It’s no secret food is my love language. Food speaks to me louder than almost anything. I gave myself a bad time about this for years. “What’s wrong with you?” I’d ask, shaming myself for the embarrassing amount of time I caught myself dreaming about food.
Cooking went from comforting to cruel when gluten turned against me, and I shamed myself again for grieving the loss of something so trivial. It’s just food, Rach. Get over it, I’d say. But I couldn’t just get over it, and if you are reading this today I imagine you couldn’t just get over it either when your food life flipped upside down.
Here’s what I learned: it’s 100% totally fine to be upset when we lose things we love. Grief is part of the healing process. To deny ourselves the time and space to feel the emotions that come along with loss robs us of the opportunity to make peace with what we have left. I was sad I lost gluten. Sad again when I lost peanuts and pine nuts and pea protein and cashews, then pistachios and eggs and dairy and sunflower seeds and egg and shrimp. Things went from hard to harder until life felt miserably unfair, and I shouted at the heavens asking, “Are you kidding me?”
Deciding these foods were off-limits was easy; making peace with their absence was hard. Some eventually came back (hallelujah and hello eggs!), but I felt funny about mourning the loss of all the others. Keeping them away kept our bodies safer, but my heart was still broken. I got angry that my love for food and comfort in the kitchen didn’t prepare me for any of this.
I woke up one day wondering if my sadness would seep into the kids’ skin, irreversibly embittering their hearts toward the goodness and beauty of the gift God gave us in food. I don’t wonder about that anymore: those kids love food like I do–perhaps more so, in some ways. Emery says he wants to open an allergy friendly restaurant where anyone can find something safe to eat, and Mia wants to develop allergy friendly recipes and share them on a cooking show of her own. The kitchen became their favorite place to spend time because food speaks to their hearts too.
These Chocolate Sticky Buns called their name before they called mine. And instead of hearing an enemy to fear, they heard a question to answer: “Mom!” the Goobies called from the other room where they were watching an episode of Cook’s Country. “How can we make those?” they asked, pointing to a pan of pastries smothered in dark, decadent chocolate sauce. “Easy,” I said, confident that by now I could manage to pull off a gluten free / dairy free version of the original. Their eyes lit up and they started the episode all over again, this time Mia writing down every ingredient, every tool, every step in the process before asking, “When can we try?”
Saturday was the designated day I never saw coming. Eight years ago, rolling dough out with my daughter was a dream I couldn’t see coming true. Watching it rise, rolling it out then rolling it back up again was as far-fetched an idea as walking on the moon. But it happened.
I berated me for loving food too much at first, then I beat myself up for not knowing enough about it later. Little did I know both those things would help me define a kitchen culture that celebrates safe food and embraces trial and error as the most essential tool in my arsenal. Although sadness still ebbs and flows in all of us, celebration and adventure are foundations upon which we stand when we give new things a try.
And I’m so grateful to be here, because this is the place we heard chocolate sticky buns calling.
It’s a new year, and I am inspired to make life a little easier on myself. I felt frayed and scraggly by the time we said goodbye to 2016, and I don’t want to continue to live that way in 2017. I’m ready to usher in a little peace around here.
One way I plan to do that is to get honest about what works for me and what just makes things harder–you know: that whole work smarter, not harder sort of thing. I wish I could say I did a major overhaul of our household and got totally organized and efficient in the course of a few days, but that’s not even remotely true. What I have done, though, is make a decision to make things easier on myself in the kitchen, to start with. Since I spend such a large portion of my day there, it makes sense to start there I think.
Up until a few months ago, we had a mostly gluten free kitchen, but a not completely gluten free kitchen. Let’s face facts here: this is a drag. Using two knives to make almond butter sandwiches at lunchtime–one for the wheat bread and another for my gluten free bread–got tiresome. Also, I noticed the kids started requesting the gluten free crackers I bought for myself–and stopped eating those golden little circle crackers they used to love so much. They didn’t notice when I switched everyone over to gluten free pasta, nor did they care when corn tortillas started showing up on their plates on taco night.
