Local Author Lives Her Own Unsolved Mystery

Here’s a question: You are a published mystery writer.  But for 50 years you lived an unsolved mystery.

What do you do?

Like an old-fashioned homily, you turn a lemon into lemonade.

Bette Hagman had to grab the bull by the horns and be tenacious.  A solemn testament to her adaptability because Hagman suffers from a disease called Celiac Sprue, which is only cured by diet.

At 75, and looking smart in a white turtleneck sweater, blue jeans wrapped with a silver-buckled belt and a June Allyson hair cut.  Hagman is in demand as a speaker and adds more traveling to her already hectic schedule.

She is a member of “sisters in crime” an organization of mystery readers and writers.  However, it is her famous cookbooks that have unlocked a mystery for thousands of people.  As a Celiac, Hagman, cannot eat wheat, rye, barley, and oats because they contain gluten.  The immune system thinks of gluten as a foreign substance and attacks the intestines.

“This is my 25th-year anniversary of great living,” she says.

She pauses.

“Actually, I was a lousy cook, and it was embarrassment that was my final motivator,” recalls Hagman.

When she discovered that grocery stores didn’t sell any bread, pasta, pizza, cake or cookies without wheat, she tried to survive on rice cakes.

Hagman says with a sharp twinkle in her eye that there were times when if not for the love of her husband and daughter, she doubted she’d pull through.  She wanted to eat like a ‘real person’ and in doing that discovered that she would have to make up her own recipes.

Her first book took nine years to write.  But now just hand her a bag of gluten-free flour—no several different kinds—, and she can create anything from crackers to bread to cake or pizza.

Her sunny expression turns grim.  She recalls the years of mystery and misery that reached back to the early 1970s when she had withered away to 81 pounds.

Doctor after doctor had told her it was all in her head.  But never mind all that. Put the risks and worries aside Hagman was already instilled with the feeling of complete helplessness.

Always a ‘sickly child,’ she spent many days in bed, close to the bathroom.  Her immune system was turning against her own body.

She had never mentioned to the doctors the frequent bowel movements that led her to malnutrition and fatigue. (She had lived with this for so long, she thought it was normal.)

Already in her early 50’s and after a lifetime of not knowing what was happening to her-Hagman finds out that her mysterious illness has a name: Celiac Sprue.

Always hungry and never satisfied is one of the signs.  As a Celiac, you can eat mountains of food and still be literally starving to death because your body cannot get the nutrients out of the foods that you have eaten.

Nonetheless, she says, these were the beginning times that she had to learn to rise to the challenge.

“You can be completely overwhelmed by the restrictions in this diet,” Hagman says matter of factly.  ‘Yet you feel so lucky.  Finally, you know what is wrong, and you don’t need surgery, not even medication.  All you need is to avoid eating gluten.

Finding food that did not contain wheat was like going after ants with dynamite.

Hagman wonders aloud what life would have been if she had not met Elaine Hartsook.  Dr. Hartsook, a research dietitian at the University of Washington.  She was the original founder of The Gluten Intolerance Group of North America.

The group, still going strong after 23 years, meets the third Thursday of each month at Bellevue’s Overlake Hospital Medical Center.

With the help of the University of Washington’s diet kitchens, Dr. Hartsook created yeast-rising bread from rice flour and xanthan gum.  The late Dr. Hartsook spent her life’s study on people with gluten intolerance.

Hagman at the time was a writing teacher at Lake Washington Technical Colleg, and it just happened that six students in her classes had also discovered they were Celiacs.

All in the same boat, they started to exchange recipes.  Hagman had nothing to contribute.  She turned out inedible mess after mess and was feeding her omnivorous garbage disposal.

Considering herself a writer first, kitchen duty a necessary evil, she continued exchanging baking disaster stories with her students.  As to why she wrote a cookbook, Hagman has a heart felt answer.

“I was forced to cook if I wanted to enjoy eating, and in so doing got hooked on experimenting.”

Hagman quickly runs her fingers down over her chin and neck.  Her movements are fast, her energy unflagging.  Her first cookbook; The Gluten-Free Gourmet: Living Well Without Wheat.”

Is more than just a collection of recipes for in all of her books are short chapters on using the difficult flours of rice, tapioca, potato, bean, and sorghum.

There are hints on how to eat out, travel and even try to explain to friends why you can’t even taste, let alone, eat that wheat filled cake or cookie even if it was baked with love.

In a more serious tone, she lists “hidden” dangers that lurk in things like potato chips-which are dusted with wheat flour to “make them taste better”- the modified food starch (wheat flour) added to things like split pea soup to thicken it and reduce cooking time, confectioners sugar in Canada, which contains wheat flour.

So, a word of warning – don’t even eat the icing of the cake in Canada.

Hagman’s books, ‘Gluten-Free Gourmet: Delicious Dining Without Wheat” and “The Gluten-Free Gourmet Cooks Fast and Healthy,” have sold more than 112,000 copies.

But she does admit there is one thing missing: the time to write the great American murder mystery novel.