What would the holidays be without festive parties, fancy meals, and office potlucks? For most people, little thought goes into what they can or cannot eat. But for those with celiac disease - a genetic autoimmune disorder characterized by an allergy to gluten - that array of tempting dishes on the pig-out table contains a hidden minefield. What's that beef gravy thickened with? Is that casserole full of breadcrumbs? Is there flour in that cobbler? Any chance those are rice crackers with the cheese?
The culprit is gluten, a protein found in wheat and some related grains.
According to Carol Fenster, a Denver-based author of 10 gluten-free cookbooks, "Life for those trying to avoid gluten would be simple if these grains could easily be identified on food labels. Although you sometimes can spot those key grains on labels, often they are hidden in foods."
Gluten can lurk in bouillon, deli meats, malt vinegar, salad dressings and even licorice candy. Wheat is used as a binder or thickener in these foods and others. On the plus side, at least you can investigate the ingredients on the labels of these grocery store items. At holiday parties, however, you can't very well go into the kitchen of a home cook or a restaurant and check if your food has been dusted with wheat flour before being sautéed.
Fenster, who does not have celiac disease, is sickened by gluten and is medically classified as nonceliac gluten sensitive.
"For those of us on medically mandated gluten-free diets, we continue to seek out safe foods to keep us healthy. Gluten-free food is the only treatment since there is no drug, vaccine or surgical cure."
She has some tips for how she manages her diet at parties.
"I check with the hostess beforehand," she says. "I offer to bring a dish. Savvy special dieters often take bread or a dessert - two dishes most often containing problem ingredients. And I keep a stash of gluten-free crackers with me, just in case."
If the holiday meal is a buffet she suggests eating something before going.
"That will help you not feel ravenous and inclined to cheat because you're starving," she said. "Just graze the vegetable or fruit platters, focusing on items that are plain and not dipped, fried or dusted with anything."
Rachel Begun, a Boulder-based dietitian, culinary nutritionist and special-diets expert, had several suggestions for gluten-free dining during the party season, including Fenster's tips for bringing your own safe food or eating something before going.
"If you're unsure whether you'll be able to indulge, eat something before you go and carry a snack to nibble," she said. "While it's more fun when you can indulge, the point of holiday parties is to connect with friends, family and colleagues. If no food is safe to eat, hold the drink of your choice and enjoy the conversation."
Going to a restaurant or catering hall for a holiday party?
"Take the initiative to call the event manager to discuss your dietary needs and how they can accommodate you," she said.
When it comes to eating at restaurants, Fenster is a fan of Coquette's Bistro & Bakery in Colorado Springs.
"It is totally gluten-free and the food is delicious," she said. "Generally speaking, if a restaurant offers a separate gluten-free menu that usually means it has taken special steps to assure a safe experience. Always be alert for the possibility of cross-contamination in a restaurant and feel free to ask question to assure your safety. If in doubt, don't eat it."
Tapateria in Old Colorado City is another gluten-free restaurant. And Outside the Breadbox on West Colorado Avenue, specializes in gluten-free products and supplies baked goods to eateries, stores and customers.
Even those who do the cooking for large groups have learned to adapt. Lauren Feldman Stuart, director of dining services for Woodland Park School District, offers gluten-free options when catering meals for the school staff.
"I'm doing a gluten-free dinner for 200 people on two evenings in December at Woodland Park High School," she said. "Last year, it got too confusing with who was gluten-free and who wasn't that I decided to do the whole dinner gluten-free this year."
For her, the omission of wheat from recipes is easy.
"Just get wheat out of your mind," she said. "Quinoa, millet, rice and a variety of other grains can be used. I will be serving a light salad with quinoa, herb-crusted flank steak, caramelized sweet potatoes and a veggie medley."
Teresa Farney is The Gazette's food editor.