So I made a big decision: for the most part, I kicked gluten to the curb for everyone else a few months ago, and I didn’t breathe a word of it to you until now. Wouldn’t you know it? No one even noticed or cared. (Do you think the same would be true if I switched to only buying Emery’s beloved vegan cheese? If only. ) I admit when the end of the month comes and the cupboards are bare, I have been known to grab a loaf of regular old wheat bread so I can still send Addie to school with a sandwich. But overall, switching everyone over to a gluten free diet is working for me. For us. And so, it is going to continue well into 2017 and beyond.
So today, in celebration of setting myself up for a less-harried new year, I’m sharing the recipe for my favorite gluten free flour blend. I used to buy pre-mixed bags of overpriced, not-super-great combinations that didn’t yield reliable results, but now, I only ever use this mix. It works great for everything: muffins, cookies, pizza dough, biscuits–the list goes on. Maybe it’ll help another family discover going gluten free isn’t quite as difficult as they thought it might be. And making life easier? I’m all about that this year.
My Go-To Gluten Free Flour Blends
Here it is: the recipe I use to make my own gluten free flour blend at home. This blend originates from Kelli and Peter Bronski’s Artisinal Gluten Free Cooking, the book that educated me and empowered me when I first hobbled my way around a gluten free kitchen. Their original flour blend calls for corn starch, potato starch and potato flour, but offers arrowroot starch and tapioca starch as substitutes, options I always use when blending my flour. I use Bob’s Red Mill Brand for all the flours–they’re easy to find and aren’t terribly expensive, though they are more pricey that wheat flour. The original recipe didn’t give weight measurements for arrowroot flour or tapioca starch, but I’ve provided those measurements below because it makes whipping this blend together faster and more efficient for me, and I need a lot of faster and more efficient in my life right now.
Flour keeper (like this one, which I have and love) OR a large airtight container in which to store the flour blend
Large mixing bowl (unless you have a flour keeper like the one above)
Digital kitchen scale with metric function (like this one, which I have and love)
Gluten Free All Purpose Flour
625 grams / 5 cups brown rice flour
350 grams / 3 cups sorghum flour
220 grams / 1 3/4 cups arrowroot starch
160 grams / 1 1/3 cups tapioca starch
14 grams / 1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
Before You Begin:
Make sure you have the right equipment to make and store the flour blend before you get down to the business of measuring and mixing. None of the equipment I’ve listed above is particularly fancy–but all of it helps make quick work of an otherwise messy, tiresome process.
I mix the flour blend right inside of my flour keeper, but you can mix up a batch in a big bowl and then scoop it into another large, air tight container too. Also, I use a digital kitchen scale to make sure my measurements are accurate. If you don’t have one, use regular measuring cups and measuring spoons (and ask for one for your next birthday).
Place your flour container on top of a digital kitchen scale and switch to the metric measurement setting. Pour the flours into the container one by one, stopping when you reach the correct measurement for that particular ingredient. Press the “zero” button on your scale before adding each subsequent ingredient so that the weight shown is only for the ingredient being added. Once all ingredients are in the container, whisk well. Tightly close the lid and shake well too, so as to evenly distribute all ingredients. Store in a cool, dry place.
Gluten Free Cake Flour
975 grams / 8 cups white rice flour
220 grams / 1 3/4 cups arrowroot starch
160 grams / 1 1/3 cups tapioca starch
14 grams / 1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
Follow the same method as gluten free all purpose flour above.
This is Part 4. Read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; and Part 3 here.
After I left the new gastroenterologist’s office that day, I was a bit disappointed. I wished the doctor would have urged me to go through the rigamarole of testing for Celiac Disease again because deep down, I sort of wanted a Celiac diagnosis. I know that is probably an awful thing to say and I am sure I’ll get reamed because of it (because who would actually want to be diagnosed with such a terrible thing?), but the truth is this: in my mind, a positive diagnosis for Celiac Disease would connect all the dots in my disjointed journey toward that point and prove once and for all I was not crazy. It would dispel doubt in my own mind and disbelief in the minds of others. Without the diagnosis, I felt that I was no closer to getting to the bottom of what was actually happening inside my body.
