NPR

A Gluten-Free Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Something about this particular day brings me a sense of unbelievable comfort. The smells and flavors of traditional foods call to me 11 months out of the year, and throughout November, I focus all of my attention on the fourth Thursday of the month.

I enjoyed my family's traditional Thanksgiving fare — turkey, stuffing, candied yams and pumpkin pie — for nearly 28 years. In my 29th year, I fell mysteriously ill, and no amount of medical attention helped my condition. A chance meeting with one of my husband's co-workers changed my life; this new friend had a gluten allergy, a condition I had heard about only in passing. Turns out, a gluten allergy could manifest itself in all sorts of ways: fatigue, dizziness, various digestive disorders and a host of other systemic problems that tend to go misdiagnosed by medical professionals.

I wondered if it could be that my diet was to blame. I cut out gluten, and within a few weeks my body got stronger, my mood stabilized and I could suddenly think again.

Then a strange thing happened. I noticed that the world was not as accommodating to my new lifestyle as I thought it would be, and it became evident that cutting something so mainstream out of my diet threatened to alienate me from everything familiar. One night at a friend's house, everyone decided to order pizza. Later that year, my grandmother made me a big, beautiful, gluten-filled German chocolate cake for my birthday. Worst of all, though, was the fact that I would never, ever enjoy Thanksgiving dinner again.

My first gluten-free Thanksgiving, I ate dry, gravy-less turkey and dry, gravy-less mashed potatoes. That's it. There was no stuffing, no rolls, no green bean casserole, no pumpkin pie. Almost everything on the table had gluten in it, even dishes that defied logical explanation for it as an ingredient. I munched sullenly in the corner while the rest of my family chatted and ate. My brain whirred with fear — what was I going to eat for the rest of my life? Was this it? Was I going to watch other people eat the foods I love while I live on starches, dry meat and carrot sticks?

After a brief period of confusion and abject self-pity, perspective returned. I had survived, and this was my new life. Feeling hopeless in the face of such a recovery was unacceptable. So, I felt, was resigning to a life of buttered rice and plain potatoes. I focused on my first project: a gluten-free Thanksgiving spread.

Because Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally laden with flour-heavy foods, this meal in particular can be tough for those new to a gluten-free lifestyle or folks cooking for gluten-sensitive guests. Take heart, though. There is now a wealth of resources to guide us through this culinary minefield.

Cooking blogs such as Shauna James Ahern's Gluten-Free Girl have become wildly popular, and gluten-free artisan bakeries, such as Seattle's Flying Apron and Oakland's Mariposa are popping up in many major cities. Bookstores now stock a variety of gluten-free cookbooks, full of gourmet treats that even regular gluten-y folks will enjoy, and most major supermarkets are beginning to stock gluten-free foods and mixes that will tempt even the most discerning eater.

Now I look back on those initial months of hopelessness and laugh. My cooking life has become so much more rich and full than it ever was before I discovered I could not eat gluten, and I've learned there is very little you can't make without wheat products. For the past four Thanksgivings, I have had a lot to be thankful for, including Thanksgiving dinner itself. The discovery that I am not relegated to a life sans stuffing and pumpkin pie has been a gift unto itself.

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