You know, I had every intention of this being a gluten-free Thanksgiving. After all, I remember every Thanksgiving of my life before this one, laying around in the late afternoon with my stomach overly full, my throat constricted, my head pounding from the pain, and a general feeling of malaise invading my system. We all overeat on Thanksgiving, right? That’s why I felt like such a dragged-out, run-over specimen of a being for most of Thanksgiving day.
But that was years past. And this year, for the first time, I would have an entirely gluten-free Thanksgiving. After all, this isn’t a lifestyle choice, a whim, and certainly not an attempt to cut carbs. With celiac disease, even the smallest amount of gluten can make for miserable days. And of course, keeping this website, and doing the continuous research to keep myself up to date for all of you reading, makes me even more aware of where gluten may lurk. It’s funny, how many people write to me and admit, “You know, I cheat sometimes, and I always pay for it later.” I’ve never been tempted to “cheat,” just sneak a taste of that cake or a bite of that pastry. Who would I be cheating besides myself? After being so inordinately sick last year, I know exactly how gluten can make me feel. So I’ve lost my taste for it. Traditional pasta no longer looks good to me. No chance for this gluten-free girl to grow sick.
After all, I took great precautions. The night before Thanksgiving, I made the pumpkin pies at my house, in my own pie plates, so there would be no chance of cross-contamination. And I have to say, with more experimenting since September, I’ve developed a pie crust recipe I just adore. (Recipe at the bottom of this post.) It’s flaky, tasty, and just enough bite to feel like real pie. I love making pumpkin pie, tossing in the cinnamon. And this year, I ground my cloves fresh, which shone through in the pie. That was a triumph.
And I attempted to make my own gluten-free stuffing. For most of my life, my mother cooked the entire Thanksgiving dinner by herself. And every year, what I looked forward to most was her gorgeous, simple stuffing. (By the way, apparently the distinction between stuffing and dressing is that stuffing is cooked in the bird and dressing outside of it. But I don’t care. Even though we haven’t cooked the concoction inside the bird in years, for health reasons, I still refuse to call it dressing.) Just soft bread cubes, butter, onions, celery, sage, and plenty of pepper. That was the taste of Thanksgiving for me. I always felt sorry for the families with “weird” stuffing, with apricots or walnuts or sausages or pears. That’s not stuffing. So on Wednesday night, I baked a loaf of gluten-free bread. In fact, I made two. In the bread machine, I made a loaf with the Gluten-free Pantry French Bread and Pizza Mix, my old standby. And in the oven, I made a loaf of the Pamela’s Wheat-Free mix, a new addition to my kitchen. The Pamela’s loaf had the feel of real bread, and a slightly sweet taste I find wonderfully appealing for sandwiches. But the bread-machine loaf had that silky-white texture I associate with the bread for stuffing. So after making the loaf, I cut it into cubes and browned it in a 250° oven for another hour and a half. This gave it a little crust, a little crunch. Good for stuffing. So it took me about five hours to produce a little bag of bread cubes, but it felt worth it.
On Thursday morning, I loaded up my car with my box full of food (including the cranberry relish I had made, a butternut squash, scallions, apples and pears, and chicken stock) and drove to Vashon, one of my favorite places in the world. The same width as Manhattan island, this green swath of land in Puget Sound is actually two miles longer than Manhattan. And yet, only 9000 people live there. Imagine 9000 people on Manhattan. The fir trees and madronas buffet against the water. Driving down the main highway, you only stop five times, and that’s with stop signs. There’s not a single traffic light on the place. Having lived and taught there for five years, I know the place like the recipes I never have to look up in a book. I just drive, and smile. And of course, my brother, sister-in-law, and darling nephew live there. When I’m in their house, my cheeks hurt from all the smiling, and my stomach aches from all the laughing with Elliott. Time stops, in the best way. I live in the moments when Elliott and I are imagining together. And so, on Thursday as well. I had offered to cook half the meal, add some new dishes, to make sure we had fancy vegetables and more gluten-free food. But my brother insisted on cooking almost everything, since it was his house. So no real cooking for me. Just a quiet family time, which I loved. The rain pattered on the skylights after a week of low fog in the sky, and it sounded like home. When Elliott napped, we played ridiculous word games and laughed so hard we all leaned out of our chairs precariously and let the tears squeeze from our eyes. It was shaping up to be a lovely Thanksgiving.
