Oh, Brother: What a Gluten-Free Baker Can Do

Mike Perlman, baker and author.
Mike Perlman, baker and author. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008; Page F06

Family values. Pathos. Cookies. The Michael H. Perlman Cookbook Story has the feel-good qualities of an HBO family movie. The outline for a screenplay could be pitched thusly:

It is 1999. The scene is a comfortable Northwest Washington home.

Older sibling and picky eater Jordan, 11, has just learned she has Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease. Hobby baking of wedding cakes by Mom, a federal lawyer by day, comes to a halt; too much of a temptation. Brother and cookie lover Mike, 7 1/2 , notices that his sister is struggling with dietary restrictions. He realizes they can no longer make the pizza he loves. Dad, a lobbyist, is concerned and stands at the ready.

Does brother Mike become bitter? Heck, no.

Over the next several years, Mom and Mike experiment with gluten-free recipes because a) they like to bake, b) they don't like the gluten-free goods sold in stores, and c) Jordan did not inherit the kitchen gene.

Many permutations of alternative flours are vetted, mostly in weekend cooking sessions. Some concoctions taste like sand, Mike says. Oat flour's okay; tapioca flour gets a big thumbs down. Jordan wonders, "He's just a kid. Where can this go?"

Mike writes down the recipes that work, referring to the directions as "rules." He bakes for his parents' parties and sometimes for people at his school, Georgetown Day. But he keeps "the baking thing on the down-low." He swims competitively.

At age 13, he makes cookies as an unpaid intern in the kitchens of Roberto Donna's Galileo restaurant. He learns a thing or two from the pros.

It is 2006. Jordan goes off to college at Cornell, while Mike adds an extracurricular activity: GDS baseball. And he keeps on baking.

It is 2008. Dad and Mom (Jeff and Leslie) have been subsidizing all recipe testing. Their son has grown into a plucky, confident and eloquent 16-year-old. He has compiled more than 100 recipes that sound pretty darn tasty: peanut butter cookies, almond praline cake, cheese crackers, pineapple banana muffins, buckwheat crepes.

Mike proposes a cookbook. Maybe Jordan can learn to make them, he thinks. Maybe he can sell the books and donate the proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and toward research on celiac disease. Jordan, now 20, says, "This is pretty flattering!"

Dad agrees to underwrite the project, with the promise of a return on his investment. The cookbook is professionally designed, with notes on ingredients and, unexpectedly, food-related quotes from Don Quixote and Shakespeare. Mike calls it "Cookies for Breakfast: A Teen's Not So Bad Guide to Wheat and Gluten-Free Baking," just because it sounds appealing. Proofing recipes turns out to be tedious, difficult work.

An order for 500 paperback copies is filled; Mom shops the book around to local purveyors. There are some sales, but the book is not an instant hit.

Undaunted, Mom and Mike, now almost 17, discover that Emeril Lagasse is filming for his new television series at the Whole Foods Market in Fairfax. The new cookbook author issues an e-mail challenge to the famous chef: Bam! You make a gluten-free meal, including bread and dessert. I'll make an afternoon tea, with cookies and pastries.

The Emeril folks say: Sorry, kid, we are not casting anyone under 18. Thanks for your interest.

Will Mom's efforts to move the merchandise pay off? Will Dad ever recoup his money? Will Jordan ever learn to bake? Will Mike go to college and open a restaurant someday, as he's predicted?

We smell a series. . . .

Author Mike Perlman will be signing books at the Whole Foods Market in Fairfax, 4501 Market Commons Dr., on Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., and at the Whole Foods in Tenley Circle, 4530 40th St. NW, on July 19.

His cookbook costs $15.95; it is available at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-364-1919, and at Yes! Natural Gourmet, 3425 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-363-1559; or order online at http://www.cookiesforbreakfastcookbook.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company