Eating should be simple. Instead, for many, it becomes complicated. The physical act of refuelling becomes embedded in our relationships with others and with ourselves. According to some theories, this entanglement of the physical and psychological begins from our earliest feeding experiences. Food can be a comfort, a reward, a punishment, a declaration, a sin, a gesture, a weapon, a temptress, a status symbol, an idol, a master, an enemy, a friend. Food can be an obsession. It has a starring role on Facebook news feeds. It is photographed, written about, reviewed, replicated and made the focus of our TV shows and documentaries.
Having had over twenty years reprieve from this national obsession with food and eating, coeliac disease has made me have to think about it again. Eating has become more complicated.
I’ve tried to make life without gluten as “unthinking” as possible. In the eight months since being diagnosed, my job has become increasingly pressured. Food is usually the last thing on my mind and there hasn’t been much time for dithering over what to cook. To keep things simple, the house has become a gluten-free zone. Soy sauce has been replaced by tamari; Oxo cubes by Knorr cubes. Ryvita has gone but rice and corn cakes have arrived. “Normal” flour and pasta have been replaced by rice flour, buckwheat flour, chickpea flour and gluten free pasta. Instead of the occasional ready meal, I’ll have a sachet of Tilda flavoured rice and stir in some grated cheese. If I want crisps, much of the Tyrrells range is gluten free. I know which bars of chocolate are safe to eat and I’ve discovered that Tescos gluten free “Kit Kats” are better than the real thing as they are mostly chocolate and not very much wafer. I bake two loaves of bread each week – expensive at £4.40 per loaf, but quick to make and really tasty. So from day to day, eating remains simple and manageable, if a little boring.
Then something happens out of the ordinary to remind me that I can’t eat the same as other people and that I have to give space and time to my dietary regime, even though I would rather not.
First off was a holiday in October, visiting four sets of relatives in France. I had to warn them in advance, which I did with a bit of help from French coeliac websites: “Je dois suivre un régime sans gluten. Par example, je ne peux pas manger de la nourriture qui contient du blé, du farine de blé, des miettes de pain, des pâtes ou du sauce au soja.” All four hosts were amazing, producing delicious meals sans gluten. I knew from past experience that all meals inevitably ended with bread and a huge variety of cheese. For this I was prepared, having brought along my own gluten free crackers. Of course, there were a few wistful moments, like the time I picked up the bag of freshly-baked croissants on the breakfast table and INHALED the long-lost fragrance, but otherwise all was well. The problems happened when we were on the road. Long motorway journeys meant being reliant on service stations. The shops were crammed with food, but as I desperately scanned the shelves, I could only see sandwiches, couscous, croissants, pies and pastries, crisps, crispbread and pasta salads. The one safe thing was a pre-packaged salad consisting of lettuce, grated carrot and a sad tomato. No dressing, as that also contained gluten. At the end of our first day on the road, I was STARVING: dizzy, grumpy, shaking and unable to concentrate. But all was not lost. As we traipsed around Fontainebleau looking for something I could eat, we stumbled across a wonderful shop called Naturalia.
It was stocked with products for every palate, whim, medical condition and ethical consideration: gluten free, nut free, vegan, vegetarian, organic – you name it, it was there. A whole packet of sablés noix de coco sans gluten later, I was feeling much better – but I had learned my lesson. I MUST plan ahead and take food for the journey next time.
Then there was Christmas.
I’ve been to a number of gatherings with buffets this month. Before the first one, I was so confident there would be something I could eat, that it didn’t occur to me to remind the hosts about my restrictions. I didn’t stop to think that most canapés and nibbles contain bread or pastry. So I ended up “feasting” on lettuce and carrot sticks while others tucked into an array of mouthwatering gluteny snacks. A couple of decades ago I would have been delighted to have a reason to say no to pizza and quiche. Nowadays it just seemed ironically unfair to be surrounded by so much forbidden food.
A few days later, there was a bring and share lunch at work. This time, keen to learn from my previous mistake, I looked at the list of planned contributions in advance: “Samosas, crisps, homemade mince pies, vegetarian vol-au-vents, vegetable couscous, French loaves, sausage rolls, pasta salad, banana oat cookies, German Christmas cake”. All were banned substances for me. Fortunately there were three things I could eat (chicken, salad, guacamole) and I turned up armed with several cheeses and a box of gluten free oatcakes. Things were improving! I ate heartily. That same day, after work, we headed to the pub to celebrate a colleague’s retirement. She would be providing Prosecco and nibbles. Did I stop to think about what I would eat? No. I’d only focused on making sure I could eat at lunchtime. False confidence prevailed: I thought it would all turn out alright and, after all, I didn’t want to seem rude or ungrateful by mentioning the gluten issue to my colleague. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the nibbles were, again, very carb-based, so as others ate sausage rolls, little pastries and sandwiches, I just drank Prosecco. After the second glass, desperate to soak up the alcohol with something/anything, I devoured a platter of delicious hot, salty chips, hoping that there was no cross-contamination from the fryer (but really being beyond caring). I felt quite unwell for the next few days, with tiredness and aching joints which are both signs of being “glutened”. And so the Christmas season continued.
When it comes to traditional Christmas food, I’m well aware that there are gluten free versions of most things, if you have the time and money to invest in searching for them. However, I have never been a great fan of mince pies, Christmas cake or Christmas pudding, so it is no great loss to me to say goodbye to those. However, I miss many other things. Lebkuchen, stollen, pigs in blankets, stuffing… I could easily ask my Mum (who will cook the main meal) to seek out gluten free sausages and to make stuffing from gluten free bread, but these products are so much more expensive and she already has so much to do, so many people to think about. My wish to prevent her from extra work and expense is greater than my wish to eat sausages and stuffing.
And so I am reminded once more that the simple act of eating can be entangled with the balance of our own needs and the needs of others. Eating should be so simple and yet it can be so complicated.