Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I survived my first gluten free month!

I must admit that the first few weeks of my gluten free life were a blur. I had a gluten free mentor of sorts, who helped me immensely. I met her through the local Celiac Support Group and she answered ridiculous questions like 'is canola oil gluten free'?...almost on a daily basis for a month. A million thanks to you Nisla - I'm forever in your debt. By the way, canola oil is gluten free and can be used in place of vegetable oil, in most cases.

So the first week I rid my home of gluten (except husband's cereal and bread, which were now confined to a remote space in the pantry). Cleaning out the fridge and pantry took the entire weekend and even though I had help, neither my husband nor I were expert label readers then. I'm sure we threw out or gave away some items that were in fact gluten free. We found a good home for the unopened products (ALL my canned soups and cornbread mixes for instance) and were shocked to find in the end, we didn't have much left to eat. We thought we were such healthy eaters, but in actuality we had way more processed foods in our home than anyone should. And about 90% of them clearly listed wheat as an ingredient. Luckily, the US labeling law requiring companies to list wheat (in all forms) on labels, went into effect January 1st, 2006....three weeks before my diagnosis of Celiac. Of course, many things in the kitchen were purchased before that date so we used the motto 'when in doubt, leave it out'....or in this case, give it away.

The second week of my new life brought about my first delicate social situation. I had to cancel a lunch with a client. Do you know how odd it is to tell someone (whom you've eaten out with for years) that you don't know how to eat out anymore? Well in case you don't, it's extremely strange and even embarrassing. This particular client knew someone who had a Celiac child and knew how hard it was to learn this new way of living. She told me we could reschedule whenever I was comfortable doing so. Thanks RA...your support on my journey is appreciated more than you know.

Three weeks into my gluten free diet I faced quite a challenge. It was the 20th anniversary of the first date with my husband of 16+ years - Valentine's Day. This day is usually special but this year it would be different since we were venturing out to eat for the first time since my Celiac diagnosis. For the record, I don't recommend taking that plunge on a major holiday. Since I was not going to eat at a chain restaurant with a gluten free menu on this special night, I scrambled to find a gourmet place that could feed me safely. The restaurant I chose had a Chef with a Celiac wife and much of the menu is gluten free without modification (well except the appetizer and dessert courses...those are rarely very gluten free friendly). However, the place is so popular they don't take reservations. No problem....we'd get to the restaurant early (at 6 pm in fact) and we'd have a lovely time....seems I was not the only patron with this idea. When we arrived at 5:55 pm, the hostess quoted us an hour to hour and a half wait. You have got to be kidding me....we were in Buford, GA (over 20 miles north of Atlanta). Where did all these people even come from? It's not normal to go to dinner at 6 pm unless you're over 60, have Celiac, or are very frugal and like to catch the early bird specials. Obviously these folks didn't know it, but there were ruining my anniversary, Valentine's Day and my first gluten free dining out experience. The actual wait turned out to be just over two hours so by the time we sat down I could have eaten the tablecloth.

Lesson learned that night - don't EVER leave home without crackers or some other snack to nibble on in case of a long wait. And better yet, don't go to places when they have such long wait times to be seated, in the first place. Go on Sunday night instead of Friday or Saturday. Both you and the Chef will be happier if you follow this guideline....trust me on this one. If you patronize any the chains that offer gluten free menus, the kinds that don't have real Chefs, this rule still applies - if you want the best experience possible that is.

In the end, we did have a lovely gourmet (and gluten free) meal that first night out. I even ordered some fabulous cheeses for dessert since I didn't want the only other safe option of creme brulee. I ordered the cheese plate sans crackers (again it would have been nice to have my gluten free crackers there) and took most of it home to enjoy the next day. Even though I'd baked my first gluten free cake that afternoon as a surprise for my dessert loving husband, I convinced him to get something sweet to complete his meal. You see, I was curious about how the gluten free vanilla cake I'd made tasted, so I shaved a little piece off before assembling my heart shaped masterpiece. That bite proved my efforts were a waste...the cake had a great look and texture but it tasted like it had a little wheat germ in it. Of course, if did not but the result was the same - it was awful! When we arrived home from our long evening out, my husband insisted he wanted to try the cake that I'd made with love (and crossed fingers). He tasted it...struggled for something positive to say and finally said the frosting was great. We promptly threw the entire thing into the trash can as we didn't think it would be nice to feed to the birds, chipmunks and rabbits that hang out in our back yard. I don't think all the sugar in the icing would have been good for them.

It should be noted that at that time, I was able to buy a national brand of canned frosting that was gluten free. The maker of this product now states that since their ingredients change often, and many times include barley, it might be best for those avoiding gluten to avoid their frosting in a can. If you want a gluten free frosting you don't have to make yourself, I suggest trying Decadent Chocolate frosting from Trader Joe's if you're lucky enough to have a Trader Joe's. If not, check out your local store brands. The most offending ingredient in these products is generally malt made from barley, but the labeling laws do not require barley to be listed. When you see malt on the label, further investigation into the source of the malt is needed before consuming.

The most important thing I did in the first month of being gluten free was contact my local support group (http://www.atlantametroceliacs.com/). Because of that connection, I was lucky enough to see Dr. Cynthia Rudert speak about my condition, only two weeks after my diagnosis. Dr. Rudert is the only nationally recognized Celiac expert in the Southeastern US and she's the only doctor I'd seen to date, that thought there was life after Celiac. I don't want to misquote her but her comment was something like 'It's a great time to be a Celiac'. And you know what? ....she was right!

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