Category Archives: Tell me a sprue story

What’s the best time of year to be gluten-free? You tell me!

Many folk singers, including the late great Pete Seeger, have told us that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Much of the song is paraphrased from Ecclesiastes in the Bible, which goes to show how old the sentiment is. However, though there may indeed be a time to be born, a time to die, a time to dance, a time to mourn, a time to reap, a time to sow, and so forth, for many of us, it’s never time to eat gluten.

Still, as winter waned, spring started and stopped, and my second gluten-free year got well underway, I began pondering whether there’s a best time to be gluten-free. Spring flicked by too fast, the weather settled in to what is unmistakably New York in summer (complete with everyone’s favorite smell of trash in the streets and non-air-conditioned 1 trains), and I made my plans for yet another move* (my fourth in three years, not counting sublets)—and I kept wondering.

I’ve tried to answer this important question by listing a few pros and cons for each season, and I hope you’ll chime in, too.

Spring

  • PRO: The first hints of warmth get everyone out of the house and luxuriating in the sun, happy to do activities besides sit inside and snack.
  • CON: Often enough people really just want to sit outside and snack.
  • PRO: May is Celiac Awareness Month, infusing the entire season with a sense of our own visibility and significance.
  • CON: That sense might be a teeny bit inflated.
  • CON?: St. Patrick’s Day is not so good in its focus on beer, and Irish soda bread needs a makeover, but at least potatoes are gluten-free.
  • PRO?: We’ve already talked about Easter and Passover (both obviously super gluten-free); and Lent, immediately preceding Easter, is fine for those who observe it because gluten-free folks are adept at giving stuff up.
  • PRO: My birthday is in May! That’s relevant because a slightly disproportionate number of us have birthdays in the spring and summer. Birthdays are a good reason to make everyone eat gluten-free cake with you.
  • PRO: Fresh produce is naturally gluten-free! Go to a farmers market!
  • CON: Farmers markets all have baked goods that you can’t eat, too. But hey, you’re being healthy.

Summer

  • PRO: Lots of ice cream brands are gluten-free, and there are new dairy-free, etcetera-free options popping up all the time.
  • CON: There’s no con related to ice cream (as long as you aren’t asking your waistline).
  • PRO: It’s too hot to eat anything besides ice cream anyway, right?
  • CON: Wrong.
  • PRO: There aren’t a lot of holidays to worry about (that I can think of).
  • CON: The holidays that do occur are celebrated via cookout, which can be okay, sure, but often leave this celiac vegetarian eating chips and salsa.
  • CON: You have to move*! In the summer heat! From one fourth-floor walkup to another! Why, oh why did you buy so many kitchen appliances and bulk boxes of Bob’s Red Mill pantry staples?
  • PRO: The above con miiiight only apply to me.

Fall

  • PRO: It’s the perfect time of year to visit the approximately infinite number of gluten-free bakeries that are appearing right and left (at least in the New York metro area).
  • CON?: This doesn’t actually affect me anymore (boohoo), but I imagine that for gluten-free students and their parents, back-to-school time—with its return to school cafeterias, class parties, and 504 plans—is more a con than a pro.
  • PRO: Pumpkin is the gluten-free and vegetarian gods’ gift to the world, and you can put it in everything without being judged in October.
  • CON?: Serious holiday season is starting again. That said, Halloween doesn’t have to be so bad, considering that most candy is straight sugar and fat, no gluten required. And Thanksgiving…well, I’m sure you’ll be so busy being thankful for all the good stuff you’ll hardly even notice your chronic illness.

Winter

  • PRO: Everyone goes straight from home to work/school back home. It’s too cold to socialize, so who cares what you can or can’t eat?
  • CON: Even gluten-free people get lonely.
  • PRO: Hot chocolate doesn’t need gluten to be good.
  • CON: Some sneaky manufacturers put it in anyway.
  • PRO: Snow is gluten-free. (Probably.)
  • CON?: Did I say fall was serious holiday season? Scratch that, winter is. But you can still have a great holiday season and be gluten-free as long as you take proper precautions and avoid spilling any of your tear drops on the “real” sugar cookies.
  • PRO: Soup! Every! Day! I miss it already.

Whether you’ve been eating a special diet for decades or days, when do YOU think it’s easiest, most satisfying, least painful, and/or particularly delicious?

