Yesterday was the crazy dance of the last day of school. We’re on break for two weeks, and everyone’s feeling fine. Certainly, there are stories. Dozens and dozens of stories. But I can’t tell you about school, even though I’d love to share the place with you. It entrances me. Wackiness. Kindness. Extraordinary moments. I love that wonderful school. But I’ve been asked not to share stories of it here, and I understand. It’s best to keep the two lives separate.
But I can tell you this, because it’s true of any school on the last day before the winter holiday break, in every pocket of the country. My goodness, everyone was swooping down on the sweets. Everywhere, students clutched candy canes and homemade cookies. Teachers were diving into their gifts of Godiva chocolates. At the end of the day, the top of the faculty room table was dusted in doughnut detritus. Half-eaten cookies were ground into the carpets. After all, it’s the holidays, right? Usually, by the end of that last day, I’m ready to collapse with exhaustion, weary past the point of coherence. And this year? Well, I was fairly tired, and thrilled to leave the building (not because I don’t love teaching, but who doesn’t love a break?). But this year, for the first time, I wasn’t the kind of spirit-crushing, headachy, I-feel-as-though-I-need-to-lie-down kind of tired I have been for most of my life. Why? This year, I had to wave away all the homemade fudge, striped candy-cane cookies, gingerbread men, and sugary treats. They could all contain gluten, you see. Before, I would have succumbed to them all. It is the holidays, after all. And normally, I’m just plain tuckered out for most of the holidays. It’s no surprise to me now that whenever I caught pneumonia (six times in my life) or grew tremendously, terrifyingly sick, it was just around the holidays. Why? All those damned baked goods.
Now, I’m entering this winter break with an energy I never thought I would have. Oh sure, last evening, I was exhausted, but so were all my colleagues. It’s hard to convey to anyone outside of teaching, but those last two weeks of school before the winter break are like walking through cold, sludgy molasses. (At least it’s probably gluten-free.) But today, I’m a new woman. Give me a solid night’s sleep and the solid understanding that school is actually over, and I’m back. Who was that the last two weeks? Well, I know that not being able to exercise had been playing with my mind. (The broken foot has kept me from fully using my body for six weeks. But it is, happily, quite well healed now. Thank you.) Today, I feel fierce and alive. I’ve been cooking, writing, singing, taking photographs, looking at the light, dancing, talking with friends on the phone, seeing other friends, and even doing a little work for school. (We may be on vacation, but we’re not done yet. We teachers have all the student evaluations and letters of recommendations to write.) And there’s the pesto I just made for the gluten-free pasta that’s cooking, plus a friend’s party soon. Life’s feeling good.
Still, it’s hard to turn down all those treats. Why is it that people seem to feel as though you are attacking them personally if you don’t eat their home-baked goods? Do we all have to express our love in big bites this time of year?
In one of my classes, for the last-day-of-classes party, a student had made fudgy chocolate chip cookies for the rest of the class. Of course, they knew I couldn’t have any–anyone who knows me knows about my gluten-free glories—so I passed the plate, politely. A few minutes later, one of the students, after taking a bite of one, said, “Shauna, would you get sick if you had one bite?” When I laughed and explained that, yes, I would, and I’d probably feel lousy for about three days, she said, “It would almost be worth it. These taste so good.”
Those of you who can eat gluten have no idea what it’s like. I know. I didn’t, before this.
Even the people who are looking out for me ask me questions that baffle me now, questions that I would probably have asked before. You can’t eat sugar, right? (No, sweetie, that’s glucose.) Is there gluten in rice? Do beans have gluten? When I demurred on eating the potato-cheddar soup a friend had bubbling on the stove at her party last night, another friend said, “Oh, that’s because of the potatoes, isn’t it? How do you live without starches?” (Actually, potatoes do not have gluten. And I only passed on the soup because my friend had bought it at a store, and she didn’t know if it had been thickened with flour.) I can tell from the panicked search questions that lead people to this website–“Does eggplant have gluten in it?”; “gluten in pomegranates”–how little real knowledge is out there.
Of course, I’m doing what I can.
