Many Allergies Around One Table

Thanksgiving with a side of dietary restrictions

Food Features

If Charlie Chaplin or Moliere were alive today, and either were looking to create a work about the absurdity of everyday life and an ordinary family, I might suggest peeking through my family’s proverbial window around Thanksgiving time. Planning the menu is, and I say this with love, the stuff of farce.

Oh, sure, everyone has their gluten-free-Paleo folks, their raw vegans, their macrobiotic juicers… but to paraphrase Tolstoy, every family of normal diet is alike; every family of dietary restrictions is restricted in its own way. Bypassing any offense that might be taken to the use of the term “normal,” ‘cuz ain’t no one got time for that shit. My family is… well, I like to think of us as special.

To begin with, there’s my partner and me. You’ve met us before, even if you haven’t. He’s the crazy carnivore who’s afraid of spinach, and I’m the vegetarian-leaning, no-mammal-eating food geek. So we have to make sure there’s enough food on the table he’ll eat. Fortunately, his mashed potatoes are world class. And limited food that I won’t eat. Sorry if anyone in my family has been craving Thanksgiving bacon.

Next is my sister and her husband. Other than a dislike of nuts, he’s okay. As long as you give him chocolate, he’s pretty happy. My sister, on the other hand…the poor girl has more stomach problems than one person should have. She’s gluten-free, dairy-free (and no, non-dairy milk doesn’t cut it), low FODMAP… and yes, this is all under doctors’ orders.

My sister-in-law has an allergy to chocolate. We have a contingent of chocolate devotees. She also has a family predisposition to diabetes, so sugars are very limited. Agave is okay; maple syrup and honey are not. No processed, raw, etc. cane sugar. Thank goodness for coconut palm sugar, because I patently refuse to cook with any of that Splenda/Truvia crap.

At this point, it’s only fair to admit that, due to a recent fibromyalgia diagnosis, I’ve also been ordered to limit my sugar and gluten intake. For my family meal planning, however, that doesn’t actually have an effect. But at least I can share the blame.

(And at this point, we should probably invite Mel Brooks or Larry David to take a whack at this one. You can draw your own conclusions there.)

The SPIL’s (sister’s parents-in-law) are easy. Or maybe they’re just super-polite. But they seem to eat everything. God bless them.

My parents have their own culinary quibbles. Dad doesn’t care for onions, garlic or too many spices. Mom is dairy-intolerant, both in the sense that it doesn’t agree with her, and in the sense that she doesn’t seem to agree with it. She says the word “cream” in the same way that Jerry says “Newman.”

We disagree on what I refer to as “the gestalt of Thanksgiving.” She likes to welcome her guests to a flawless home with a table of hors d’oeuvres. I insist that pitching in and taking part in the cooking process is part of the fun of the day. That particular debate has become an annual tradition, like watching the Macy’s parade, but with fewer twirling batons.

Typically, when I relay this laundry list of dietary restrictions to friends, the reaction is the same:

“How the (insert your swear word of choice here) do you actually cook a meal?!”

The answer, as our friends on Sesame Street might say, is brought to you by the letter C. As in “C is for (gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free) cookie, that’s goo— acceptable if it’s the only option, and I really want a cookie.”

Mom is dairy-intolerant. She says the word “cream” in the same way that Jerry says “Newman.”

First, you need compromise, well as cooperation. Those are close enough to be on par. Like jail and prison. Everyone has to accept that there might be at least one dish on the table that she or he will simply not eat. Or perhaps, will only eat part of:

Other than his irrational fear of onions, my father’s one big Thanksgiving request is a traditional apple pie. There is no gluten-free piecrust that can hold a candle to a— let’s go balls to the wall and say it—normal one. Unless you actually have a gluten allergy, go pie spelunking and simply excavate the filling from your portion.

Second, you’ve got to be creative. Some things simply require traditional preparation, i.e. the aforementioned potatoes. But find those twists and tweaks where you can.

Coconut sugar palm, due to its lower glycemic index, is suitable for those of us who are supposed to skip out on the sweet stuff. But don’t think that a lower GI means you can use more of it. According to the American Diabetes Association, coconut sugar has the same calories as regular, so use a 1:1 ratio.

Rather than a traditional candied yams or a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, we’ve had puréed sweet potatoes simmered in chai tea with autumn spices, pecans, cranberries and orange zest. This year, I plan to serve acorn squash stuffed either with butternut squash, twice-baked potato style, or a fruit and herb quinoa pilaf.

Getting experimental with herbs, fresh and dried fruit, even coffee and tea, is a fun way to enhance traditional flavors when you can’t go with the tried-and-true, like brown sugar.

Your third C is careful planning. Okay, that’s a c and a p, but let’s not split hairs. Culinary complications mean it’s a lot harder to just throw something together. When you can’t just put any old dish in front of people and expect them to eat it, using that lump on top of your head is becomes more of a necessity. I know, big demands, right?

In my family, we start planning the menu about six weeks in advance, sending emails back and forth among my mother, my sister and myself. Of course, we’re all kind of control freaks, even though we deny it ‘til we’re blue in the face.

But the thing is, about holidays and families and meal planning, unless you want to drive yourself to the nut college, you’ve got to be willing to give up a little bit of that particular C. To help with that, I suggest enlisting the aid of several bottles of good wine.

Because in a pinch, if you pour enough alcohol down someone’s throat, they might not realize exactly what they’re eating, and then you can blame the booze for any adverse effects.

Holly Leber is probably baking her family gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free cookies right now. She does not actually advocate getting your relatives drunk on Thanksgiving. Just a tad soft around the edges will do the trick.

Photo by Robert & Pat Rogers CC BY

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