Jilly Lagasse and Jessie Lagasse Swanson — yes, that Lagasse — set out to write a book that celebrated the foods they love — made in a way they can eat them. Neither of Emeril Lagasse’s daughters can eat gluten.
“That's usually the first question people ask us: How can you have your dad be your dad,” with all that great food, and be on such restricted diets? Jilly said.
But they don’t need anyone’s sympathy. They say so, and the recipes in “The Lagasse Girls’ Big Flavor, Bold Taste and No Gluten” say so too: spicy crab dip with homemade garlic Parmesan crackers, chicken and dumplings, E.J.’s crunchy fried chicken, and strawberry shortcake. (We tried the crackers; be careful not to overbake them or they’re too hard. But they’re rustic-looking and taste good.)
“We’ve been very lucky and a little spoiled to grow up around great food. We just want to share that,” said Jilly, who has celiac disease. Her sister has a gluten intolerance.
Gluten protein is found in wheat, rye and barley. People who have celiac disease can get very ill from ingesting just a teeny bit of it. In the last several years, gluten-free diets also have gained cachet for health or weight loss – a trend that has led to an explosion of gluten-free products as well as some disdain for those who do not eat wheat.
“From our experience, when people are diagnosed, especially that first year, they’re not really sure what they can eat,” Jessie said. Their book is meant to reassure them that there’s plenty of good food out there. “Don’t forget you can still have risotto with cheese and truffle.”
But it’s not always easy negotiating a gluten-free life. Even now, Jessie said, she sometimes has to stop and think about whether some food or another will give her problems.
And not just food. “The other week I was ill and bought some over-the-counter sinus medicine. And it had wheat gluten,” Jilly said. “You have to be a little Inspector Gadget here.”
When Jessie was diagnosed in 2001, the only bread she could eat was “kind of inedible.” Like so many people at the time, she turned to rice cakes. “It was rice cakes with lunch, rice cakes with dinner, rice cakes for snacks.”
That’s no longer true. And there are plenty of flour-based recipes in the Lagasse sisters’ book. The recipes suggest using Arrowhead Mills brand gluten-free baking mix, but people are free to try other brands.
They did not want to do what some gluten-free cookbooks do: ask you to make your own flour mix.
“This was my big thing,” Jessie said. “Let’s just make it easy. Most people don’t have the time, or the money, to buy five kinds of flour.”
The book also includes plenty of recipes that don’t need a wheat replacement: Maw-Maw’s deviled eggs, Gramma Cabral’s Portuguese kale soup and easy seafood paella.
The Lagasses say their father, Emeril of Food Network fame, has been an inspiration, but it was not a straight path to the food world for the women. They decided early on to have other careers, Jilly in makeup and Jessie in accounting. But they came around. “It’s just in our blood,” Jilly said.
“When we saw there was just a dearth of good gluten-free food out there, we had a responsibility. It was never really a plan; it was just something that had to get done," Jessie said.
Their father donated 10 recipes to their first book, “The Gluten Free Table,” and five to this one.
As good as gluten-free food gets, the women say they miss a couple of foods with gluten.
“A gluten-free diet is the only cure for celiac disease,” Jilly said. “Until there is a cure, and you can go stuff yourself with real pizza – that would be amazing.”
And for Jessie? “Croissants? Oh yes.”