Why is it that one out of five people I meet seem to have some sort of food allergy——lactose intolerance; problems with corn; violent reactions to tomatoes; instant reactions to tropical fruits——and yet, those of us with food allergies are regarded as some sort of cranky freaks? Complainers. Too sensitive for our own good. And I’ll be the first to admit it: before I was diagnosed with celiac, I thought people with food allergies were…a little questionable. Aren’t you just trying to draw too much attention to yourself?
Come on, what harm would one bite do?
Well, last week, a 15-year-old Canadian girl with a severe peanut allergy died because her boyfriend kissed her, after he had eaten a peanut butter sandwich nine hours before. Apparently, she never told him, because she was embarrassed about being seen as too unusual for him. And no wonder. When I was searching for this story online, the first page of hits included one newspaper that had put this story in its “Odd, Weird, and Quirky” section. Thanks. The girl dies, and that’s quirky.
Anyone who reads this website knows how joyfully I approach this entire endeavor. I try not to complain, because there is so much great food for my discovering. Rarely do I feel deprived, particularly in the face of real suffering in the world. But every once in a while, I grow annoyed, a little saddened, at feeling like the odd eater out. And gluten intolerance is really not that hard to understand. I want everyone in the world to be educated about this, so that we don’t have to feel like freaks anymore. But especially, so that we don’t have to be sick anymore.
Luckily, we’re at a turning point right now. This culture does seem to be waking up about gluten intolerance in particular, food allergies in general. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be a celiac twenty years ago, with the dearth of products and awareness. Now, there are hundreds of gluten-free products out there. Last week, at my party, people brought dozens of them for the gluten-free potluck. I never thought I would promote them, but WalMart recently announced that it is requiring their private-line foods to be labeled gluten-free. And the Food Labeling Act of 2004, which goes into effect in January of 2006, requires food manufacturers to list the presence of the eight leading causes of food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soy-beans. Notice that it doesn’t list gluten. That’s another four years, at least. But having wheat listed on a package will help. We’re on the right path.
Before my celiac diagnosis, I never thought that two words (or one hyphenated word, if it’s before the noun) on a package of food would ever make me so happy. Gluten free. That’s all it takes to make me happy in a grocery store.
If food producers were smart, they’d all start labeling this way. Those of us with celiac (or with other reasons to avoid gluten) leap at any product with the gluten-free label. We’re a fiercely loyal bunch. And we need this food. We’ll buy it, in droves, if it says gluten-free. I don’t know about everyone else, but I feel recognized, even appreciated, when I see a product with gluten-free on the label.
Now, if you’ve been reading, you know that I don’t even eat many packaged foods anymore. Whole, fresh, in season, homemade–this is my food. But on the bus ride home, after the last day of school before the winter break, I had (temporarily) run out of ideas. Suddenly, I just wished I had a tv dinner in the house. Or a quick take-out place I could call. But of course, there’s no gluten-free Chinese take-out in Seattle.
Walking up the steps, I saw that my mailbox was bulging with a package. It is the holidays, after all, so I wasn’t shocked. But when I picked this one up, I heard it rattling. Looking at the address, I softened into a smile. Alison, from Alaska. Every summer, I teach creative writing at a fabulous fine arts camp in Sitka. And every year, Alison has taken my poetry class. We’ve become wonderfully close, even though we only see each other for two weeks out of the year. But I hadn’t heard from her in awhile. I’ve been busy too. Seeing her name made me happy.
Opening the package made me happier. Why? Because she had sent me photographs, a rambling letter, and a package of Annie’s gluten-free macaroni and cheese. She’d seen it in the store and thought of me. So, she sent me that night’s dinner.
I love macaroni and cheese. In fact, mac and cheese from scratch was the first dinner I learned how to make as a kid. And even now, I can make a damned fine one with Tinkyada pasta, gruyere and smoked cheddar. But sometimes, you just need a box of mac and cheese. And how damned great is it that, finally, there’s a gluten-free package of cheesy goodness and recognition?
Sometimes, all it takes is two words on a label to make me feel loved.