Two celiacs walk into a bar….Kevin was a 27-year-old civil engineer. My daughter Molly, 23, an EMT. While sitting at the bar, Kevin heard Molly order a gluten-free beer. He’d already ordered one himself. So he went up to her. “Are you gluten-free like me?”
You bet—gluten-free for as long as she could remember. Molly’s difficult diagnosis with celiac disease as a toddler was the subject of a 1992 “My Turn” column I wrote for Newsweek. Our story described three hospitalizations and consultations with more than 50 doctors in the San Francisco Bay Area as her weight dropped from 23 to 18 pounds and her bones demineralized from severe malnutrition. Over three months, my formerly active toddler had stopped walking, talking, playing or eating, all because of undiagnosed gluten intolerance. “What’s Wrong with Our Baby?” was the first mention of celiac disease in a major U.S. publication. In that pre-Internet era, I received more than 150 letters from parents, doctors, celiac organizations, cookbook authors and many other helpful and compassionate people offering advice and recipes. I updated Molly’s celiac tale six years later in the inaugural issue of this magazine.
So yes, she told Kevin, she was gluten-free like he was. His parents had had a somewhat easier time with his diagnosis in Cleveland when he was just under two years old. Growing up, Molly and Kevin were each considered the only celiac in their schools. Yes, they had a lot in common. And it wasn’t long after that first beer that they began dating. Kevin became a regular guest at our table for Sunday night dinners, where he didn’t have to explain his diet. We met his family when they came out to California for Thanksgiving. Kevin’s mom and I exchanged details of our kids’ diagnosis stories. It was as if we’d known each other forever.
Four and a half years after ordering gluten-free beer in that Silicon Valley Irish pub, Molly Duncan Stone and Kevin Duffy were married at Stanford Memorial Church in front of 192 family members and friends, including dozens of fellow celiacs. Based on our experience, here are my tips on how to plan a successful gluten-free celebration.
Tips for Successful Gluten-Free Weddings
KNOW YOUR GUESTS.
Is it just the bride or groom who is gluten-free or are there others? Are there any guests with food allergies? This information is important when choosing a venue, determining a menu and deciding whether to host a completely gluten-free wedding or just cater to those who need it.
2. DESIGN A RESPONSE CARD.
When we sent out the wedding invitations, we Included a response card that asked guests to choose their main course and to indicate if they had any food allergies or sensitivities (besides gluten).
3. DECIDE ON THE EXTENT OF GLUTEN-FREE.
Will you be serving gluten-free food to all guests or only to those who require it? There’s a big difference in planning and in price.
We knew we wanted to have only gluten-free food at the reception. In addition to Molly and Kevin, two of the bridesmaids have celiac disease, as do many of their friends from Camp Celiac, where Molly is director. Going totally gluten-free was undoubtedly more expensive, but it offered greater peace of mind and less chance for cross-contamination in the kitchen or a mixup in serving.
4. CHOOSE THE VENUE, KEEPING GLUTEN-FREE SAFETY AS A PRIORITY.
Carefully vet the venue and caterer for the wedding reception. Are they knowledgeable about gluten-free food preparation? How do they prevent cross-contamination in their kitchen and when serving? Is the entire staff trained and aware of safe food allergy practices to avoid cross-contamination? Can they safely accommodate guests with other allergies (if necessary)? Where is the food prepared? How will it be served—buffet or plated? If it isn’t an entirely gluten-free menu, will there be a different color or shape plate used for the gluten-free food so it is easily identifiable? If it’s a buffet, will any potential cross-contaminating foods, utensils and dishes be kept safely separate? Will gluten-free food be clearly marked?
Molly and Kevin’s 20-month engagement gave us time to consider our options. We started by visiting hotels. Most of the hotels’ event coordinators assured us they could accommodate a gluten-free menu; however, their reception areas weren’t quite large enough to accommodate our number of guests.
We ended up at a lovely reception hall on the Stanford campus where we could use our own caterer, Jane Hammond Events. Jane is a family friend who had catered my husband’s and my simple wedding reception. I knew the staff was well-informed and capable of handling our daughter’s gluten-free wedding.
We decided to have two plated entrées, a meat and a vegetarian option, and to make the reception completely nut-free. Plating the food, rather than having a buffet, also helped keep allergic guests safe from cross-contamination.
We also decided to offer regular beer to accommodate non-gluten-free guests, while reminding our celiac guests not to order it. The bar featured red and white wine; vodka, rum and other hard liquor that is gluten-free; Italian soda and other soft drinks.
5. PREPARE THE SEATING CHART.
Using the food allergy information derived from the response card, Kevin and Molly made a spreadsheet and seating chart for the caterer that included all allergies. Place cards had the table assignment, entrée choice and any allergies noted. This was a big help to the servers.
6. DECIDE ON THE WEDDING CAKE.
Wedding cakes are expensive, so we went with cupcakes rather than one large wedding cake. We used a dedicated gluten-free bakery and café (Patti’s Perfect Pantry in Morgan Hill, California), which made 200 gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate fudge, blondie, vanilla coconut and carrot cake cupcakes. The catering staff arranged them on tiers and platters.
Additionally, we got a small ceremonial cake for the bride and groom to cut (gluten-free black & white layer cake — chocolate with a vegan vanilla buttercream frosting — from Oakland’s Mariposa Baking Company).
7. MAKE PLANS FOR THE REST OF THE WEEKEND.
Today’s weddings often involve a weekend of activities. Carefully choose these vendors using the same criteria for gluten-free safety as you did for the reception venue.
Molly and Kevin’s wedding weekend included these additional social events:
A Thursday evening outdoor reception at the hotel where many of the out-of-town guests stayed. Kevin’s parents arranged this, ordering gluten-free pizza as well as regular pizza. They also put together gluten-free goodie bags for our hotel guests filled with Ghirardelli chocolate, Skinny Pop popcorn, Jelly Belly jelly beans, gummy bears, Cracker Jack caramel popcorn (except in the nut-free bags), and Tums. They thought of everything!
Rehearsal dinner Friday evening for the wedding party and family. We met with the catering manager of the restaurant to make sure the staff understood our concerns about cross-contamination and were well prepared to deliver 100 percent gluten-free food. We certainly didn’t want any “OOPS!” glutening the night before the wedding!
A wedding day lunch buffet for the bridal party at our home. We set this up so the bride and her bridesmaids could graze while having their hair and makeup done. It featured a variety of dishes from Asian Box, a dedicated gluten-free fast-casual restaurant in Palo Alto.
A Sunday morning Mexican buffet brunch in our back yard for immediate family and special guests before Molly and Kevin left on their honeymoon. We got creative here—we used a food truck (Oaxacan Kitchen Mobile) whose owner, thankfully, knows gluten-free.
The careful planning we did paid off. The wedding was a true celebration of love and the festivities were a success. Molly and Kevin’s big gluten-free wedding weekend was a happy time for all—and no one got glutened!
Debbie Duncan writes and reviews children’s books. She’s on Twitter @debbieduncan. Molly writes about her culinary adventures with Kevin on Instagram: @twohungryceliacs.