*Yes, you heard right: I’m leaving one gluten-free apartment for another, and Sprue Jr and I are parting ways: she to the Bronx, and I to the Upper East Side. It’s ostensibly to make both of our commutes better, but calling her Sprue Jr all the time might have contributed. By the way, I’m looking for a GF subletter in one of my two bedrooms for July and August, so if you know someone looking, send ’em my way. It’s a walkup, yes, but it’s a great spot near the park (good for those summer picnics) and has two bathrooms.

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How often do you “contact the manufacturer directly,” REALLY?

“For the most complete and accurate information, contact the manufacturer directly.” Some version of this advice appears in every introduction to gluten- or allergy-free living worth reading—and for good reason. Getting the answer straight from the source allows you to dodge cross-contamination bullets and sample new products with confidence. It’s great!

So why does it feel so much like homework? Much like SAT vocab drills, it’s a chore that can only help me, yet still seems unbearable. I use every excuse to avoid it:

  • I’m busy.
  • I’ll just buy some other product I know is fine.
  • Customer service isn’t available because it’s a weekend/evening/holiday/they prolly just won’t pick up, man.
  • If I take it home, call, and find out I can’t eat it, I won’t want to return it. In fact, I know I wouldn’t return it. That’s wasteful!
  • All that information is online anyway.
  • Is this really my life?!

I’m curious: Am I the only one who feels this way?

Personally, if a label isn’t telling me what I need to know, I always turn to Google first. (It’s like the Seamless ad says: “The best part about having a smartphone is never having to call anyone.”) For most products, you can find bloggers who have written about their experience contacting the manufacturer, or lists on About.com, or debates on forums. Sometimes the manufacturer’s website even pops up with a handy FAQ (though said website is invariably mobile-unfriendly to the extreme). A lot of times, that’s probably enough. But not always.

You might think no one would find it in his/her company’s best interests to stop producing a line of gluten-free products or start processing a previously allergen-free food on contaminated lines, but you’d be wrong. Manufacturers change stuff all the time, for reasons both clear and abstruse (though almost all, I’d wager, connected to money). Case in point: our go-to gluten-free dried beans provider, Shiloh Farms, recently discontinued its entire line of GF legumes due to supplier costs.* (They still sell a few other certified items.)

It goes the other way, too, of course. Brands cited as no-gos in ancient Celiac.com threads have cleaned up their act, and both small and mainstream companies introduce new goods every day. Even the mighty About.com Guide Jane Anderson can’t keep pace with every recipe reformulation and label change. (She does, of course, advise us to “always, if in doubt about the gluten-free status of a product, contact the manufacturer’s customer service personnel directly.”)

We may be only 11 years away from falling in love with our computers’ operating systems (according to Spike Jonze) and 4 to 10 years away from a cure for celiac disease (according to Stefano Guandalini), but even so, the best source for accurate, up-to-date information isn’t necessarily the Internet.

girl on iPhone black and white

Unlike bittersweet photography subjects, we don’t have to confine all our interactions to typing and swiping. Hey, food issues are isolating enough as it is!
Photo © Shinichi Higashi | Flickr

You don’t always need to contact the manufacturer. You can look for reassuring label claims, trustworthy companies, and reliable certification organizations (though we all have slightly different ideas of what those are). We’re also getting ever closer to the time when manufacturers officially can’t put “gluten-free” on a label without it being, you know, true.

Of course, even if you trust a brand, you should check labels for anything new and troubling. You don’t, however, have to call every time (unless you’re in dire need of a hobby).

On the other hand, when:

  • something—like popcornshould be gluten-free, but doesn’t say it is
  • a label includes that sneaky GF-in-a-circle near-copy of the “certified” logo
  • you’re holding two cans of honey-roasted mixed nuts made by the same company and only one says it “may contain wheat”
  • you want to know why, in the name of god, Shiloh Farms would be so cruel as to take away your one source of dried chickpeas, out of which falafel absolutely must be made
  • you’ve read EVERYWHERE that egg- and bunny-shaped chocolates are usually wheat-contaminated, but you’ve found the one bag in the store that doesn’t say it is, and you need to be sure

. . . well. That’s when you call the manufacturer. Or email, if it’s available and you don’t mind waiting a day for a response. I prefer email, because I hate waiting on hold, like getting a response in writing, and am antisocial; but I do force myself to call sometimes, too.

And, you know what? In the end, it is a chore, but it’s a satisfying chore. Sometimes, sadly, you learn you can’t eat that thing (in which case—woohoo!—you didn’t waste your money on poison!). But other times, you learn you can. 