And so, I set my sights on that dreaded colonoscopy and braced myself for what it might reveal. I was desperate enough for answers that even the worst case scenario seemed preferable than to continue living in constant pain and anxiety. Plus, we wanted another baby, but putting myself through what would be another difficult pregnancy without knowing for sure nothing more serious was wrong with me was completely out of the question. When we checked in at the hospital that day, I was ready. Scared, but ready. The nurses kept asking what I was doing there–I was too young for such a procedure. Their sweet smiles encouraged me, and their kindness held the promise that whatever news met me on the other side of the procedure, I could face it because these people were on my side. You kissed me goodbye and sent me on my way, flashing me your most handsome, confident smile, making me feel safe in spite of things. In the procedure room, I laid on the table and let the anesthesia do its work, and I rested better than I had in over two years.
After it was all over, the doctor sent us home with a smile that assured us he didn’t find any other cause for concern. My chronic condition was still very much active, but we left the hospital that day with confidence my body would heal over time if I followed his advice: to completely remove gluten from my diet. I had already done so, but I was even more hopeful that going gluten free would eventually turn things around for me.
You supported me like a champ. I purged the pantry and scoured labels and educated myself about what it means to really live gluten free. I learned slowly, and I spent many frustrated months blowing our grocery budget on much trial and error in the kitchen, and you politely ate helping after mediocre helping of my experiments, praising my efforts along the way. Little by little, I built up a new arsenal of gluten free ingredients and know-how, starting from scratch to teach myself how to cook all over again. Slowly, my confidence in the kitchen came back, and my body started to heal.
Not eating gluten is one thing and learning how to live gluten free is another. To give up gluten means to choose to not eat foods that contain the stuff (wheat and all wheat varieties and derivatives, barley, rye, and oats that have been contaminated by wheat–just to name just a few). In our American way of life, this isn’t so hard anymore because the market is flooded with products touted as being gluten free, and so all a person really has to do is stock their kitchen with gluten free foods and products and just eat those, right? Well, sort of.
For me, giving up gluten meant more than just swapping out whole wheat bread for its gluten free counterpart. For me, saying no to gluten also meant accepting the hard reality that gluten was responsible for my misery even though I couldn’t prove it and the doctors couldn’t confirm it, exactly. I had to say yes to believing there could be healing at the end of this long, twisted journey, and that healing would come by simply removing gluten from my diet. And I had to start believing the truth about my body enough to stand up for myself in the face of criticism or disbelief. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (which is what I appear to have) is a condition that is not well understood and often met with a bit of eye rolling and doubt.
I understand that attitude. I had a hard time accepting that gluten could be the reason for why I had been sick for so long, too. But on this side of things, well over two years after getting the stuff out of my life, I get it. Gluten had been making me sick for far longer than the two years it had been since abdominal pains interrupted my life and sent me on a journey to figure out why. On this side of Gluten Freedom, I’m not lactose intolerant anymore. My migraines are gone. My joints don’t ache either, for that matter. The searing pain in my abdomen right around the place where my appendix sits doesn’t nag me during the day or flare up at midnight. I don’t lose sleep worrying about whether or not the doctors have missed something important. I’m not plagued with anxiety like I used to be, thank God. I finally feel healthy.
Thank you for being patient with me as I walked this hard road, and thank you for being supportive of me and showing you believe my very strange and not-well-understood condition by bringing me gluten free chocolate cupcakes once in awhile. You have no idea how deeply that makes my heart feel secure with you. I know it’s just a cupcake, but it’s really so much more than that to me. After all this pain and confusion, that seemingly small gesture tells me you hear me, you believe me, and you’re with me in sickness and in health.
This is Part Three. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.
Food was a fickle friend in those days.
Chronic pain played with my mind and told me something wasn’t wrong, but was miserably, dangerously wrong. Food was certainly connected to the symptoms somehow, and eating gluten-heavy foods certainly seemed to trigger the problems. We learned the hard way during an anniversary trip that summer.
