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Going Gluten-FreeDecember 26, 2013

The Gift of My Special Diet

As a baker with celiac disease, I have a love-hate relationship with gluten. It’s amazing what a little gluten can do for bread and pizza. Equally amazing is how sick it can make me. This wondrous peptide chain that miraculously binds baked goods together and expands when you knead and punch it, punches me right in the belly.

Being strictly gluten-free for life, I will never have real bread again. But what I do have are real friends who share a common bond with me, a bond stronger than gluten. We are all gluten-free. I have forged friendships that stretch farther than any pizza dough. Although our breads are a tad crumbly and dissolve with rough handling, my friendships do not.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t seek out people just because of their dietary needs. It’s just that some of my best friendships started over the inability to eat gluten and are richer and deeper for it.

Take the time I attended a corporate function, a lavish beach party. Tables loaded with salads, seafood, roasted meats, pastas and stir-fries were all displayed in artistic decadence—from what I could see. Ordinarily, I use all my senses to find safe food at a party. But this one was dimly lit with Tiki torches. I could hardly make out anything on the tables, let alone determine if something was breaded or garnished with croutons. One thing jumped out as I wandered through the buffet—a man in a white chef jacket. I seized the opportunity to ask if he knew what might contain gluten.

The gods must have been smiling. This was the head chef and he walked me through every station, pointing out safe foods and what to avoid. When we arrived at the pasta table, I waved a dismissive hand. “I have gluten-free pasta in the kitchen. I’ll make you a special dish,” he said. And he disappeared to quickly prepare it.

What had been an obstacle course transformed into a feast. I worked my way through the food line, recalling his rundown. At the third station, I overhead a woman asking the server if a dish was gluten-free. I touched her shoulder.

“It’s not,” I said. “But I can show you what’s safe.”

She couldn’t have been more grateful if she were floundering in rough seas and I had thrown her a life raft. The angst about eating safely evaporated, courtesy of the helpful chef.

We became instantaneous friends. After a few minutes on the topic of gluten challenges, we moved to more overarching issues, like home and family and careers. When my pasta arrived, I didn’t think twice. I grabbed another plate and we shared. There was more than enough for two.

At the end of the evening, I found the chef and let him know he’d done a good thing for not one, but two gluten-free guests. Not only had he made sure I ate safely and well, but because of him—and gluten—I had a new friend.

Beth Hillson is Living Without’s food editor.

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