By Rachel Sircy
Anyone with a gluten-related disorder knows that the most difficult time of the year is upon us. I mean, it’s a day that is nominally dedicated to thanking God for our blessings, but if we’re being honest, it’s an all day Eat-A-Thon. And, unfortunately for the celiacs in the world, most of the items on the menu for this day are covered in gravy or made of wheat flour. And throughout the holidays – no matter what particular holidays you celebrate – the menu remains heavy on the bread and soggy with gravy. So, below are the top ten things that help to get me through the holidays. Hopefully, they will make your gluten free minefield a little easier to navigate this holiday season.
- Cook Stuff: I know, there are myriad readers out there who don’t like to cook or who swear that they are genetically programmed to be unable to cook food. Well, I have been in those shoes before, too, and the only thing I can tell you, is to give it your best shot. If you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you have to take charge of your health – which means taking charge of the food that you put into your mouth. Don’t rely on others to feed you. I’m sure that if this isn’t your first holiday as a celiac, you’ve had the experience of a well-meaning relative who says, “Yes, this dish is 100% gluten free” and then after you’ve swallowed a big mouthful of whatever it was, says “because there’s no gluten in barley flour, right?” As with almost anything in life, if you want it done right, you’ll have to do it yourself.
- Insist on Bringing What You’ve Cooked: This may seem like a no-brainer, especially given what I’ve said above about cooking for yourself. You might think, “Of course I’m going to bring what I’ve cooked.” However, those not afflicted with gluten intolerance can tend to think of gluten free food as gross or inferior or totally inedible or poisonous. Don’t be backed into a corner. If you are not hosting the meal yourself (hosting the meal yourself may be the best route to controlling the gluten level at the table), then insist on participating in the meal by bringing something. I usually choose to bring the dishes that I like best that are the least likely to be gluten free, like dressing and dessert. To avoid coming off as rude and distrustful, let the host know that you are simply trying to take on some of the responsibility for making the dinner safe for you. Most people hosting a holiday meal feel overwhelmed as it is and will appreciate the fact that you are lightening their load.
- Avoid Bouquets of Flours: Okay, so for years I avoided baking because when I was first diagnosed with celiac disease I went down the natural foods aisle at the local Kroger’s and was scared stupid by the incredible number of tiny little bags of flour: almond, rice, potato, amaranth, tapioca, etc. To this day I’ve never mastered mixing all those little bags of flour together to make something useful. It’s expensive and frustrating. My advice? Forget it! Don’t try making flour blends. Unless you’re really into masochistic torture. There are now plenty of really good flour blends on the market that can be substituted cup for cup with regular wheat flour. Some of the best brands I’ve tried are: Pamela’s Artisan Blend Flour, Cup4Cup (they have a regular and a multigrain blend, both of which can be used to substitute for wheat flour in almost any recipe), King Arthur Gluten Free All-purpose Flour and – believe it or not –Walmart’s Great Value Gluten Free All-purpose Flour Blend. I have baked or have eaten baked goods made with all of these flours and they really are delicious. You may forget that you’re eating gluten free. So, get rid of all those highly specialized recipes which require all those little bags of flours. Grab one bag of flour and you can break out your grandmother’s heirloom recipes and go to town.
- Don’t Eat Just Anything: Potlucks are popular around the holidays, it’s a great way to get together with others and share the things that we love to eat. However, experienced celiacs wince at the mention of a potluck supper. It can be a nightmare for us. But remember that you can navigate these dinners successfully. The best thing to do in these cases is to talk to the host ahead of time and make him aware of your food sensitivity. Again, bring something if you can. At the party, eat simply. Raw fruit and vegetable and cheese trays are a great place to start. Next, go to anything that is in a package with an ingredients label and read it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, either. If a dish appeals to you, find out who made it and ask them what they put into it. Remember, if you don’t know what’s in a dish, you shouldn’t eat it.
- Be Prepared and Treat Yourself: Eating can be an emotional as well as a physical act. If you have to be gluten free, then you are going to have to prepare yourself for the holidays physically and emotionally. The best personal advice that I can give (gained through some painful experiences) is firstly: NEVER go to a party hungry. I know a few people who do go to parties hungry so that they can stuff themselves when they get there. This is a very bad idea for people who may not be able to eat anything but the raw vegetables. So, I recommend eating before you go. You’ll have to gauge this with where you’re going. For instance, I don’t eat a whole lot before going to my mother in law’s house because she is familiar with what I can and can’t eat and will always have a dinner that is safe for me. Office parties, church socials and large get-togethers where there will be a potluck are places where I try not to go unprepared. I eat beforehand so that I’m not dying of hunger while I watch everyone else eat. It’s also a good idea to bring a treat with you to enjoy at the party. It can be downright depressing to watch everyone enjoying things that you used to love (Grandma’s chocolate pie or Aunt Whatsherface’s Red Velvet Cake). It’s best, of course, when the party includes something for you, but this isn’t always the case. When you’re not able to take part in the festivities, you might feel cut off from the joy of the season. I have found that it truly does help, in these cases, to reserve something special for yourself that you can indulge in while everyone else is pounding down cookies and eggnog. Bring your favorite candy, cookie or snack and eat it while everyone else is having their dessert (because, let’s be honest, dessert is the most emotional part of the meal) have yours as well. What really matters is the sense of togetherness. If you’re not dying of hunger and you have a little treat help you celebrate with others, you won’t feel alone in the crowd.