We left the girls at home with my parents and practically sprinted out the door toward San Francisco and a whole weekend wandering around the city without schedule or responsibility. We lived it up, starting with dinner at the Tonga Room, a convenient choice since we were staying at the Fairmont Hotel. We shared a Smuggler’s Golden Cocktail for two and feasted on crispy Mongolian Beef, surrounded by island kitsch and happy to feel like us again.
We lingered over buttery croissants with jam and mugs of steaming hot coffee the next morning before heading out the door to walk the city. We hadn’t been gone for more than 15 minutes before my belly screamed at me, its anger sharp and hot. I mentioned it to you, but I was in a sort of denial when you asked if I felt like I needed to go back to the hotel. To ruin our first completely kid-free day in forever (or more rightly, ever?) was more than I could handle. I was determined to enjoy myself, but as we got farther away from the hotel, I panicked. I trudged on, sweating, choking back tears, and desperate for a bathroom. I finally ducked into one down near the Ferry building and tried very hard to pull myself together.
A rare smile during our difficult trek through the City during our anniversary trip in 2013
We kept moving forward, climbing hills and winding our way down Lombard Street. You took in the views while I focused on pushing myself to make it up the next hill, slowly putting one foot in front of the other while waves of pain and sweat ebbed and flowed. We finally made it back to the hotel and I slept. Somehow I managed to slip on a dress and head out the door in time to make our reservation at our beloved restaurant Michael Mina. I nibbled on an innocuous fish and rice dish while you enjoyed something much more exotic, like the squid ink pasta you so loved the first time we went there. We headed home the next morning, me feeling guilty and very sick all at the same time.
The sharp pain and strange, gnawing ache wouldn’t go away after that. I functioned as best I could, operating out of necessity even as anxiety about the whole ordeal worsened.
That’s when I stopped eating gluten and went to see the Gastroenternologist.
The visit wasn’t nearly as helpful as I hoped. The doctor’s cavalier attitude toward my symptoms left me feeling slighted. I had been desperate for someone to help me figure out why my body was turning on me. It took months for me to muster up the courage to make an appointment to see her in the first place, and revealing such private details about my ailing body to someone who treated me so poorly left me feeling exposed and foolish. I walked out of her office a confused mess of frustration, a not-so-healthy dose of self-abasement teeming through my veins. IBS felt too weak of a diagnosis. Removing things like apples and onions out of my diet to see if they were the potential trigger for all this madness stirred up anger inside of me.
The blood test for Celiac Disease came back negative; I was too scared to have the subsequent sigmoidoscopy; and I was more confused and panicked than before. My symptoms continued to worsen. My head spun with fear and panic. I felt death was coming for me and no one was the wiser. I pleaded my case to God, tears running down my face as I rocked Mia to sleep in those difficult days: Please don’t take me away from her. From them. They’re just babies.
Mia and Addie in August 2013
With no other options to speak of, I started the FODMAPS elimination diet. In a moment of clarity (or sheer desperation), I admitted to myself my body could not deal with this on its own without my intervention. I got right to work on a six week long program of clearing Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyolsstarted foods from my diet (which basically meant I had to eliminate wheat as well as onions, garlic, tomatoes, apples, dairy products, beans–and many, many more). I planned these six weeks poorly, though, because we climbed on an airplane to Kansas during week five, and somehow thought I could keep up the strict diet while visiting friends and family in America’s bread basket. Everyone was understanding and accommodating as best as they could be, but I panicked and ended up spoiling the whole thing.
The Louisburg Cider Mill in November 2013
It was the middle of Fall and so of course we went to the Louisburg Cider Mill for Apple Cider donuts. And I made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast on Addie’s third birthday while we were at your dad’s house because that’s what we do on birthdays around here and you know I’m all about tradition. Up in Kansas City we took the easy way out and ordered pizza for dinner, and while I got gluten free crust, I was ill-informed about cross contamination in those days. Plus, it had cheese on it. And sausage. And onions and mushrooms and peppers and so many things that I was supposed to slowly reintroduce after the six weeks were over. The effort I put into keeping all these potential IBS triggers out of my body came were for naught when so many potential triggers flooded my digestive system all at the same time.
