I love gluten. I love the structure it gives to rustic sourdough breads. I love the way it works – knead a dough too hard and it becomes tough, but low-gluten flours like cake flour give just enough structure and a lightness to delicate airy cakes. It fascinates me.
You know what else I love? I love milk, cheese and cream. I love how milk can be frothy and lift the most acidic espresso shots in a cappuccino. I love how splashes of cream can add body and richness to both sweet and savory foods. I love how there are millions of types of cheese and 90 percent of them are amazing.
None of the above are really staples in my kitchen for the last 18 months or so. And since the holidays are upon us, none of the above has been a real feature during my family’s festivus meals. Why? Because Leigh Anne Argueza – my youngest sister with whom I live – has celiac disease and is lactose intolerant.
Do I hate her? Of course not. Does she deprive me of the things I love? Debatable. And how have we gotten this far living in the same household without me accidentally killing her with cross-contamination? Or me suffering an emotional meltdown because there’s no milk for my cereal? The secret is in our pantry – and partly because of our upbringing.
Littlest Argueza was diagnosed back in 2012 with celiac disease. So anything containing gluten – which is a protein found in common grains like wheat and barley – causes her immune response to go haywire and basically destroy her stomach lining, etc., etc., T.M.I. And as is common with people who have celiac, she also developed lactose intolerance. Poor Leigh. Except not really.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal because we didn’t really grow up with those things,” she says. Those things being breads or cereals, and because we partially grew up in the ’90s, we drank ultra-pasteurized milk when we were forced to by our mom. What was more common was rice, oatmeal and different kinds of noodles. So really we had a running start to living with each other.
It’s worth noting at Thanksgiving that we’ve never been super traditional about holidays, which also may be a built-in privilege when it comes to accommodating dietary needs. “We’re very ‘Asian’ about it,” my sister jokes. By that she means no one in my immediate family cooks turkey for Thanksgiving and that for Christmas, we opt for things like porchetta and roasted potatoes or Dungeness crab with other Filipino foods as side dishes, a seafood tower complete with oysters, potted shrimp and more.
That doesn’t mean we ignore American traditions completely. We like mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie as much as anyone, but we try to remix traditional flavors, so they’re not in a gluten – or dairy-based vehicle. Or we opt for recipes that center the gluten-free ingredients instead. What we don’t do is look for traditional recipes and go about substituting everything. “Recipes don’t work that way – you can’t just swap things out,” she says.
That means relying less on the premade and throwing ourselves into the home cooking process. We make cornbread stuffing from scratch using a rustic coarse cornbread recipe instead of your typical recipe that is usually made with some ratio of white flour and cornmeal. For gravy, instead of loading up on the cream, we’ll opt for a gastrique or demi-glace, finding ways to rely on cooking techniques rather than flour to boost flavor and reach optimal texture.
The list goes on. Instead of a pastry-wrapped beef wellington, we’ll opt for a rib roast. Instead of store-bought crispy onions for green bean casserole, we make our own without the flour coating. Or for cream of mushroom soup, we skip the canned version and make our own just using cream and starch. Note: Leigh will “take it,” during the holidays when it comes to lactose. Your loved ones might, but because she’s not expressly allergic, she’ll have mashed potatoes once or twice a year.
Another way we can live together, according to Leigh, is her vigilance to reading labels, because gluten hides in everything.
“The biggest thing for me is condiments – a lot of them have gluten,” she says. So if we can’t find a gluten-free version we’ll again make it from scratch. I make mayonnaise from scratch for Leigh every week because so many brands have hidden gluten. See? I don’t hate her.
If instead you don’t have the practice of living with someone with food allergies, be prepared not only with recipes but also cleaning your kitchen. My sister and I are vigilant about cleaning our kitchen, before and after cooking. So when I sneak in bread or want to make something with flour, I don’t accidentally kill her. Ours is a two-stop process: we spray down all working surfaces with an all-purpose cleaner or hot water first so as to not disturb the particles and send them flying into the air, and then go in and sanitize everything with a diluted bleach solution. The first step is more important than the last.
As for recipes you’re not willing to sacrifice at the dinner table, don’t worry about anybody missing out. “I’m used to not being able to eat certain things, you don’t have to accommodate me,” Leigh says. “I know what questions I should ask [the waiter or host]. I really don’t feel left out.”