As I wrote last month, the winter holidays seem to be a time of freaking out about food sensitivities. I went into Thanksgiving unconcerned about the possibility of being glutened, despite my extreme sensitivity, partly because I was busy writing, partly because I knew I was in very good hands with my friend Jaime doing the turkey-day cooking. Mostly, though, I just can’t be bothered to worry about every little detail, because I’ve been gluten-free for almost a year, and I’ve found that whether I scrutinize the details of every ingredient and dish or not, I’m pretty much equally likely to get sick. So I usually do a basic check and focus my massive anxiety on something else, like my writing career.
But Thanksgiving is just one day, and if the internet is to be believed, the holiday season presents itself as an endless train of parties and gatherings that will culminate in large dinners that many food blogs would have you believe are meant to terrorize those with dietary restrictions. I’ve read so many blog posts about surviving holiday gatherings at which a person can’t eat some of the dishes that I’ve begun to wonder why people show up at these shindigs in the first place—Is the food on the plate the point? What about the gathering? The people? That electric holiday spirit that only comes around once a year?
I love Christmas, and I always have. I expect that my parents will have the house decked out with Christmas decorations, as usual. I can’t wait to see them, and my brother, and my grandparents. We’ll have a special dinner on Christmas, I’m sure, but I can’t even remember what we usually eat. The point is that we’ll all be there. Maybe I won’t be able to eat everything, or maybe I will. I’ve sat at that dining room table as a vegetarian and a vegan, choices I happily made. I’ve been picky my entire life. One year, I think I even had to eat a small, fat-free dinner because of a gallbladder surgery coming up on the 27th. Who cares? I don’t fly across the country for the meal. I fly because I love my family very much and I want to spend my vacation time with them.
Martha Stewart has recently caused a fuss with her comments about accommodating dietary restrictions, offering advice to those wishing to entertain guests. From the Daily Mail article:
‘Oh my God! Don’t ask! My rule is do not ask about dietary restrictions,’ she says, clearly averse to making an extra effort for certain guests.
‘We had a charity dinner – we had every single kind of restriction. It was horrible!’ she recalls to the newspaper.
The cooking maestro, seemingly so welcoming and in control, does make one minor concession.
‘You have to be semi-prepared,’ she says of picky eaters. ‘But don’t fret about it. Everybody can miss a meal.’
The remarks sparked controversy among food bloggers and their readers, many of whom immediately jumped to the conclusion that Martha Stewart doesn’t care about serious allergies and intolerances and doesn’t have any interest in accommodating them. But I don’t think this is the case—I think Martha expressed her point without being as clear as she could have been, but she may have been trying to say that if a host invites all guests to volunteer food preferences when RSVP’ing, that can open up a world of headaches when entertaining a large group. Not only celiacs and those with nut allergies and any of the other serious allergies that might be represented in the group might respond, but perhaps those sometimes-pescetarians might decide to speak up, and maybe a person who really doesn’t like green vegetables might feel empowered to call it an allergy, and so on. By making such an invitation, the host puts the responsibility on him/herself, whereas those of us with food sensitivities are accustomed to being responsible for our own well-being. And to volunteer to make sure that everyone is fed safely and can eat the majority of the food on the table is an enormous commitment. This, I believe, is what Martha is talking about. Besides, she never said she doesn’t believe in having allergy/intolerance friendly dishes available. If someone is truly concerned, that person can always contact the host.
And the missing of a meal doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is sitting there, foodless—It’s the difference between, perhaps, being half-full and leaving overstuffed. Maybe it’s a Thanksgiving dinner where the turkey, unfortunately, has been stuffed with wheat-bread stuffing, and the gravy has flour in it, but a celiac person has some brussels sprouts, a hefty glob of sweet potatoes, and mashers with butter. Is that so bad? Special occasions of all kinds are great opportunities to serve up special foods to special people. I know that. I’m lucky enough to benefit from that mindset all year when Jaime serves up kitchen amazements. Holidays can be made better by good food, for sure. But the food isn’t the reason for the gathering. It’s the peppermint icing on the cake.
Being diagnosed with a gluten issue will mean that things are just going to be different. Maybe the most enjoyable meals start happening at home. Maybe you have to start standing up for yourself when people give you crap about the way you eat—I find a firm but friendly “Sorry, I can’t eat that” works, but I’m from Jersey, so I know how to be direct. If you’re having trouble with social situations because of food, maybe you need to stop overthinking the food and start thinking about the reason you’re showing up. What are our reasons for eating? Are they different this time of year? Why should eating be so stressful?
I’m not stressed. I have two cans of soup and a package of pasta in my suitcase to get me started. If you’re feeling stressed, just watch this:
Since my doctor told me it looked like I might have celiac and I should stop eating wheat, I’ve missed pizza sometimes, but going back to New Jersey, I expect to miss it acutely. And cookies aren’t the same. And the bread I bake goes stale right away. But I’ve lost 30 pounds and realized just how little the ritual of food matters to me. On the Daily Mail article, in the comment section, there’s a note from Ian in London that ends, “for gods sake, don’t let it define you or your family. There is a difference between care and paranoia.” There: that’s it.