Addie’s 3rd birthday – November 2013
I came home feeling miserable and not any closer to really knowing why. But I balked at doing the six week elimination over again because it was hard, particularly because it meant I was cooking two meals three times a day or so, and I was too tired and uninspired to keep up with that nonsense. Gluten was an on-again, off-again sort of companion, and I was too tired and overwhelmed to care. I didn’t attempt the FODMAPS elimination diet again.
Thanksgiving 2013. I passed on pie that year, but ate a lot of Turkey.
Not surprisingly, my body protested and started screaming at me again. The gnawing, ever-present pain intensified (just like it always did) and since I already sort of knew wheat was somehow responsible, I kicked it to the curb and eliminated grains and legumes and dairy again, too (because we gave the Paleo diet a try for awhile, hoping it would heal my gut and make things better). My symptoms improved, meaning the pain was tempered and didn’t yell at me the way it had when I ate wheat with abandon. But the pain didn’t go away completely. And some new symptoms emerged, symptoms that reinforced my idea that death was coming. I started bleeding. I told you through tears, and you gently urged me to call another specialist who happened to be a new colleague of yours–another gastroenterologist, someone you didn’t know when I first started having all these problems but who you believed would nonetheless listen well and help me. You were right.
When I talked to this other specialist, he listened well. When he asked clarifying questions, he looked me in the eye with the sort of compassion for me and belief in me that I needed. After much back and forth, he said my symptoms were consistent with Celiac Disease, but my negative blood test indicated it was more likely Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. However, he emphasized my test could have been a false negative (apparently, they happen), or not a true picture of what was really going on in my body (the test was done after I removed gluten from my diet). Either way, he didn’t want to retest me for Celiac Disease because that would mean deliberately putting gluten in my body, something he was not wiling to do (“It’s just too risky,” he said.) He scheduled me for a colonoscopy to make sure there wasn’t something else entirely happening inside, and as I got ready to leave, he told me this: Never eat gluten again. Live as if you have Celiac Disease.
The authority and compassion in his voice changed something in me. I felt heard, affirmed, and decidedly not crazy. I heeded his words, and everything changed. Read about how here.
You can read Part One of A Tale of Gluten Freedom here.
Fast forward about 14 years. We had been married for over two years by then, and we were finding our footing in yet another living situation–the third move in our still young marriage. With two very little girls in tow, we crowded in with my parents and older brother in the house I grew up in with hopes of saving money for a home of our own in the coming year. While the situation was a good one–ideal in many ways–and we were settling into a new sort of normal, the stress of it all took a toll on us.
Just days before Christmas that year, you woke me before the sun came up on the morning we were supposed to get on a plane to go spend the holiday with your mom. In a hushed voice, so as not to wake Addie who shared a bedroom with us at the time, you said you were heading to the emergency room because you were convinced the stomach pain you had been having lately was appendicitis. You kissed me goodbye and urged me to go back to sleep in vain. I lay there worried and powerless, feeling like an abandoned child and a lazy wife more interested in sleep than holding your hand in a waiting room. I was neither, of course.
When the girls woke up the rest of the household that day, my parents willingly watched the girls while I went hospital. When I reached you there, you laughed the whole thing off, amused at your ability to self-diagnose (ever the astute PA you are). But for me, the stress of it pushed my own body to a breaking point.
There were twinges in my abdomen as we drove back over the hills toward home later that night. You had just had your appendix removed and suddenly my own tummy was smarting and radiating with pain. I brushed it off as what I could only assume were sympathy pains, and I ignored them as best I could. They didn’t go away though, and they even got worse. I finally said something about them to you, a bit embarrassed because I figured you would dismiss them as nothing, too. It was a little coincidental that my lower right abdomen would start screaming at me in the hours after your appendicitis, but I couldn’t shake the very real pain I was experiencing. And once more, I didn’t understand why my body was turning on me again with painful problems that played with my mind. I tried to rationalize my way out of it–again–but of course that didn’t help.
