There’s nothing that irks me more as a cook, or as an innocent dining bystander, than picky eaters.
I’ve gotten pretty used to and tolerant of varied tastes and constraints at my table. My mother has always been a problem child. She’s been dairy and gluten-free, and at times also sugar and acid free, for most of my life. My dad has now been meat-free for two years. At restaurants, this leads to many questions and substitutions and leaves significantly less on the menu to pick from.
Fruit phobias aside, I’ve always prided myself on being fairly easy to please. But over the last few years, my stomach has been a less reliable ally in the quest to remain a member of the clean plate club. A year or so ago, I self-diagnosed lactose intolerance. But my tummy’s mood swings have been a little bit less predictable than creamy soups alone. It’s gotten in the way of romance, and finally, after noticing that it was rare that I felt good after a meal, Josh made me take a New Year’s resolution vow that I would go to a doctor.
Being an expert on the subject, I turned to my mother, and in turn, she sent me to her favorite doctor. When on my second visit he told me I was definitively and highly allergic to gluten, I tried not to cry. Both lactose tests came back negative.
Looking back, I realize it was probably not the whole stick of butter in the Cast Iron Chicken at Vinegar Hill House that nearly thwarted my first date with Josh, but rather the dairy-free papardelle we had shared as a first course.
I also realize that in addition to coping with a new food allergy, I am facing a more profound condition that many women can relate to: the fear of becoming my mother.
The first few weeks of going gluten-free were brutal. But after the initial hump, when Josh was convinced Dr. Morrison was a sadist and a hack, I felt great. I realized that while emotionally I had felt awesome after coffee for breakfast and a bowl of pasta for lunch, my body did not. I wasn’t processing food properly. I wasn’t absorbing nutrients. And no matter how free I felt to indulge in my cravings, I was hurting myself, even if it wasn’t apparent to anyone else but the person running my blood tests.
A few months later, my stomach reacts like a normal person’s after eating. That is, by not reacting at all. My lips are pinker. My skin is less teenage-y. I most of the time I don’t feel like crying when I see pasta on a menu. More importantly, I’m excited to get into the kitchen and find solutions to my everyday cravings.
Luckily, gluten-free life is rather on trend at the moment, especially if you ask the New York Time. I also have my mother’s habits and know-how of palatable supermarket alternatives to guide me. When I look at a menu, instead of scanning ingredients, my initial approach is to think about what my mother would order if she were in my shoes and get that. But it’s really the in-between meals, the snacks, and the bites on the go that present greater difficulty. The main one being: the sandwich.
Early into the diagnosis, Cara suggested I buy a big bag of masa harina and go to town–she’s long loved these arepas for pretty much any meal. Variations on corn meal have already been my savior: grits for breakfast, polenta for dinner, and pre-made arepas every day for lunch.
I have been using store bought gluten-free bread for breadcrumbs and other quick fixes, but not yet for actual sandwiches. For one, it’s expensive. But it also just doesn’t taste the same. Instead, I’ve let the arepa be my at-home sandwich savior. Arepas are corn cakes, they’re quick and easy to make, and they keep relatively well in the fridge for the week, perhaps even better than my old go-to sandwich bread.
I could go on and on with the lessons I’ve learned thus far—it’s been an eye-opening, very different way of eating. But you can expect more nuggets of gluten-free wisdom and recipes as I continue avoiding wheat. Unfortunately, there’s no rush. My allergy’s not going anywhere.
I’ll be experimenting with more complicated ingredients—amaranth and millet flour—but also cooking simpler food again, food that reminds me of mom, since she’s the one who taught me how to make it in the first place.
From my kitchen, now gluten-free, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Shrimp & Snap Pea Salad Arepas with Avocado and Lime
Makes 2 (very stuffed) sandwiches
To speed up the recipe, you can also buy pre-cooked shrimp–then all that needs to be done is assembly!
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined ¼ cup mayonaisse
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup roughly chopped sugar snap pea pods
½ avocado, thinly sliced
2 Arepas (recipe follows)
Bring a medium saucepan filled with salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp and turn off the heat. Let the shrimp rest in the water for 3-5 minutes, until cooked through. Drain and rinse the shrimp under cold water. Roughly chop. Meanwhile, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the mayo, mustard, lemon juice, and salt. Mix in the chopped shrimp and snap peas.
Slice the arepas in half widthwise, leaving just the end still attached. Stuff the arepas with a spoonful of shrimp salad and a few slices of avocado on top. Serve with hot sauce on the side and a wedge of lime.
Makes 4 Medium-Sized Arepas
The arepas can keep a few days in the fridge. Pop them in the oven at 400 to reheat until crisp on the outside.
Ingredients 1 1/2 cup masa harina (fine corn flour)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the masa harina and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups of room temperature water. Stir well to combine, then let sit for 5 minutes. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, well-seasoned cast iron or nonstick pan. Divide the arepa dough into four balls. Flatten each into a 4-inch disk. Add to the pan.
Cook on each side for 7-8 minutes, until the arepa has formed a crust and is quite golden, adjusting the heat if it starts to burn on the bottom. Finish in the oven for 5 minutes. If not using an oven-proof skillet, you can place the arepas directly on the racks or on a baking sheet.
Cool enough to handle, then serve. Or save the arepas for another night.