Living GF

August 26, 2013

I’m sure many of you are asking yourselves about the title, Living GF. Does that stand for “Good Food?” … Going Forward? … or what? In this case, it means Gluten Free. GF is easily recognizable shorthand for the millions of people world-wide with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or allergy to wheat. As you may recall from previous posts, I’m among them (allergic to wheat).

Many of you know that I’m a voracious reader. One of the ways in which I stay in touch with life in the U.S. is through online magazines, books, and sites. Besides a variety of books, I frequently read the Huffington Post, several economic, political, and financial magazines, and I access information through informative websites. Part of my reading repertoire includes GF cookbooks, the Gluten Free Living magazine, and the recently discovered Gluten Free For Men website (glutenfreeformen.com)

Dealing with a food allergy living abroad can present challenges. Though I’m sure others may argue otherwise, I happen to think a wheat allergy is among those on the top of the list of difficult allergies. Until you have to deal with it, you can’t begin to imagine how many things contain wheat, and how often you are served wheat-based products. Airline sandwiches, coffee with pastries for breakfast, soups thickened with an ingredient that contains gluten, and the list could go on. For example, most sliced ham in the grocery store is processed. A careful scan of the ingredients will illustrate my point … wheat is usually third or fourth on the list. Nearly all baked goods, tons of processed foods, things like canned beans, sliced ham, a great deal of restaurant fare, and so on.

It’s difficult to talk about a food allergy, and in particular wheat, as it’s in so many things, and people in other countries are not always as sensitized to food allergies and gluten intolerance. As such, people tend to think you’re a bit of an alarmist by making what to them is perceived as a big deal out of a little issue. Since I’m not inclined to want people to think I’m overly dramatic, my tendency is to keep my allergy to myself until it’s necessary to explain … which, of course, doesn’t help the lack of education regarding food allergies.

You may be surprised to learn that it can be an even bigger challenge when people go out of their way to address your food allergy. I was invited to a dinner one time. The cook went to extra effort to accommodate me, so I felt obliged to attend and to eat. She made me a pasta dish with gluten free pasta that she had to go out of her way to buy, and lots of fresh vegetables. Unfortunately, it’s also common in Colombia to use hotdogs as an inexpensive sausage replacement. The majority of hotdogs contain wheat. Since my pasta had hotdogs, I picked them out and ate.

I was traveling recently. My host went out of his way to navigate to a local place for coffee that had what he thought were “wheat free” pastries, bunuelos. These pastries are kind of like a fritter and are very popular in Colombia. Since I worry about cross-contamination in bakeries and have never been able to quite get a handle on the ingredients, I have avoided them. On this occasion, my colleague insisted, along with the baker, that the bunuelos in this café/bakery were made only with fine corn flour. Based on my trust in my colleague, and a strong desire to try one, I had a bunuelo with my coffee. Yum. And shortly thereafter I started to itch. Upon inspection of my arms and face, it was clear that the bunuelo had some kind of wheat flour in it too, as I was clearly having a reaction. Yet another lesson learned!

As I’m allergic to wheat, I also do not consume wheat-based wafers in the Eucharist. A friend once referred to taking communion with a traditional wafer as “swallowing shattered glass.” Since I’m a priest, and have served at the altar with many different colleagues in Colombia, many are aware of my wheat allergy. But, that still doesn’t mean that they fully “get” it. For example, it’s a common practice here to break up a piece of wafer and toss it into the wine. In addition, many people intinct, dipping their wafer into the consecrated wine, like many people do in the U.S. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked to consume the last of the wine and had to explain that I couldn’t. In addition, I use a pyx, a small round container used to carry the consecrated host to the sick, disabled, and elderly, to hold wheat-free wafers for communion. And yet there have been many times when I’ve discovered that a well-meaning colleague put my wheat-free wafer on the paten or into the ciborium with all of the other hosts.

Traveling and dealing with airlines is yet another challenge. I have a travel pack I carry in my briefcase or other carry-on. In it I have instant gluten-free oatmeal, tea bags, plastic spoons, and gluten-free granola bars. I used to carry trail mix or some general package of nuts, but out of consideration for those with severe nut allergies I no longer do so. Even if an airline indicates that it will provide a gluten-free meal, there’s no guarantee. There have been many “gluten free” meals that I discovered I couldn’t eat. (You may be wondering why my food bag includes plastic spoons. Have you ever tried making instant oatmeal with a stir stick … and, of course, that’s before you try to eat it without a spoon?) One time I received an unsolicited bump up to first class. I was excited that I might have some better options to pick from, which I did. Muffins that I couldn’t eat, and a mushroom omelet … I have an anaphylactic allergy to mushrooms … but, alas, they had great coffee!

Now, before I have you thinking that airlines are completely apathetic, I want to share some positive experiences. One time I asked for hot water and an extra cup. The cabin attendant immediately asked if I had a food allergy or issue with gluten. She was exceedingly kind, brought me some things from first class, including a real spoon, and offered whatever help she could provide. On another occasion, a cabin attendant, upon discovering my gluten issue, asked me to hold on while he finished distributing breakfast. He came back a little later with a tray from first class that included fresh fruit, yogurt and a number of other things that I could eat. So even when the company bombs, there are attendants who will go out of their way to do what they can to help.

So now you probably have another question … what’s he doing living in South America given he has to deal with these kinds of issues. First, don’t think for a minute that I wouldn’t have to deal with these issues in the U.S. I have never been to the hospital for a food allergy while traveling, but have been treated in emergency rooms on three occasions in the U.S. On one of those occasions, the doctor treated me very badly and acted like I was some little kid who didn’t want to eat his green beans. (That, fyi, is one of the classic disclaimers about food allergies … that they aren’t real, but are simply psycho-somatically induced reactions in people who don’t want to eat something.) After reading the medical information from the EMTs who had to control my breathing and give me oxygen while pumping me with epinephrine, prednisone (steroid), and antihistamine to bring down the swelling in my face, neck and throat, and emerging hives on my body, she changed her tune. The point is, don’t assume that medical care and knowledge of allergies are any better in the U.S. While there are more and more commercial products available every day in the U.S., they are also often significantly more expensive. In other countries there are aspects of diets that originate from indigenous communities that are naturally gluten free and inexpensive. For example, rellenos, a meat or cheese filled potato, fried dumpling, are popular throughout Latin America. In Colombia and Venezuela the locals eat arepas, a type of flat, unleavened bread. (There’s a bit of a rivalry between Colombia and Venezuela as to where the arepa originated.) In Colombia, the arepa has deep roots in the colonial farms and the cuisine of the indigenous people. While today some arepas are made with wheat flour or a blend of flours, arepas made with corn or yuca flour are widely available. In addition, cooking gluten free can be fun for those who enjoy history. As noted in a posting last December, I’ve learned to cook cunape, a Guarani Indian cheese bread made from yuca flour.

Living gluten-free is an issue no matter where I live. But I’ve found that with some ingenuity and an adventurous spirit, it’s possible to make GF living a little fun. So in the end, it’s just another part of my experience living abroad.

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