Monday, November 19, 2012
A Gluten-Free Thanksgiving with Grace and Fear ~
During the most "thankful" week of the year for those of us in the States (and ex-pats abroad) celebrating our traditional Thanksgiving, the images of a gorgeous set table loaded with that perfect turkey and "all the fix-ins" may conjure up bliss for many...but for those of us who are Celiacs or gluten-intollerant, this holiday of grace actually proves to be the most fearful of them all.
A good friend of mine was recently diagnosed as gluten-intollerant in the midst of a very challenging year of ongoing health issues. She's taken on the diet with a lot of grace and determination and yes, there's fear behind some of her efforts but she's educating herself and, therefore, eliminating the feelings of impossibility. She's trading out fear for hope and the belief that her body is responding and will heal. I'm very proud of her and wouldn't have imagined anything less from this woman...she's a warrior.
With that said, she called me the other day with a tinge of trepidation in her voice and before she even explained her thoughts, I knew it was the dreaded "what in the h*ll can I eat safely during Thanksgiving" call! Having myself been diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2000, I clearly remember the first Thanksgiving meal my mother and I stumbled through while learning to substitute everything and terrified we would get something wrong. As the years passed our close family friends we grew up with, whom we've spent many a Thanksgiving meal, even began accommodating my diet in the midst of serving 15 others who were non gluten-free eaters. I recall that the friends who had a real grasp around how to cook were so gracious to accommodate my restrictions and would kindly set aside portions of mashed potatoes, cranberry, vegetables, using separate utensils and always with care. I will never forget their thoughtfulness and awareness even years ago before the gluten-free rage had arrived. It's the little things around a big holiday meal that remind me to be thankful to those who "get it."
I bring all of this up knowing there's a very real fear around social issues that arises when one is eating gluten-free and their life or health depend upon it. As my friend began to ask her questions around the topics of "what will I eat safely, how do I explain this to my in-laws, what will relatives think of me and my crazy diet?"...I could hear all the fear arise in her voice. Understandable. It's her first holiday sans gluten. My words in response to her questions were spoken from experience and learning the hard way, and I realized in the midst of our conversation that it was my blessing to be able to help her in every way that I can. I've been forwarding her lots of emails around gluten-free awareness, different cookbooks to try and tips for staying sane through the beginning stages of this new life. But all the "tips" don't give a person the self-confidence or trust when eating at a relative's home and out of their safe environment, now do they? Having had to break through that wall of fear and shame when ordering food out or eating in someone's home, I can attest to the fact that it's not easy. It takes courage to be "different" amongst family, friends and peers, but it's never a smart choice to sacrifice your health and well-being just to fit it...never.
Along the lines of "never"...I will never forget the day I was eating out at a steak house with a large group of family and extended family members. I was seated next to a relative (whom shall remain nameless) and when I was finished giving the waiter my very detailed and thorough gluten-free order (double-checking that he did understand me), my aunt looked at me and said, "wow, if I had to live and eat like you I would just slit my wrists!"...Can you just feel the love and support?! Given that my right hand was merely inches away from my steak knife I forced my hand back down to my lap, took a sip of my wine and smiled saying, "well fortunately for you, you can eat all the wheat you like." The irony of this story and example is that this relative was actually diagnosed as gluten-intollerant shortly after this lovely conversation took place :) Karma.
The best, seasoned Thanksgiving advice that I offered my friend and will reiterate here is this - be prepared and do not assume that anything you are offered at someone else's home or out at a restaurant is gluten-free. Ask many questions and know what is safe and what isn't, meaning know your ingredients...arrowroot is great for thickening gravy or sauce but NOT spelt!
Also, if you are eating at someone's home, do what I've done over the years - here's my best advice:
- Speak with the host in advance, alerting them of your diet and ask them to kindly walk through their holiday menu with you. Inevitably, there will be items you are not able to eat so fill in the gaps with gluten-free items you bring.
- Don't be embarrassed or ashamed to bring your own food: I recommend your favorite appetizer, small turkey breast, sides and dessert that's safe for you and just create your own plate. Keep it simple and fun!
- Don't EVER eat any turkey slices (even if the turkey is organic and GF) that has been cooked with stuffing!!!!!
- Ask your host to reheat your food items in separate dishes/plates.
- Remember to bring your own utensils, alleviating any cross-contamination issues (this is a biggie!)
- When it comes to dessert, either bake something in advance or pick up some gluten-free goodies or treats from a bakery you trust (visit: www.glutenfreetravelsite.com for restaurant/bakeries in your location).
When you're prepared you then alleviate the fear. And more than likely, the topic of your diet might even come up around the table in conversation. I've learned to use these discussions as a great opportunity to educate those who are asking and I guarantee that you'll peak guests' interests and they will pass along what they've learned from you out into the world. Use your time around the holiday table to be an advocate and when you do so with grace, the abundance of goodness will come back to you. I guarantee it.
Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving that's filled with delicious gluten-free goodness, and that you are seated next to a relative who displays empathy and kindness :)