would end up being replaced by molasses. Just like that, Chex would have a new audience: millions of customers who previously didn’t bother to go down the cereal aisle. “That’s a huge opportunity,” Liz Mascolo, the Chex marketing manager, told me.

As Rice Chex was being reformulated — it arrived on shelves in 2008 — the Betty Crocker team was experimenting with gluten-free mixes for cookies, brownies and cakes. “We were sticking our necks out, because we’re General Mills, and we’re used to doing things mass — big — appealing to everyone,” says Dena Larson, a marketing manager in the baking division at the time. “And we knew that we were inherently going against that.” There were other problems. The early cake recipes fell flat, literally. “Think of yellow cake,” Benson says, “in a brownie height.”

But a thousand batches later, General Mills got it right. Four different mixes, with large gluten-free labels, went on sale just as the cereal division was planning four more gluten-free Chex products: Honey Nut, Corn, Chocolate and Cinnamon. Gluten-free Bisquick pancake and baking mix was in the works, too. Then General Mills asked Dom Alcocer to rebrand the Web presence behind its gluten-free business strategy. Alcocer, in his four and a half years at General Mills, had previously marketed soup and cookies — he liked his gluten. But once tapped for the job, he lived gluten-free for 40 days and began building

General Mills reached out to the nation’s top experts on the topic — Fasano­ and Guandalini — and asked them for medical advice and scientific guidance. The science, Alcocer said, needed to be front and center. Competitors needed to be acknowledged, too; Alcocer believed customers should be able to buy their products on the Web site. And finally, Alcocer and others at General Mills have pushed for greater transparency: detailed ingredient lists showing which products were gluten-free.

It’s the sort of thing that worries corporations. When a company labels a product gluten-free, then it absolutely has to be, or the consequences can get ugly. “We call that the R-word — recall,” says Brenda Jacob, General Mills’ manager of product labeling and regulatory compliance. “We don’t want to go there.” But in the end, Jacob listened. General Mills published a list of gluten-free products two years ago and continues to add to it today under the stewardship of Alcocer, who believes the company, not the customer, should bear the “mantle of anxiety.”

General Mills won’t disclose sales figures of its gluten-free products. But in statements to investors, the company has indicated that the strategy is working. Retail sales for Chex cereals, in the first quarter of the 2012 fiscal year alone, are up 29 percent. Meanwhile, Alcocer has been on the gluten-free-expo circuit, visiting half a dozen in recent months. He’s not just a guy handing out samples, his colleague Alison Miller says. “He’s a great face,” she says, “of General Mills.”

“Hey, everybody! Come on up and grab as many as you like. We’ve got Nature Valley bars. We’ve got Larabars. All flavors.”

Alcocer was down off the chair now. But he was still working the crowd at the Gluten Free Expo in Utah, doing what he would later describe as “the circus-barking thing.” It’s an act. But not entirely. “We want to be what the brand is,” Alcocer told me. “It’s energetic, it’s positive, it’s happy — it’s just living.”

Toward the end of the day, he was embracing people. “Let’s hug this out,” he told one weepy woman, overjoyed by the products before her. Then Alcocer began to break down the booth, making sure to give away every last item, all the way down to the container of gluten-free chocolate frosting on the table for decoration.

The purpose of attending the expos is to connect with customers. But Alcocer has found a way to do the same thing back in Minnesota too. He often convenes a meeting of what he calls the Gluten-Free Advisory Board — an official title for a very unofficial group of General Mills employees and on-site contractors who have celiac disease, have children with the disease or are gluten-free for other reasons. During the week of my visit to General Mills, eight women attended Alcocer’s meeting. Lunch was served and questions were asked. Alcocer was interested in the holidays. What did they miss? What did they need? How could Gluten Freely make their lives easier?

The women talked about how hard it was to go to holiday parties and find nothing to eat for their children. They discussed the need for better pie crusts. Then one of them, Mary Podvin, raised a subject that resonated with everyone at the table: Casseroles. There was something, Podvin said, about gluten-free Progresso cream of mushroom soup that simply didn’t work in the casseroles she loved to make. “It needs to be — ”

“Gelatinous!” answered Dena Larson, from across the table.

“Glue,” Podvin said with a nod. A gelatinous glue was exactly what cream of mushroom soup typically brought to a good casserole — and that’s what they wanted now from their gluten-free recipes.

“Is that even possible, though?” Carol Bagnoli, whose 3-year-old son eats gluten-free, asked.

“Anything,” Alcocer replied, “is possible.”

The women at the table laughed. The notion that anything is possible isn’t one that gluten-free folks hear very often. But Alcocer wasn’t joking. It was, he told me after the lunch, “a holy-moly moment.” He had no idea that casserole was a problem for his customers. There were, after all, recipes for casseroles on the Gluten Freely Web site. “But if it doesn’t turn out,” he said now, “it’s no good to anybody. So we’re going to go down to the kitchen, and we’re going to say: ‘We need help. These people need help.’ How can we get that can to become that can?” In other words, how could they get a can of gluten-free Progresso soup to act like the can of condensed soup called for in the recipes that his customers loved? “There’s got to be a way,” Alcocer said, “to take this great product and make it work.”

And it was this exchange, perhaps more than any other, that signified, to me, how much the cultural fault lines have shifted. For generations, major corporations have ignored people with food allergies. The goal was feeding the masses.

Now that is changing. Gluten-free foods — none of which taste like cardboard — fill my kitchen cabinets and those of millions of other Americans. A niche market is going mainstream. Long before General Mills unveiled its first official gluten-free product, consumers had made their needs known in phone call after phone call to Minnesota. The global trend data were there, laid out before the marketers, and so was the science — until, finally, it was clear: These customers needed to eat, too, and there was money to be made in feeding them. “It’s millions of people,” Alcocer told me, “with nowhere to turn, but us.”

Carolanne Le Blanc
Meeting:  4th Saturday of every month except December
Imperial Palms, East Clubhouse, 101 Imperial Palm Drive, Largo, Florida 33771