LB CITY GIRL: BEING CELIAC MAKES IT LESS LIKELY I’LL TALK WITH MY MOUTH FULLBy Jeanine Birong
It’s always been a point of some pride for me that I’ve quietly followed a lacto-ova vegetarian diet since 1989. Many people who have known me for a long time are surprised when they find out I’m a vegetarian. They’ll tell me they’ve never noticed I always order vegetarian appetizers and dishes when I’m out with them, that I’m not preachy about my food choices. They’re smiling when they say it.
I understand. People who are loud about what they eat—making a big deal and an equal amount of noise when they order dressing on the sides of their salad, or break down the principle behind the Atkins Diet or the components of a Macrobiotic Diet—bug me. A lot.
But now I’ve been diagnosed with Celiac* disease. It’s n autoimmune disorder—basically, the body’s immune system
attacks the lining of the small intestine when a person consumes food containing gluten, usually foods made from wheat, barley, or rye, and sometimes oats. The diagnosis came after a long, drawn-out and literally gut-wrenching experience. I tried to be quiet about it, but I wasn’t always. That’s because during the buildup to my diagnosis my doctors prepared me for the worst-case scenario: that I might have colon cancer, which would require surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
So when I got the news that I was merely facing some modifications in my diet, I was relieved … and then I was elated … and then I went to Trader Joe’s, where I found myself standing in the aisle surveying all the food I could never eat again. I started to cry.
I realized this was going to be harder than I had thought. I began to wish I had known what I was going to lose before I lost it so I could have enjoyed each and every tasty morsel and had a chance to say a proper goodbye—like the way I said goodbye last Tuesday while I drank my last beloved Corona Light.
Not that it wasn’t awkward after all the time we’d spent together over the years. I was uncertain—should I sip slowly and savor it? Or gulp it down the way I used to back at the campsite after a long hike in the desert? That’s always the best way to drink a beer—after hours working my butt off in the garden or a long bike ride on a hot day…ah yes…the memories will always be mine of that light crisp cold bubbly elixir drenching my parched throat. In the end I drank that last bottle partly by sips and partly by gulps—a half-assed homage to both wonderful ways of beer consumption.
At least I can still drink wine.
And I can still eat Mexican food—as long I choose corn tortillas.
But I can’t eat traditional bread, pizza, pasta, cookies, cake, Campbell’s soups, some catsups, most soy sauces… the list of forbidden foods is huge and every day I discover more that I cannot eat. I even found a lemonade with wheat
in it. That turned out to be a stomach thumper that ran me straight to the bathroom because I didn’t think to check the label before I drank it.
Being a Celiac makes hanging out with friends at parties and restaurants extremely difficult. I got my first taste (pun intended) of this when I went out for my first wheat-free night on the town. The occasion was an old
friend’s 40th birthday, and his wife had planned an awesome surprise party for him. We convened at the Tilted Kilt with plans to barhop every local Irish pub via the Big Red Bus.
First off: the Big Red Bus rules say no bottles are allowed on board—cans only, unless you bring wine. But I didn’t want to drink wine. I prefer to drink beer when I socialize; the alcohol content is lower, so I can drink all night and not get too drunk. Not so with wine, which gets me drunk fast and always leaves me hung over.
But I did some research into gluten-free beers, discovering there are a handful available at the Whole Paycheck Market. Unfortunately, they are only available in bottles. I decided to blatantly disregard the Big Red Bus’s rule and brought myself a six pack of “New Grist” gluten-free beer for the bus.
I am so sneaky—they never even noticed! As for the gluten-free beer, it tasted just OK—a bit too sweet, but at least I was drinking beer and passing for normal.
But the rest of the evening was disheartening. The pub tour included three Irish pubs: Gallagher’s on Broadway, Kelly’s in Naples and Irish Mist in Sunset Beach. All of these serve cider, which is the option most non-wine-drinking Celiacs are known for choosing.
Can I say cider is nasty? Good. It is definitely not a substitute for a delicious barley pop.The best cider I had was Wydmer’s Pear Cider at Gallaghers. The others were rank, especially the Magners I drank at Irish Mist. The Magners reminded me of those lame wine coolers everyone liked in the late 80’s. Delicious on the first sip and disgusting on the last sip.
Another surprising thing I learned: although Celiacs are most often of Irish descent, not a single one of these pubs offer a gluten-free menu. Instead, some of them actually put flour on their French fries—a food that I could
otherwise eat. Oh, well—never mind my complaints, because I can’t eat the catsup or the ranch dressing that would make the fries taste good, either.
On the positive side, I’ve lost 45 pounds these last 18 months, and it looks as though I don’t have to worry about gaining it back anytime soon.
Unfortunately, I am now one of “them.” I have officially joined the picky eaters’ club. I’ll try not to be too loud about it.
*Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where in the body’s immune system
attacks the lining of the small intestine when a person consumes gluten
containing foods, usually from wheat, barley, or rye, and sometimes oats
(foods from the plant family Triticale). It is found most commonly among
people of Irish, Basque, and Moorish ancestry but the medical establishment
estimates as many as 1 in 133-300 people may have some form of the disease.