One of the most difficult things about being gluten free has been the problem of how to share meals with other people without getting sick. Over my two-year hiatus in blogging, this has been the thing that most often came to my mind as a topic for a post. So here it is: an open letter to my old friends, my new friends, and those who will become my friends one day.
Dear friends ,
Here in the Geoffrey household, sharing a meal together is a really important thing. We believe that eating together is a crucial form of fellowship, especially in light of seeing how the early believers broke bread together daily from house to house. Eating together goes beyond sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences with one another—it is a tangible expression of shared lives.
As you might already know, my gluten issues have drastically changed our lifestyle. Discovering that other members of the family have at least some level of sensitivity to gluten has only compounded the issue. We have to maintain a high level of vigilance all the time—not just about what I eat, but about what I touch (because things you touch have a funny way of somehow finding their way into your mouth), what’s in the air I breathe, and what possible contamination my food may have encountered along it’s journey to my mouth.
When I first heard about people who got sick at the slightest amount of cross-contamination, I thought it was silly. I thought, “How could anyone possibly be that sensitive? Surely it is all in their minds! Maybe they’re just paranoid, or trying to get attention.” Then it happened to me. The first year of being gluten free was filled with incidents where I accidentally made myself sick. Each time, I would spend three weeks basically incapacitated by my reaction to hidden gluten. Here is an excerpt from a message I wrote to our local celiac e-mail group after being GF for seven months:
I know that learning to live with celiac is a process, but is this how I should expect things to be from now on? Will half my life be spent trying to avoid any contact with gluten, while the other half is spent recovering from gluten that somehow slipped past me?
So why am I sharing this with you? Because I need you to understand the emotions that surge through me every time I think about eating food prepared outside of my “safe” environment. It’s not that I don’t trust you—it’s just that I know how difficult it is to wrap your mind around all the different ways gluten can slip in. I tried to prepare both gluten and gluten free food in the same kitchen for several months, and was completely unsuccessful. Maybe it is possible for some people, but I can’t imagine how.
That said, I understand that some people show love by purchasing gifts of food or by cooking for other people (I fall into the second category myself). And when you have relationship with someone, you like to invite them into your own home, rather than always being the guest. The issue, then, is how we can make these things work for my situation.
The first category is purchasing food, which brings us to the issue of gluten free labeling. The quick story on this topic is that there are currently no regulations as to what a manufacturer has to do in order to use the term “gluten free.” That means that even though a product may have GLUTEN FREE written in big letters on the label, it could still be made on the exact same equipment used to make gluten-filled foods. I learned that the hard way with a box of frozen waffles. This is why I stick to a limited number of trusted products. I’ve called the manufacturers, or researched their practices online, and have verified that the food is safe for me. While there are new “gluten free” products popping up every day, I generally have no feelings of excitement at the idea of trying something new—in fact, the feeling is more like overwhelming anxiety (with a touch of impending doom).
So what can you buy? It all depends on your reason for buying something. If your desire is simply to help share the financial burden of the meal, and you feel comfortable just putting a couple of dollars in the pushke (that’s Yiddish for “box”), that is always a blessing for us. Just find the gray wooden box (the lid shows a little girl with her kitty cat) on the counter in the dining room and slip in whatever amount you want to share. However, if you really like to participate in the food with a tangible gift, then you can always purchase a brand you have seen us eating before (or if there is another specific thing you want to bring, you can call to ask what brands are safe), and drinks are generally fine. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also a great option.
Which brings us to the topic of cooking. What if you buy some things to make a nice fruit salad, and then take them home and prepare them in your kitchen? I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable eating the fruit salad (although I would have no problem with you bringing it into our home for everyone else to share). But you are more than welcome to use my kitchen! In fact, if you have a whole dinner that you want to share, we can go over your recipes to figure out which ingredients are safe and which need to have substitutions. Once we get the details worked out, you’re welcome to take over my kitchen, and I’ll be your assistant for the evening! But even if you don’t have something specific to make, it’s always great when people come a little early and help with the food preparation.
Now, all of this works just fine as long as the meal is taking place in our home, but what about the times…