You listened to my complaints and advised me to keep an eye on it, telling me I would know with great certainty if it was appendicitis or not because the pain would be unbearable. I lost a lot of sleep as it flared and dissipated over the next week or so. It gnawed at me by day and worsened at night when the darkness turns everything grim anyway. I laid awake most nights, obsessing about the pain, wondering why it was there, convinced something was fatally wrong with me, and worried no one believed me.
While I waited for the CT, we eventually made our way to Washington and enjoyed a belated Christmas with them. I brought my new affliction with me, though, and since the day those pains started I carried them with me in mind and body everywhere. I worried every day. I worried every night. I feared the CT would reveal a fatal problem and I feared it wouldn’t reveal anything at all–because that would mean the pain was all in my head, and that would mean I was crazy, wouldn’t it?
The CT didn’t reveal a thing, so my doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist, a visit that took months to coordinate. While I waited for my appointment day to arrive, I sat with the unsettling idea that my doctor had missed something. As I worried, my grandma came across a magazine article about tummy troubles associated with gluten. She photocopied the page and sent it to me. I read the article, scoffed a bit, and then wondered. I paid attention to my body in a new way after that–what I put into it and how I felt after. I noticed the pain worsened when I ate wheat-heavy foods, but not to the degree that I believed wheat or gluten was the source of the problem. I thought perhaps it simply exacerbated a different problem.
Finally, months later, I sat down with the gastroenterologist and did my best to tell her my story, give her my symptoms, and talk about my concerns. She hardly looked at me, murmured a few brief mmhmms, and asked pointed questions that made me feel like I was on trial. When she asked if I had noticed any particular foods that seemed to make things better or worse, I mentioned what I had noticed about wheat and told her I hadn’t been eating it lately. She slowly turned from her computer, looked at me over the thick rimmed glasses that were perched on the tip of her nose, eyebrows cocked and flatly said, “What are you trying to say?”
She seemed bothered by my words and I was thrown off a bit because I didn’t really know why a doctor would say something like that. (I was only answering her question as best I could, wasn’t I?). I assured her I was not trying to self-diagnose and I was not saying wheat was the source of the problem. But the pain intensified when I ate sandwiches and muffins, but were milder again on days I ate things like soup or salad. They were still very much present on all other days too, though, so I couldn’t make sense of the connection.
After all that, she clicked away on her computer and slowly turned to face me and said simply: “You have IBS.”
She handed me paper after paper of information about FODMAPS, elimination diets, and fiber supplementation. I was somewhere else completely as she spoke–back in High School and those nauseating days where pain and suffering of a different sort plagued me, and I was again humiliated because didn’t I already know this about myself—that I had IBS? But if that was the problem, then why didn’t dairy trigger the problem like it used to? These new pains were very different than bloating, cramping and nausea that accompanied the lactose intolerance of my younger years.
I snapped back to the present when the doctor told me she was reluctant to order a test for Celiac Disease. She told me she was certain that I did not have it, but would order it anyway. She stood up, opened the door, and as she went, she urged me to take more fiber and follow the FODMAPS diet for six weeks.
She closed the door, and I cried. Read what happened next here.
I get asked pretty often if going gluten free was hard, and if being gluten free is still hard. I have said it before and I will say it again: yes and no, and sometimes even both at the same time.
Yes, I have a hard time being gluten free sometimes because I’m normal and I like donuts, and watching the four of you enjoy your Sunday morning sugar rush isn’t exactly fun. But knowing those donuts would wrack my body with a mysterious, hard-to-describe pain (that convinced me I was dying for years) is enough to keep them at bay. So no, choosing to stay gluten free is not hard.
But in the beginning, it was really difficult to swallow the idea that gluten was the culprit behind my ailing body–even harder to actually get rid of the stuff. Gluten is sneaky and inconspicuous, and the kitchen is a formidable foe when tasked with eradicating the stuff from the pantry. I was ignorant about how to go about tackling what seemed impossible, and the learning curve intimidated me. Cooking with gluten-laden ingredients was all I knew, even though I didn’t really know what gluten itself was until my body decided to finally start rejecting it.
