My mom is a chef and dietitian; I grew up among stacks of cookbooks in busy kitchens, smelling sautéed onions, garlic, and bread fresh from the oven, and tasting unusual foods like chicken feet and tripe. I sat with my legs dangling off the kitchen counter—tasked with plucking parsley leaves from their stems as my mother floated around chopping vegetables and whisking batter. Eventually, I graduated to sous-chef and worked alongside her. She trained my taste buds well: from one tiny taste at the tip of my tongue, I know the amount of parmesan the pesto needs, if the lentil soup requires a splash of balsamic vinegar, and how much salt is needed to season a chicken.
At restaurants I studied menus meticulously, impressing and puzzling waiters when I ordered dishes beyond my years, knowing my curiosity to try other dishes could be satisfied by a bite from someone else's plate.
Four months ago, when the doctor explained that there should be no exceptions to giving up gluten, tears welled in my eyes as I began to absorb the shock and reality of how my life was about to change.
And memories flooded in: rolling matzo balls, flour exploding into my face after turning the KitchenAid three levels too high, testing chocolate chip cookie recipes with my mom, and afterward, eating and evaluating the warm cookies, hiding my favorite cereals and snacks under the sink so my endlessly hungry brothers wouldn't eat them. Christmas day lasagna, banana bread, Ritz crackers with Skippy peanut butter, birthday cake with friends—all now on the Goodbye to Gluten list.
The months since my diagnosis have been difficult—my sense of identity has been tied to eating and making foods I can no longer have. It still feels unreal. At restaurants, I slip into my old inquisitive behavior about menu items, forgetting to ask the waiter about gluten-free options. At stores, I forget to examine ingredient labels for foods like lunch meat and licorice. I have to resist the open bag of pretzel chips at tennis matches and stealing bites of mac and cheese from friends at lunch. I'm frustrated and tempted by my friends eating the pizza I long for, and by my family devouring the contents of breadbaskets at restaurants. I tell them to eat quickly—shorten the torment. I try not to dwell.
It hasn't been easy. After baking gluten-free whoopie pies that turned out rubbery and gummy, I learned there is no strength or structure without a network of proteins. But with every failed, gritty-textured cake, every dense, dry crust, I come closer to creating treats for other celiacs and anyone willing (or forced) to venture into a world without gluten.
I'm beginning to embrace the challenge and the irony of being a celiac who loves to cook, whose love of food goes beyond mere sustenance. I scour cookbooks to create gluten-free recipes and experiment with flours I didn't know existed—coconut, almond, rice and oat.
I know I will be fine. I'll adjust with time as I absorb the changes into my life. I'll forget I ever ate gluten. I'll feel better, too—no longer impaired by headaches and fatigue from anemia, and stress fractures in weakened bones. The sadness and frustration is already fading; soon my celiac will become little more than an inconvenience.
Family dinners will adapt, I will find my favorite dishes in the college dining hall—and when I find the gluten-free snacks that even my brothers like, I'll go back to hiding them under the sink.
Title image "So Long" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.