This story begins with a meal. The table is set for eight—heaped dishes slowly start to crowd the settings. A thirty-pound turkey, mashed potatoes, and vibrant cranberry relish in a crystal pedestal dish are only the beginning. Behind the table is a buffet brimming with pies: french silk, strawberry rhubarb, and pumpkin, to name only a few. Sitting down at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving is special in the way that family gatherings are special—my parents have driven up from Florida, my other sister and I have shuttled down from Chicago. But there’s something else different about this year. This entire spread of culinary delicacies—at least one dish prepared by each of us—is free from nuts, soy, eggs, gluten, and a few other allergens that impact our family. It was this way last year, and the year before that, but this is the first time that I am one of the family members directly affected by the preparation. I was nearing the end of my first year since being diagnosed with celiac disease. After a year of dogged vigilance over every meal on the part of my husband and myself, sitting at a table where I didn’t have to ask any questions, didn’t have to scrutinize the dishes, didn’t have to worry about anything but enjoying it became something greater than a holiday meal. It became a reason to be grateful, even though I would go right back to scrutinizing my food elsewhere. Here, I could let my guard down for a moment and savor a feast with the people I love. With a new appreciation for times like these, I felt renewed to begin the second year of living with my diagnosis.
What you need to know is my father was diagnosed with celiac disease in the early eighties when I was very young. So my awareness of the condition had been at arm’s length for most of my life. It was very different when it affected me directly, but I couldn’t shake the parallels and differences between the two of us. Having grown up with a parent belabored by this disease, I felt like I knew what to expect now that I was facing it myself. And it terrified me. It was less about the hassles in restaurants and more about what type of wife, mother, person I would be, had already become. For my father and myself, the most pronounced symptom of ingesting gluten was irritability. I was paralyzed from the fear of isolating myself through the personality change that accompanies a gluten reaction. I wanted to be the best version of myself. I started thinking a lot about what my father went through and what we experienced because of it. I thought about how something as basic as what we eat can have such enormous impacts not only on the individual, but on those surrounding him or her. I started asking some big questions:
Why do we share food? Why does it matter? How does it impact how we live? Could it even be that you are who you eat with?
I started reading. I asked more questions. And I learned that the way we eat, the way we've eaten for countless years, does affect more than our digestion. It affects our relationships, it affects who we are.