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Guest Column

Sometimes happiness can be found in a muffin tin

I cried when the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl and I wept openly when Stephane Matteau scored the double-overtime goal that sent the New York Rangers into the Stanley Cup finals in 1994. I've gotten teary over movies, books and the occasional commercial, but until last weekend I had never shed a single tear over a muffin.

Realistically, food should not make you cry. I've had a few bad restaurant experiences that made me want to cry and the occasional cooking fiasco that brought me close to tears, but until this particular muffin I had never actually broken down over a baked good.

The muffin in question, a somewhat crumbly mocha chocolate chip, was not even a spectacular representation of its kind. It was pretty good, however, and since it was the first muffin I had eaten in months that did not have the taste and texture of drywall, it seemed all the better to me.

Muffins, you see, along with bread, pizza, cookies, bagels and countless other foods had become forbidden for me when I learned a few months ago that I had an allergy to wheat. While this diagnosis finally explained why I had gone through 18 months of stomach pain, it was a particularly difficult one to get used to.

My wheat allergy won't kill me and I don't have Celiac Disease, a condition that makes avoiding all wheat and gluten products incredibly important. Instead, I have a simple inability to tolerate wheat. Eating it won't bring death, but ingest enough and my intestines hurt in a way that makes me wish it did.

Giving up wheat involves numerous sacrifices. In addition to the foods mentioned previously, numerous products contain wheat somewhat secretly. Everything from Twizzlers to many types of barbecue sauce, most soy sauce and a variety of other items contain gluten, making eating in restaurants quite literally a gastrointestinal crapshoot.

Since I live in a fairly cosmopolitan area, we're lucky to have a number of grocery stores that carry gluten-free products. Unfortunately, in a addition to their lack of wheat, these products all have something else in common; they neither look nor taste like the foods the attempt to replace.

Nearly every gluten-free, wheat-free food substitute has an odd density and a strange after-taste. Bread products are decidedly the worst as the average gluten-free muffin or roll tastes only slightly better than eating a picture of the real thing.

A lifelong fan of muffins (and a mortal enemy of scones) I missed the occasional weekend morning spent lingering over a muffin and a newspaper. I had attempted to bake every manner of gluten-free muffin and failed to make an edible one.

Not eating wheat made my stomach feel better, but it was a struggle to not occasionally trade my physical well-being for a coffee cake muffin, toasted and slathered with butter. Even the opening of a gluten-free bakery about 20 miles from my house did not fill me with much hope.

That, of course, was why I had to explain to my four-year-old son why after entering the aforementioned bakery and sampling a muffin, I was crying. Now I would never cry over a tart or a donut and I'd be unlikely to even sniffle at a any sort of fritter, but a gluten-free muffin that actually tastes like the real thing had me weeping in a bakery.

Though they weren't there at the moment, I wanted to thank the couple that opened the store. She developed Celiac Disease as an adult and he was a baker who figured there must be a way to make baked goods without wheat or gluten that she would like.

She did like them and for the two of them that might have been enough. Instead, the retired couple chose to open a store to help people like me. They didn't need to, but they did and I'm not sure there's anything that can be said to thank them, but I'll try.

Sometimes, it's not fame or riches or even nobler ideas like love or friendship that make people happy. Maybe occasionally happiness is a fairly decent muffin and the idea that somebody cared enough to make it for you.

Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers each week. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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