Food for ThoughtFeb/Mar 2013 Issue

Wheel of Fortune: Celiac Disease and Life's "Hit or Miss" Menu

Our food editor describes her "just in case" plan for gluten-free dining.

Sometimes life on a special diet feels like a Wheel of Fortune. One spin lands you on the “jackpot,” a feast of abundance. The next spin falls on “bankruptcy,” a forfeit-dinner card. I’ve been there and always pack a bag of safe snacks, just in case.

Just-in-case has been my mantra since I was diagnosed with celiac disease 36 years ago. But recently, I found myself holding the miss-a-meal card without a back-up plan.

I was attending my nephew’s destination wedding. The bride and groom had planned three days of festivities at a breathtaking Southern California venue and every event included gluten-free options for my son, my sister and me. The kids had thought of everything.

We sipped wine at a local winery and I wolfed down homemade gluten-free tacos from a taco truck hired for the occasion.

“I wish I could take some of these with me,” I said. Part of me is always stockpiling for a nothing-to-eat moment.

“They’re serving gluten-free pizza at the wedding,” my sister reminded me.

“Wonderful,” I thought as I returned to the taco truck for another helping, just in case.  

The next day, we ate a light lunch. “Save room for those pizzas,” I told my son. As I dressed in my best cocktail attire and heels, I imagined downing slices of gluten-free gourmet pizza at the mountain estate where the wedding would take place.

The van arrived at 4. No one was to drive separately on those winding, mountain roads. I took my emergency bag—flat shoes, lipstick, a sweater. My mind flashed to that Wheel of Fortune and my instinct to include a gluten-free survival snack.

“Relax,” I told myself. “The kids have everything under control.” They had mentioned gluten-free pizza several times.

We arrived before five. Champagne flowed and tables were filled with elegant antipasti—cheese, soprasetta, olives. The ceremony, the photos, the moments were all captured in digital and in our hearts.

By seven, I was hungry. I’d been saving room for pizza. First salad, then soup. I passed on the soup. (I never eat soup made by others.) And then came the pizza. Our table announced: “We are the gluten-free group!”

“I wish we’d known,” the caterer said. “We could have brought along gluten-free dough.”

“What?” I whispered, my mind whirling with disappointment. Then I wondered if the caterer even knew how to make it safely. I ran through the checklist I would have asked. Where was the pizza dough made? Would the toppings be fresh or gluten contaminated? What about the utensils, the pans?

My sister, son and I grabbed scraps of antipasto before they cleared the platters away.

The next night we dined at a local eatery that advertised gluten-free pasta. The menu was extensive, filled with safe options. I began the ritualistic inquisition that bores my family.

“Relax,” said the friendly manager. “We do this all the time—fresh water, clean colander and all. Sit back and enjoy the evening and leave the worrying to us.”

A feeling of abundance washed over me. As we chomped down on gluten-free pasta, each plate deliciously sauced with a house specialty, I turned to my son.

“Remember when I had to make pasta from scratch, when it was the only way we could have it? Pizza, too?” I asked.

He reminded me how far life had come despite the pizza problem the night before.

As my fork twirled around a strand of corn spaghetti sauced with a rich bolognaise, I had to agree. These days, the wheel of good, gluten-free fortune usually swings my way. Still, I patted my purse, checking the snacks I'd put there, just in case. LW

Food editor Beth Hillson ( is author of Gluten-Free Makeovers.

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