This all started back in high school, you know, when I got sick the summer before Senior year with something I didn’t understand or appreciate. It came out of seemingly nowhere: I was spending the week at my best friend’s house while our parents were off on a cruise together. Molly and I had been friends for as long as we could remember, the prospect of spending a week home alone together right before Senior year began seemed awesome. And it was–until suddenly it wasn’t. By week’s end, my insides screamed, burning with pain and urgency that surprised and horrified me. Lilting with nausea, I staggered to the bathroom and stayed there for what felt like hours, shivering and feeling very much alone.
Another friend was with us that day, Cari, and although I don’t know exactly what those two girls were feeling in those strange moments, I imagine they panicked and probably got a little grossed out. Cari knocked on the bathroom door and told me her mom was on the line and wanted to talk. I eased the door open and took the phone, relieved to hear the voice of an adult. With calm firmness, she insisted I stay at her house so she could keep an eye on me until my parents came home. I agreed, humiliated but grateful. I imagine Molly was relieved to have me go too–taking care of a sick friend without an adult around is a tall order, even for best friends.
I’m sure everyone braced themselves for being knocked upside down too, thinking I must be suffering from a virulent bug. The curious thing is this: no one else got sick. I improved after a couple days, but my insides were never quite the same after that. My stomach was temperamental and almost anything set it off, it seemed. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, vomiting and plagued with the other not-so-pleasant digestive issue that the doctor eventually diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). At the time, dairy products seemed to be the biggest trigger, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Pretty soon I sort of stopped eating, meaning I ate very little from a small list of “safe” foods that didn’t seem set off my symptoms. I dropped quite a bit of weight in the coming months.
As I cut foods out of my diet, things looked up a bit. I certainly didn’t get struck down sick as often, but when I did get sick, it was violently so–and still out of seemingly nowhere. I would feel my new normal of “fine-ness” until another attack came on, and when it did, I would become flushed and feeble as searing pain radiated in my abdomen and blood prickled itself through my veins, both cold and hot at the same time. Finding a bathroom wasn’t a dalliance; it was an urgent need.
Nerves made everything worse. I was anxious pretty much all the time. I feared an attack was imminent, and because of this, I labored over getting in the car and going farther than a five minute drive. Being away from home, not having a bathroom close by, being stuck at the mercy of teenage drivers — it was all a lot to handle. And I was afraid no one believed me. I knew how extreme and uncommon my issue was, and I began to fear others were rolling their eyes in disbelief when I missed yet another day of school or fun night out. To make matters worse, completely nutty scenarios of catastrophe plagued me, and I believed deep down I was going to die, and soon. I never told anyone that before.
I lived as though I was lactose intolerant because clearly at the time I was lactose intolerant. Dairy products were my nemesis, and I carried that with me through the first couple years of college. As time wore on, I was able to tolerate small amounts of dairy, and then a little more, and on it went until dairy didn’t bother me at all. But something still wasn’t quite right. I still suffered from IBS and various other maladies that seemed unrelated to my food intake, and it took several years–over 10 of them–to figure out the real source of all the problems. Read Part 2 here.
After the doctor suggested I might be lactose intolerant, I relied on lactose free milk and soy-based dairy-like products because that’s what was available and that’s what my mom was able to find. (Tofutti and Go Veggie were our go-to brands, but much has changed since then and a variety of soy free, pretty-good-tasting substitutes are around now. But I digress.) Using coconut milk as a substitute for cream didn’t occur to my 17 year old self, and in truth didn’t occur to me until much later when I cut out all dairy completely. This recipe was borne out of a deep need for the creamy comfort of a simple dish of homemade pudding, a dessert staple in the Maier home. Variations to this pudding abound, clearly, but what sets this version apart is simply this: it’s thick. I credit the richness of the full fat coconut milk along with the sheer amount of cocoa powder (1/4 cup!). This became a life-saver in our family because we like our desserts on an almost-daily basis, and this one is healthy one all of us can eat freely!
