Dear Bread, How I Miss You
My husband and I are in our favorite Greek-Italian restaurant. The waitress has taken our drink order and gone to retrieve our basket of warm, crusty bread. This has always been my favorite part of eating here — tearing hunks of bread and dipping them in a puddle of glistening green oil that’s sprinkled with herbs. Yum. Only now, I dip my finger in the olive oil while my husband apologizes (yet again) for eating the bread in front of me. I smile and say it’s ok, please enjoy it for both of us, as I peruse the menu for something that is safe for me to eat.
I discovered my non-celiac gluten intolerance the long way around. I had been having abdominal discomfort after meals for about a year. Sometimes that discomfort morphed into blinding pain in the base of my sternum that brought on nausea and made me unable to stay upright. I had almost begun to dread eating because I never knew when I was going to have one of these episodes.
It turns out I was having gallbladder attacks. I read everything I could about how to prevent gallbladder attacks and discovered that fried and fatty foods are a big culprit, so I cut those from my diet. Unfortunately, the pain did not go away. I finally went for an ultrasound and the Dr. confirmed that my gallbladder was full of stones. I was referred to a surgeon.
When I met with the surgeon, the first thing he did was pull out a poster with a picture of where the gallbladder is and subsequently pointed out all the things that can (but rarely do, he emphasized) go wrong during a gallbladder surgery. One of them could result in permanently needing to wear a colostomy.
I did not hear anything else that Dr. said to me that day. I scheduled the surgery in a fog, and went home. The next day I called and cancelled the surgery. There had to be a way to resolve this without risking my colon being permanently damaged, no matter how minute the chances. So back to the internet I went.
What I discovered is that food allergies (or sensitivities) can aggravate your gallbladder. One of the culprits is gluten. I decided to try eliminating gluten to see if it would help. The long and short of it is, it did. No more abdominal discomfort, no more severe gallbladder attacks. A big plus was no more inflamed joints, which I had also been experiencing for some time. I was ecstatic that I had found a solution that would keep me off the surgery table.
Then the reality hit. No more bread. No more celebratory cake. No more cookies, muffins, breakfast croissants, hamburgers and hotdogs with buns. No more pizza and pasta. (Yikes!) No more donuts!
The list was growing and I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with the fact that most of the foods I had been eating my whole life were now my enemies. How could I possibly do this? I waded into this new world and I would go along pretty well for a while, steering clear of the obvious sources of gluten, but then I would think, just one slice of pizza. Just one. Maybe a little gluten won’t hurt me. It always did.
The last time I remember testing this theory was when I was working late and was starving and there were donuts in the staff work room. I had not had a donut in so long and I was tired and hungry and thought “What the hell”.
I picked one out of the box and walked across the building eating it. I have to admit, it was divine! So divine that I circled back around as soon as I swallowed the last bite and got another one. I love donuts and had missed them so much.
I lost two days to that indiscretion. I woke the next morning feeling like I had been hit by a truck and all I could do was crawl back in bed. It took another day to completely recover. Those donuts were my Waterloo. I was done with gluten for good. No more “Just a little won’t hurt” thinking for me.
I know I am lucky that I developed a gluten sensitivity now and not 30 years ago. The variety and quantity of gluten free foods available in the supermarkets and specialty markets is growing and is readily available. However, it is very expensive. A loaf of bread with 20 slices is $6-$8, a box of crackers with barely enough for two servings is $4-$5.
And it is not always good. I have eaten many loaves of gritty, weird tasting bread, forcing myself to finish it because it cost so much. I have eaten gluten free pizzas that tasted like the cardboard box they came in.
And don’t even get me started on the pastas. Being married to an Italian, pasta is a mainstay in our diet. There is absolutely no pasta substitute I have found that can match a good wheat angel hair pasta. The closest I have come is pastas made from beans or Chinese rice noodles. Pastas made from corn are gummy and rubbery.
The day I found gluten free cinnamon and sugar donuts in the freezer case was worth celebrating. They are not half bad and satisfy me when I am feeling out of sorts about the “Hot and Ready” sign taunting me at Krispy Kreme.
Eating out is another challenge. I will always remember when we went to a little Italian restaurant and I asked the waitress if they had gluten free pasta. She smiled at me and said “Oh honey, ALL our pasta is gluten free!” I stared at her in disbelief. Are you kidding me?
I realized that navigating eating out was going to require due diligence on my part. Many restaurants are now offering gluten free options, but I am still skeptical sometimes.
One of the problems is that many people have no clue what gluten is. Gluten is a mixture of proteins that are present in wheat, barley and rye. These proteins are what create elasticity in the dough when you are baking bread, giving it the texture that we love so much. It is in anything made with wheat flour, including pasta. It is also these proteins that I, and others with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, cannot digest.
It makes dining out stressful at times. Typical restaurant offerings are heavy on foods fried in a flour-based batter, sandwiches and pasta dishes. And hidden sources of gluten are everywhere — from ketchup to salad dressings. Sometimes it can feel like navigating a field of landmines.
It is a challenge to eat differently than the majority of the world, and can sometimes feel very lonely. Sharing a meal with family and friends is how we socialize, form bonds and celebrate life’s joys. These times can be difficult when I can’t eat the celebratory foods that everyone else is eating. Sometimes I just want to eat that cake. But I know better.
Many of our closest friends and family make special preparations for my gluten sensitivity. I think most people with food sensitivities share the fear of being seen as a burden to their hosts. But I have been comforted by their thoughtfulness and they are always so pleased to have found something special for me to eat. It is so appreciated.
I have been two years now without a gallbladder attack, so giving up the foods I love has kept me off the surgeon’s table, as well as minimizing the inflammation in my joints. But if anyone ever comes up with a cure, I will be the first in line at the donut shop. After I go to the bakery and buy a huge loaf of french bread. On my way home from the pizza parlor.