I ate my first batch of fish sticks and tartar sauce in almost two and a half years.
Though I at times consider myself a food snob of sorts (I mean what is there NOT to love about the buttery, custardy, creamy goodness that is Crème brûlée?!), I am not above the plain and simple of Americana cuisine. I am all about the mouth feel, combinations and limits of what everyday fare can be manipulated into becoming. I didn’t just have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I was younger, I had to have jam and real butter on slightly toasted whole wheat (not honey wheat) bread. Early on I taught myself how to make my pancakes picture perfect – anyone could make a blonde pancake, it was the golden brown, fluffy deliciousness that I was after. To this day my sandwiches are stuffs of legend.
To say that I love food and all its trappings would be a dire understatement. I lived for trying out seemingly unrelated combinations of food stuffs and coming up with nuggets of nirvana. If food was cocaine and my mad scientist concoctions were crack, then I was the crack pusher extraordinare. I remember turning my best friend out on pancakes. She never grew up with the stuff and when I introduced her to what it was and could be, I think we both gained about 20 pounds that year on pancakes alone.
Until Celiac Disease decided to change my understanding of food and eating. I was 31, losing my hair, overweight, depressed and totally unawares that the same foods I sought for solace and enjoyment were slowly killing me. I became so ill that I left my job and essentially came home to die (so I thought). It wouldn’t be until 2009, after bouncing between several free clinics (I was without insurance for two years after leaving work. How I as a disabled, read wheelchair bound, individual could be permitted to be without health coverage for that long is a travesty at best, but I digress), that I would come to diagnose myself with Celiac Disease.
In one of the positions at my job, I worked with folks who had special needs and that included dietary restrictions. I would often get these Celiac folks on my line, screaming and fussing and educating me about Celiac. All I kept thinking was, why leave your house then?! Just stay home if it’s that dire. Little did I know that that forced education would help to save my life.
I went back and forth with my doctor until I mentioned to him what it could be. Since I didn’t know what blood tests I should have asked for we settled on the elimination diet and the first on the list was all things wheat, rye and barley. Almost immediately the swelling on my scalp, belly and of my person began to subside. My eyelashes stopped falling out. My iron levels rebounded. I stopped getting my usual sinus infections. The numbness in my fingertips went away. My nervous system began to calm down and I stopped slurring my speech and having muscle spasms on my face/tongue/throat. Most of all, the raging burning pain in my belly started to subside. Could it have really been that simple!?
Apparently yes. I tested a piece of bread some weeks later and immediately my belly swelled like one of the pictures of the malnourished that you see on TV.
Though physically I was doing better, emotionally, I was a mess, if only because I had to forcefully divorce myself from the comforter that food had become for me. I cussed, I pissed and moaned, I whined, I cried because this Celiac was forcing me to eat better, to listen to my body, to get well and I was having none of it. I loved being able to indulge in my sandwiches, my pasta, my wine, my cake and pastries. I didn’t let my SMA (Type 3) dictate how I lived my life, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Celiac tell me what I could and couldn’t eat.
But hunger is a hell of a persuader when first in the Land of Celiac and preferences become secondary to survival. And so my solo trek began, first with finding things in Celiac Land that were familiar (Gluten Free [GF] chicken tenders) and that my palette would tolerate. For a long time I subsisted on those pre-packaged gluten free TV dinners. It took the guess work out of making my own food. But it was expensive and got boring. So I decided a year in, to start the research necessary to make foods that met my new food landscape.
I had come to learn that I cannot have nuts (they give me migraines), MSG (ditto), iodized salt (causes excessive swelling) and too much salt/sugar in general. With those parameters and much trepidation, I set out to make my first GF homemade meal: red vegetable lentils and tilapia.
As my journey progressed, I would come to learn, especially this year, that I would not be able to have white distilled vinegar or GF oats. Contrary to what many in the Celiac world believe, white distilled vinegar (made from grain alcohol) is not GF for all of us Celiacs. Neither is Oats, which is close enough to wheat that it sends my system into overdrive. This knocked out condiments, pickled things and yes, ketchup and tartar sauce, it also knocked out oatmeal for breakfasts. I felt wounded yet again. But like a true soldier, I knew that though the battle was lost, the war was not over. I fell back, relied on my tried and true GF foods and re-grouped. I began my research and like a well trained sniper, I honed in on my individual targets and waited till I got them within my scope cross-hairs to fire.
I am happy to report that I found a truly GF Mustard (Eden Foods brand), truly GF corn flakes (Nature’s Path) and I am working on finding a ketchup. But tartar sauce and mayonaise is all wrapped up by Follow Your Heart brand of products.
I cannot explain to you my joy in eating “normal” again and though these almost three years has had its challenges, I am not too snobby to pass up some good, simple fish sticks and tartar sauce.