But after all that work, and being as careful as I could be with the food, I still got sick from gluten contamination. How?
Well, my brother made his stuffing, then washed out the skillet for me to make mine. Did he wash out the pan enough? Perhaps. When he put the tinfoil on my glass pan of gluten-free stuffing, did he still have flour on his hands? Maybe. He made his own gravy, then cleared a spot on the stove for me to make mine, with gluten-free flour and Kitchen Basics chicken stock. (By the way, thanks to Suzanne from Indiana for that suggestion. It’s fantastic.) But was there still flour flying in the air from his vigorous whisking? Did I get all the flour off the whisk before I started making mine? I don’t know.
I do know that the last-minute details of cooking Thanksgiving dinner is often a bit of a frenzy. Everything finishes cooking at the same time. In the flurry of finishing my gravy, and laying out the cranberrries, and dumping a jar of green olives in a bowl, I didn’t notice that Andy had set my pan of gluten-free stuffing and his pan of regular stuffing side by side. Or that they were in the exact same glass pans. But I did notice, when I went into the kitchen to pile my plate with food, that someone had already used the spoon from the regular stuffing in mine, by mistake. There’s my contamination. I looked at it, in horror. I tried to take a spoonful from the other side, with a new spoon, but it probably wasn’t enough.
Why didn’t I just skip the stuffing? Well, I already had to skip the turkey. What? Turkey has gluten in it, you’re thinking? No. Of course not. Except.…My brother and sister-in-law had bought a fresh turkey, and they decided to roast it in a plastic poultry bag. As I was finishing my gravy, I watched my dear brother take the turkey out of the oven. I remarked on how lovely and brown it looked, then stared again at the bag.
“Hey Andy, what’s that white stuff in the bag?” I asked him.
“Oh, it’s flour. The manufacturers suggest you throw a couple of tablespoons of flour in there to make sure the skin doesn’t stick,” he said, with no hint of recognition in his voice.
I stared at him. And stared at him.
And then he looked at me, his eyes growing wide, and said, “Oh shit.”
He and my sister-in-law had put flour on the turkey. The one part of the Thanksgiving dinner most likely to be gluten-free—and this one had flour on it.
Now, my brother and sister-in-law love me. They know all about the gluten-free thing, since they both read this site. (Hi, you guys.) And I know they never had any intention of shutting me out of the Thanksgiving turkey. But that’s how hard this is. Even the people who care about us sometimes just don’t make the connection. And then we gluten-free folks have to go without. Again.
They both felt bad, but I backed off from it immediately. No point in making a fuss. And for ten years, when I was a vegetarian, I ate entire Thanksgiving meals without turkey. But still.
[Don’t feel too bad for me, though. Today, when I left the island, I drove straight to the movie theatre to meet Francoise and her family. After seeing Pride and Prejudice, we returned to their lovely home for tea and conversation. When I told Francoise this story, she immediately pulled the leftovers of her enormous turkey from her refrigerator, and insisted on cutting me half. So I didn’t lack, in the end.]
An hour after dinner, I started feeling exhausted. Bloated. That horrible sinking feeling of eating too much, my stomach filling immediately. I had to lie down on the couch, while my sister-in-law’s brother played with my nephew instead. My face felt hot. I could feel the headache rising. And my gut began reacting, almost immediately. Somehow, I’d ingested some gluten, and now I was paying for it. How? I’m still not sure. I’m pretty sure it was the cross-contamination from the other stuffing. And it’s possible I ate one cube of regular bread. When I was putting the glass pans away in the refrigerator, I grabbed one more bite of my stuffing, flecked with pepper and infused through with sage, and thought, “Actually, that does taste pretty damned good.” But almost immediately, I thought, “Uh-oh. That didn’t taste right.” Why didn’t I color-code the stuffings? Why didn’t I insist on putting them in different parts of the kitchen? Why didn’t I make a fuss and make all my own dishes in spite of my brother’s wish to treat the entire family to food? Well, because I’m learning. And there are so many gluten-free lessons to learn. This is a path, a practice, a continually unfolding journey.
