Fourteen Years Ago

August 30th, 2012

Fourteen years ago, we took our twenty-five pound four-year-old son to the hospital for an intestinal biopsy to figure out why he had stopped growing.  The very small boy was swamped by his hospital gown: it puddled around his feet like Yoda’s robes. The tiny bit of intestine they snipped that day told us everything we needed to know: he had Celiac Disease. Gluten (a protein found in most grains) was destroying the surface of his intestines so he could no longer absorb the nutrition his body so desperately needed. No matter how much he ate, he starved.

Fourteen years ago, the doctor told us this was good news: a completely gluten-free diet would cure our son. If, however, we didn’t follow a scrupulous GF diet, he warned us the complications could be serious, anything and potentially everything from horrible pain to malnourishment to stomach cancer.

So . . . new lifestyle. Fourteen years ago, we met with a nutritionist who outlined the restrictions of a gluten-free diet. I’ve written before about how much harder it was to find gluten-free products back then or a knowledgeable waiter at a restaurant (times have changed), but slowly, bit by bit, we figured it out.

Entrees were relatively easy.  But baked goods–cookies, cakes, breakfasty things like scones and muffins, etc–those were tricky. Fourteen years ago, I baked a chocolate cake using only rice flour and it was inedible. But I learned to blend GF flours and to find good cake mixes and to convert (most of) my favorite recipes.

And in fourteen years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Croissants, apple pie, focaccia . . .  If you can make it with wheat flour, I’ve probably made it gluten-free.  And then there’s the GF bread and pasta and rolls and flours–and all the trips to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and the kinds of places that stock those kinds of things . . .

Fourteen years of all that.

Two days ago–fourteen years after the original diagnosis–I stood in the dining hall at an east coast college while the head of food services told us not to worry: at every meal, they would have an entire table devoted to scrupulously gluten-free foods and many of their other meals could be prepared gluten-free as well–all you had to do was ask. “You’ll have plenty to eat,” she told my freshman son, whom we were leaving there that day. “He’ll be fine,” she told me with a reassuring smile.

Back home, where our family of six was reduced to four, I filled up a cart at the supermarket with foods bursting with gluten: Lucky Charms, real lasagna noodles, Pepperidge Farm goldfish, etc.  I unpacked the bags in my kitchen and tried to pretend it was going to be fun to eat whatever we wanted.

A cart filled with gluten: more bitter than sweet.

But I couldn’t convince myself.  Deep down I know that every time I reach for real flour instead of my carefully-calibrated blend of gluten-free starches, it’s going to feel wrong. Eating real pasta will taste wonderful and feel wrong. Blithely letting bagel crumbs mix in with the cream cheese–how carefree!  . . . and how wrong. Nothing will feel right again until Thanksgiving when my freshman boy comes home and I’ll have to keep a gluten-free kitchen again.

So I’m already planning Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, of course, with gluten-free stuffing and gravy thickened with cornstarch, not flour.

I wouldn’t make it any other way.