When the Chef and I were listening to the radio this morning, as we were preparing breakfast, some moron announcer said, “Only 31 shopping days until Christmas!” Before I could even say it, the Chef said, “Oh shut up, Bob.”
I love him.
Every year, it drives me crazy, how the holidays in this country have become an inexorable march toward consumption and gaudiness. How many presents can you buy in one fell swoop? Quick — put the lights up on the house! We must make dozens of cookies, right now. Never mind that this consumerism has nothing to do with the spirit of any of the holidays around this time of the year. This is America. This is what we do. We celebrate the holidays, dammit.
That compulsion to make everything the same as the year before, and the need to have it be as perfect as a Martha Stewart magazine layout, sweeps up all of us, in one way or another. But for those of us who have celiac — and must eat gluten-free in this gluten-saturated time of the year — this time of the year can be a minefield. (I am certain this must be true for anyone with food allergies, as well as vegetarians and vegans, so this is quite a large number of us.) I don’t miss gluten. But I do miss the sugar cut-out cookies I made every year for over a decade. I miss gingerbread men and my mother’s cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I’ll never have them again. It’s okay to feel a little bit of mourning.
Lately, I have been receiving far more emails than I can answer in a day. Most of them, these days, seem to revolve around the holidays. One young woman told me that she had volunteered to make Christmas dinner for everyone in her family. Could I create gluten-free versions of all the treats the family wanted to eat? I’ve had requests for cinnamon rolls, mincemeat pie, stuffing, and gluten-free gravy. Everyone, it seems, wants to eat exactly what he or she ate as a child — before the celiac diagnosis — and have it taste exactly the same.
The thing is, everyone, it will never taste the same. No matter how good your pumpkin pie recipe with a gluten-free crust, it will never taste like the pie you ate as a child. It could taste even better. But it won’t taste the same.
Early on in this gluten-free journey, I decided that longing for the same old foods with gluten-free ingredients was like longing for a boyfriend I had broken up with, and so finding a rebound replacement as fast as I could, one who reminded me exactly of the old one. It never works. It’s the same with food.
The thing is Thanksgiving could use some shaking up. As food writer Julia Moskin wrote in the New York Times today:
“The traditional Thanksgiving meal has become monotonous, overloaded with soft textures and rich, bland flavors. Instead of choosing between buttery mashed potatoes and buttery sweet potatoes, many families serve both. Vegetables like green beans and onions are muffled with cream sauces; brussels sprouts are enriched with bacon, and green beans with almonds. The sudden compulsion to cook parsnips and squash quickly leads to root vegetables overload. Once the gravy and stuffing are served the table is covered with dishes that are mushy in texture and almost entirely brown.”
Absolutely. There is no reason that we have to have rolls, stuffing, and pie, if we eat gluten-free. Why not create new traditions instead?
Well, there is something comforting about tradition. I like rituals as much as the next person. (These days, my life is wonderfully routine, in order to finish my manuscript in time for the deadline.) So, over the next week or so, I’ll be posting some recipes that the Chef and I have come up with for pumpkin pie with a gluten-free crust, a simple stuffing with celery and onions, gluten-free gravy, cranberry relish, and something green to add to the table. I hope that these recipes will help.
But in the meantime, I’d like to offer some suggestions for what might work for this holiday, and the ones to follow:
• Offer to cook dinner yourself. I know this might feel like a lot of work, but it will make everyone in the family happy, and you will be assured of eating gluten-free. My brother, dear man that he is, put a tablespoon of flour in the poultry bag when he made the turkey last year. I didn’t have any, of course. But I did get sick from the cross-contamintion between the regular stuffing and gluten-free stuffing. This year, I’m lucky. The Chef and I will be making Thanksgiving dinner for everyone, and it will be entirely gluten-free. Sure, it means a few hours of work for the both of us, but we both adore the simple joy of feeding people we love. (Besides, the Chef is meticulous about the gluten-free thing, and he’ll make sure I can eat everything on the table.) If you cannot cook the entire dinner, then offer to make the parts of the meal that usually involve gluten. Make pies and rolls and a loaf of gluten-free bread for stuffing.
• Advocate with your family. So many of you have written, in the comments section here and to me in emails, that you are embarrassed to make a fuss when it comes to food. I have one word for you: nonsense! This is your health, your body, your life. As kind as it is for someone to make you food, it is not kind to feed you gluten. Sit down with everyone now, long before the big day, and explain all the ways that gluten can hide. Teach them about cross-contamination. This is supposed to be a holiday of gratitude, not a way to make you sick. Your family can express their gratitude that you have found out what ails you by double-checking with you before they cook something. I am sure that you will feel enormous gratitude toward everyone there if you can eat an entire meal without growing sick. Remember the spirit of the day.
• Mix up the traditions. Years ago, when I was a teenager, my father told us about a class he had taught the day before Thanksgiving. He asked his students their families’ traditions of food, which led to a spirited discussion of the merits of different kinds of students. One of his students had a different story, however. She said that her parents were Italian immigrants, and they made an enormous Italian feast for Thanksgiving: pastas, roasted meats, antipasti platters, fresh mozzarella. My father said that her description made it sound like the best meal he could ever eat. He wondered aloud if we would want to try that. As one, my brother and I shouted, “No!” We wanted our traditions, and that was that.
But you know what? I’d be more than willing to try it now, as long as the pasta was gluten-free. Isn’t this holiday just a chance to celebrate life with family and friends with food? Who says that it has to be a glossy roasted turkey with bread stuffing spilling out of its cavity? Why not butternut squash soup? Brussels sprouts hash? Black cod? Roasted duck? Seared tofu? Why not make it a menu of all the foods you have come to love since you went gluten-free? Have a table full of twenty dishes, and then ask everyone to dig in. Would anyone feel a lack of gratitude at this?
• Finally, just say no to gluten. ‘Tis the season when people are tempted to cheat. That spoonful of stuffing isn’t worth three days of feeling sick. Those cinnamon rolls will never be worth the price you’ll pay in your gut. Make a new tradition of staying well throughout the holidays. You owe it to yourself.
I hope that helps. As with everything else about living gluten-free, I really believe that this is about more than the recipes. This is about attitude. I’m going to say yes to my life, to food, to the people I love. And I’m going to do it gluten-free.
You can too.