I didn’t tell my family that I was sick. I didn’t want to ruin the evening. There were so many beautiful moments besides it—talking with my parents, or basking in the gratitude of having my fabulously imperfect family, or giving my nephew a joyful splashing bath—that it felt small. Thanksgiving, after all, is about the being together, the moments of uncontrolled laughter, the board games, the rain on the roof, the imaginings of a two-year-old, the reminiscing conversations, the long hugs. Imperfect as the meal was, and as quickly as my gluten reaction rose, it was still a lovely day.
However, I’ve been sick all day. And I will be again tomorrow. I know the pattern. Terrible flashes of headaches. Enormous strains of lethargy. Foggy brain. Significant grumblings in the intestines, and more. The old pain in my side. A fullness in my stomach, rising up through my throat, almost choking me. Bloatedness in every part of me. Joint pain. And no appetite. This will be with me for most of the weekend. All this because of a possible errant bread cube. Or a cross-contaminated spoon.
This is hard, this being gluten-free. If you’ve been reading, you know how joyful I am about it, how much of an adventure I consider it, how much this has changed my life. Mistakes happen. And if I’m sick for one weekend, on a low level, it gives me enormous empathy for the person I used to be, the one who always felt like this, who suffered for years for no explanation. And for all of you reading who suffer with me on this. There are a lot of us out there. We aren’t just crazy.
The entire experience has set me thinking. About how careful we all have to be, when we eat in restaurants or go to friends’ homes. Because, if even my dear brother and sister-in-law put flour on our turkey without it occurring to them what that might do to me, how much damage can busy kitchen staffs do? I feel as though I am educating everyone I meet about gluten. And I have to be absolutely vigilant. No slipping.
But it also struck me how, in enacting old Thanksgiving traditions, I broke my own gluten-free rule. For months, I’ve been writing here, and living it in my life: don’t look for gluten-free substitutes of the same old foods. Branch out. Make sharp tastes and memorable bites from foods that are naturally gluten-free. I’ve been living that, in action, every night, with dozens of dishes made from amaranth or quinoa or fresh vegetables or rice. And after all this experimenting and throwing in spices, I’ve come to adore that food more than any other I ate before it. I don’t miss bread.
So why did I make a gluten-free stuffing, as close an approximation of the old stuff as I could?
Because of tradition. Thanksgiving means roast turkey, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, gravy, and rolls. Right? Well, with the exception of the turkey (most times), everything else relies on flour. And it’s bound to be a problem for those of us who just can’t eat gluten.
So here’s what I’ve decided to do. Starting with this Christmas, and every holiday after it, I’m going to make celebratory feasts. Not the same old food as always, but rich, decadent foods with enormous bodies of flavor. Swiss chard gratin. Cassoulets. Braised lamb. Brussel sprouts in browned butter. Sweet potato puree. Crisp salads with goat cheese and pomegranate seeds. Cornbread. Roasted nuts. And, since I’ve mastered the recipe, pumpkin pie with a gluten-free crust.
I’m going to start a new tradition, not feel chained to the old ones. Because–and here was the biggest surprise for me–even if I hadn’t been glutenized, I just didn’t enjoy the meal. Not that my brother isn’t a good cook. He is. He did a great job. It’s just that the tradtional Thanksgiving meal is a plate of food that all tastes pretty much the same: starchy, mashed, salty, and full of flour. And after all these fresh foods and innovative ideas turned into moaning mouthfuls, I just wasn’t that interested. And in the end, the food I enjoyed most in the entire day was the butternut squash I roasted with sea salt and olive oil in the early afternoon, just enough to tide us over until the big dinner. That, and the piquant cranberry relish, is the taste that stuck with me. You never could have told me this before my celiac diagnosis, but Thanksgiving was far from my favorite meal of the year.
So once again, this experience teaches me. From now on, I’m following my own way home.