Everyone in Portland Is Gluten Intolerant

And other stories of America's bizarre relationship with food.

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May 30 2014, 1:00pm

Illustrations by Nick Nold

When I was 17, I lived for a couple of weeks in the Dallas Greyhound bus station. Since I had only a few dollars with me, I rationed a dollar a day for two $0.49 McDonald’s hamburgers. I waited until lunchtime to eat them and hoped that they would stick. But by the evenings, I was hungry, so I snuck Saltines from a lunch counter in the bus station, along with ketchup packets and cups of coffee that were barely more than cream and sugar.

At night, the security guards threw me out and I would wander around in the cold, thinking of food, imagining Thanksgiving tables, buffets with plates of bacon, enormous turkey sandwiches too big to finish.

Now I drink whole milk from the jug. Eat spoonfuls of peanut butter when I get home from work. And when I’m at lunch, I drink the prepackaged half-and-half cups left in saucers for people who order coffee. I also finish leftover sodas and beers, half slices of pizza on tables, mashed-potato remnants, french fries, or chicken strips.

My nine-year-old daughter drinks half-and-half cups now, whenever she sees them. She says, “Oh, look, Dad. There’s free cream here, too,” and we take our shots.

Just now, I ate a chocolate chip cookie, a chorizo breakfast burrito, some fried rice, and a yogurt cup. One more cookie should do it for lunch. I’ll probably eat more in a little while.

We're supposed to believe that Davy Crockett was a national hero—a brave frontiersman who was capable of hiking 30 miles without a trail, chopping a cord of wood in under an hour, and fighting Indians with bare fists. I read once that he was famous for killing 105 bears in a single year.

One hundred and five bears.

I’ve thought about that a lot. To eat all those bears, he’d have to go through an entire bear every three or four days, which means 100 or more pounds of bear meat every day. And bear meat is really, really fatty—I’ve eaten it. It’s tough to eat in large quantities. Every fourth or fifth bite has a large chunk of fat in it, and it’s sort of stringy meat, at least for a red meat. A hundred pounds of bear meat a day is an ungodly amount to put in a human’s belly.

Maybe I missed the point of the story.

I’m soy-plus. That’s my stance. I’m not allergic to grass-seed pollen. I run barefoot in clover fields and get stung by bees. I consume tree nuts like a pregnant squirrel. When there’s a baby around, I feed it strawberries dipped in honey.

I’m also gluten-plus. Very gluten-plus.

Three things I can’t eat right now because they’re labeled as gluten-free: Adams peanut butter, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, and Ayr-brand saline nasal-rinse packets.

The other day, I asked a doctor how many people are truly gluten-intolerant. He said, “Real numbers are hard to pin down.”

I said, “Just give it to me straight, Doc. What have you heard in the medical community? What have you read?”

He said, “Well, I read in a medical journal once that one in 157 people are gluten-intolerant.”

“One in 157?”

“Yeah.”

Everyone I know in Portland is gluten-intolerant.

I was invited to an organic frozen-yogurt shop the other day, only to find out that the store sold both frozen yogurt and paleo pizza. The sign said that the crust of the pizza was “swathed in bone marrow.”

I didn’t know what paleo pizza was, so I asked.

The guy said, “You don’t know what paleo is?”

“Like paleolithic?” I said.

“Right, like cavemen.”

“Is that some kind of diet that people are doing right now?”

“No,” he said, “the word diet is misleading, like I want to lose weight. But I don’t.” He pointed to himself. “So it’s not a diet. Paleo is more a way of life, or as I like to think of it, a template.”

“A template?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m understanding more appropriately what my body needs, and that template includes no grains, no legumes, no dairy, no alcohol, no sugar.”

“Fun,” I said.

I watched other customers come in and out of the store and got a strong feeling that the paleo template is something that white people spend a lot of time thinking about between sessions of CrossFit.

My daughter told me that a boy in her third-grade class said, “Pizza is bad for you.”

She said, “Why?”

“Because it has cheese.”

“What’s bad about cheese?”

“Well,” he said, “cheese has milk in it.”

“Wait, what’s bad about milk?”

He said, “It’s bad for your bones.”

“No,” my daughter said. “I’m pretty sure milk is good for your bones.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Prove it,” she said.

“No one drinks milk in my family, and none of us has ever broken a bone.”

She said, “I think that means your family is too careful.”

Me, I drink coffee every day, usually twice a day, often three times. Sometimes four. I’ve had five cups in a single sitting, writing and drinking coffee like it's Gatorade.

When it’s 7:21 in the evening and I’m making a fresh pot of coffee, and my hands are shaking like a junkie as he puts the lighter under the spoon, I should be thinking, How did I get here? Or, What’s wrong with me?

Instead, I’m thinking, I just need one more cup. You know? One more.

For a month, the top Google search for Kate Upton was: “Kate Upton Is Fat.”

Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s memoir is titled The End of Boys. In his first novel, Graphic the Valley, dirtbags and wanderers eat out of dumpsters, finish tourist leftovers in Yosemite Valley, and scrounge food abandoned in bear boxes.

Follow Hoffmeister on Twitter or on Facebook.

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