We’ve talked a lot about aging in the past few months, how after we turned 30 our bodies started to ache in places we didn’t really pay any attention to before. A good night’s sleep became more elusive than ever (even after our babies started sleeping through the night), and as it turns out, we carry our stress in our shoulders and necks, and our bodies respond with aches and pains to the stress that surrounds us – whether we are conscious of that stress or not. And lucky for me, my doctor told me that the symptoms of IBS will persist for as long as the stress in my life is present. Great.
The doctor’s instructions and the FODMAP information sat on the counter for well over a month before I got desperate enough to try it. Until I really studied it, made a plan (and a special trip to Whole Foods’ gluten free section), I felt like it was too much to take on. But the pains persisted, as did my complaints, and so in an act of kindness (or was it frustration?), you pledged to join me in it- for support, for solidarity. To help me stay strong and make the effort to eliminate all the potential triggers that could be causing the pains I’ve been experiencing for far too long now.
Because of the low FODMAP diet’s strict limitations, I have found myself making adjustments around here by cooking and eating more meat in the past week than I have in the last several months put together (beans are a no no). Not only that, but I’m also munching on rice cakes smeared with almond butter, stirring up batch after experimental batch of gluten free muffins, urging Addie to eat her sugar snap peas (while I cannot partake with her, as is the norm), and trying very hard to use bell peppers instead of onions in recipes that might be somewhat forgiving of the swap.
Thinking about cooking in the past two weeks switched from fun, recreational and exciting to, well, difficult. Sometimes, I’m just mentally too tired to eat much of anything. I keep telling myself I’m lucky because I don’t have food allergies. My problems are much more benign. Let’s face it: if I happen to consume a stray sugar snap pea, all will not be lost. But IBS is no picnic, so I am doing my best to be true to the program so that I can get some true results – and I am not talking about weight loss (although I wouldn’t sneeze at that, if I’m being honest).
I guess it’s the grown up, mature thing to do to start listening to our bodies and giving them the kind of attention they need. It feels a little selfish and a little bit over the top (really? I can’t even eat apples?), but I’m learning that taking care of myself is really an act of love for others, too. Being kind to myself, giving myself the thought and attention and things that I need to be healthy and strong means that I’m giving our girls the gift of a healthy mom, and you the gift of a healthy wife, right? I hope I’m right.
On the upside, delving into a culinary world that differs from the typical American diet can’t be all bad, right? In the end, we’ll (hopefully) be a little bit healthier, and I will have learned a few tricks to add to my kitchen arsenal should it turn out that I have a significant sensitivity to wheat (or lactose, or soy, or onions, or or or . . . ).
Super Moist Pumpkin Muffins (GF/DF/NF)
Breakfast was my biggest problem when giving up wheat became necessary for me. But Arrowhead Mills Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Mix came to my rescue, as it can easily be substituted for regular all purpose flour (which makes transforming most recipes very easy). I used Smitten Kitchen’s Pumpkin Muffin Recipe as a guide, along with the gluten free baking mix and swapping out maple syrup for the sugar (except for the topping). Of course, you could use regular all purpose flour and regular baking powder to make a conventional version of these muffins. I suspect they would be just as delicious. Everyone in my house loved them – even Addie, my pickiest eater. She ate two in one sitting. The whole batch was gone within 24 hours.
1 1/2 cups gluten free All Purpose Baking Mix (such as Arrowhead Mills) 1 teaspoon gluten free baking powder
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/3 cup refined coconut oil, melted
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
2/3 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your gluten free all purpose baking mix already contains xanthan gum)
topping: 1 tablespoon pure cane sugar + 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a a 12 cup muffin pan with paper liners, or otherwise grease the tin very well.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
In another even smaller bowl, mix the sugar and cinnamon. Set this aside as well.
In a medium mixing bowl (or using a Kitchen Aid stand mixer), whisk together the pumpkin, oil, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, maple syrup, baking soda and salt. Mix well. Slowly add the flour mixture and stir until just blended. Spoon into your prepared muffin pan and top with cinnamon sugar mixture (as much or little as you’d like per muffin).
Bake for 25 minutes, or until puffed up and golden.