You learn, for example, that Soyboy’s online FAQ is out of date, and their products marked “GF” are not processed on lines with wheat. You learn you can open that tempeh, turn it into a Cajun stir-fry way too spicy for your sister to enjoy (sorry), and chow down. And that’s when it all—hold music included—becomes worth it.

gf-unsure-call-manufacturer-v2

When do you pick up the phone to call a manufacturer? Or do you prefer email? (Don’t be afraid to show me up, if you’re actually a responsible adult who makes phone calls and stuff.) Have you ever had a really negative, or especially positive experience with this?

*How do I know the legumes were canceled due to supplier costs? Because I contacted the manufacturer directly! Duh! And I’m glad I did. Although I was disappointed not to learn it was all some big mistake, I was pleased to hear they’re seeking new suppliers of gluten-free garbanzos. Falafel and I are not, I hope, through for good.

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Tell me a sprue story about…grocery shopping

In the wake of the FDA finally announcing gluten-free labeling rules (read about it here, here, and pretty much everywhere), I’ve been thinking about grocery shopping even more than usual, if that’s possible.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d love if you would share YOUR stories about gluten-free grocery shopping—make them sad, funny, infuriating, short, long, general, specific, anything you want…as long as they’re “sprue.”

Gluten-free aisle

Photo © Memphis CVB | Flickr

Here’s mine.

For me, shopping with celiac in tow is only slightly more stressful than it used to be (and still likely not as stressful as having, say, a toddler in tow—or with both, a plight with which some of you are familiar).

That’s because even before I went gluten-free, my grocery shopping trips were already interminable processes of pausing, considering, picking up, rejecting, and repeating. I blame this on:

a) calorie consciousness, which adds time spent reading labels and doing little calculations like, “X calories times Y servings per equals WTF HOW CAN THERE BE THAT MANY IN THIS TINY BAG?,” followed by hunting for more reasonable choices;

b) money consciousness, which adds time spent chewing over this option versus that option and more little calculations like, “X dollars divided by Y servings equals WTF HOW CAN IT COST THAT MUCH FOR THIS TINY BAG?,” followed by hunting for sale items (something that now takes less time, because it’s simple: the gluten-free items are NEVER on sale);

c) lack of spatial awareness or visual memory (I can’t see images in my mind, perhaps due to mild dyscalculia, which would also explain why the aforementioned calculations always take me so long), which adds time spent wandering slooooowly down aisles looking at each item and hoping that one of them will magically turn out to be the thing I came in for, which I sort of thought I’d seen before somewhere, but in which aisle or store I couldn’t say;

d) vegetarianism, which adds time spent scanning ingredients lists for gelatin and trying to remember which cheese brands use microbial rennet (and trying to nail down once and for all my viewpoint on animal-derived rennet—a philosophical dilemma that also, incidentally, adds time to my shopping trips);

and I could go on.

In other words, with or without gluten, I suck at shopping. With so many hem- and haw-worthy items in mind, I dawdle my way through the aisles. When I finally emerge from a Whole Foods or a Fairway or a TJ’s, I feel a bit like a mortal departing the fairy underworld, leaving behind halls bursting with enticing and enchanting food, and having no idea how much time has passed in the outside world.

I lug my bags home in a daze and often find, as I sort through the treasure, that in a sudden panic after too much time spent deliberating I managed to buy several items I do not need, will never use, or cannot use (such as, recently, those two boxes of granola bars whose first ingredient—oats, even gluten-free—is one I do not eat). Perhaps I do this unconsciously to form a link between myself and those magical realms; I must return, you see, to make the return.

Despite all this, and even though nobody likes a slow shopper during the afterwork rush hour, I always make it through with my sanity intact. And even after a rough trip when nothing is certified and everything is overpriced, I don’t feel discouraged for long.

Because…I must admit…I like grocery shopping. I like discovering interesting new ingredients, I appreciate marketing slogans and packaging strategies, I enjoy checking items off the shopping list, I indulge in people- and cart-watching, I sniff the bottoms of pineapples like a pro, I savor the sudden chill of the freezer aisle and thrill to the sight of a good bargain, and, above all, I know it’s all in service of a great cause: delicious gluten-free, vegetarian, (mostly) thrifty, nutritious, home-cooked meals.

Worth every second.

Don’t forget to share your story about gluten-free grocery shopping for you or others. Alternatively, tell me how you feel about the new labeling rules. Are they everything you hoped they’d be? (Links to your own blog posts on the subject are, of course, welcome.)

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