A big family holiday dinner can take a lot of work and planning. And when certain foods can actually be hazardous to your health, the planning becomes infinitely more important.
Christmas dinner has always been the gustatory event of the year in my family. Thanksgiving is big, but we pull out all the stops for Christmas. Yes, there’s the traditional Christmas ham, but we also cook the traditional Italian dishes we’ve eaten since we were kids. Spedini, lasagna, cannoli, garlic bread and assorted Italian cookies.
The problem in the last few years is that several members of my family have been diagnosed with celiac disease. People may know this better as “gluten intolerance,” and some people mistakenly think it’s a wheat allergy.
But true celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disorder in which the lining of a person’s intestines is damaged when they eat a protein found in wheat called “gluten.”
Celiac disease is associated with other autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and systemic lupus – which also run in our family.
The symptoms can be relatively mild – cramping, constipation, diarrhea, dermatitis. Or they can be quite serious – anemia, osteoporosis, malnutrition, vitamin deficiency.
The only definitive way to diagnose celiac disease is through a biopsy of the intestinal lining. Blood tests aren’t as accurate.
So, what does this do to a traditionally carb – and wheat-heavy meal? On the down side, it makes planning a little more difficult and some of the ingredients can be a lot more expensive.
But our family has tried to look on the bright side and use dietary restrictions to make the meal healthier and make us more mindful of what we’re shoving in our mouths.
For instance, our grandparents’ version of spedini included a lot of bread crumbs stuffed in and coating thin pieces of beef. My sister-in-law makes a version with about half the amount of stuffing and uses gluten-free crumbs that are now found in the specialty aisle of the supermarket. For the past several years, her gluten-free spedinis have won the unofficial spedini taste test (and she’s not even Italian!).
My sister does her special jello and pretzel salad (yeah, it’s weird and not traditional, but we love it) using rice pretzels.
For a side dish, instead of spaghetti with marinara sauce, I’m roasting seasonal vegetables – onions, winter squash, potatoes – with a sprinkle of salt, a drizzle of olive oil and lemon and dusting of parmesan on the top. I’m going to head to Local Harvest grocery tomorrow to get as much locally grown produce as possible.
My other sister still does cannoli, but buys gluten free pastry tubes. With cannoli, at least the ones my sister makes with fabulous filling, no one notices the pastry anyway.
My sister with celiac disease enjoying a gluten-free piece of pizza
And until you’ve cooked for someone with celiac disease, you don’t realize how much gluten is hidden in things like mushroom soup, commercial salad dressings and even soy sauce.
I think the real difference is that none of us takes a bite of anything without thinking about it first. “Does this have any hidden gluten?” “Is this food going to hurt me?” “Do I want this enough to put up with some disgestive discomfort?” (The answer when it comes to some of the Italian cookies is “yes.”) We don’t do as much thoughtless eating. We appreciate what we do put in our mouths.
So, what could be a real drag on our holiday spirit turns out to be a good thing – we all work together to make sure that everyone in the family is having a healthy, happy holiday. And isn’t that something to celebrate?