Maybe you have celiac disease or another food restriction like me, or maybe you have another limitation that causes issues for you at social gatherings. If so, you’ll relate to this. And if that’s not you, this may put things in a slightly different perspective for you.
I grew up in a family that made a big deal out of food. Holidays, were always about food. I get it, that’s how Jewish holidays are. Challah, hamentaschen, wine, matzo ball soup, latkes, and kugels were all staples. Thanksgiving had turkey, pies, potatoes, and kugels. When we visited family out of state or they visited us, it was all about the food. We thought about it, talked about it, spent lots of time preparing it, and of course, enjoyed eating it. As I grew up, I often felt sick after (or during) these events, but I often felt sick after (or during) a normal meal anyway, so it’s not like these were any better or worse. It wasn’t until my 30s that I stopped eating gluten.
I have often wondered how my grandmother would have handled things if she’d still been alive when I went gluten-free. She was the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, always cooking and baking, expressing her love through food. We would arrive at her house after a several hours long drive, having stopped for lunch on the way. She would ask if we wanted food when we arrived and we’d say no, we’d already eaten, so she would put out a “snack”. It was a large snack! Then a few hours later dinner would consist of chicken, brisket, at least 2 kugels, challah, salad, and more, along with multiple desserts – for only 6 people! I’d like to think she’d have found a way to adapt her meals for me, but I know she wouldn’t have stopped focusing on them.
The surprising (at first) thing with eliminating gluten is that it doesn’t only effect what we eat, it effects our social lives. Dates are tricky when I can only eat at certain restaurants. Going out with friends is tough when we can’t spontaneously grab food while we’re out. Attending weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events is frustrating when I can’t eat the food provided. Multiple surveys have shown that the social aspects are the hardest part of living with celiac disease. So the advice that we hear over and over is logical: don’t make events about food, make them about people. And after all, shouldn’t we all be doing that anyway?
I get it. If the focus at Thanksgiving is the people instead of the table of food, then the people who can’t eat all of the food, and who might be nervous about the food, can still have a great time. If the Passover sedar is about the people and the prayers and we let the matzo ball soup and brisket be secondary (or even tertiary) incidentals, anyone with food restrictions will have a better time. It makes sense.
People > Food.
It took me many years to figure out why that advice felt off to me.
I remember a family vacation. We were in a big rented house, and I had been careful to cook food in advance. It was annoying to have to do this, and definitely took away from some of the fun, but it was fine. There was one night when everyone wanted to eat at a fancy restaurant. The family had been to this city many times over many years and loved this place. I’d only been once and, frankly, I hadn’t thought it was so wonderful, but whatever, I’d have been willing to go back. The thing is, they didn’t have anything gluten-free. My choices were to go there and not eat, or not go. I chose to not go. I found another restaurant in town that had gluten-free food and my mom chose to join me. My mom and I had a fantastic time, actually. We walked around town and had one of the best meals we’d ever had together. The food was amazing, the ambience gorgeous, the company perfect. My dad, aunt, uncle, cousins, and cousin’s wife all went to the other restaurant, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t hurt. I understand they liked this place and wanted to go, but it hurt me that they didn’t place my feelings and their desire to be with me above their desire to eat at a specific restaurant. They talked about it a lot in advance and a lot afterwards, too.
Holidays and family gatherings have been different since I went gluten-free. When my mother hosts, she makes sure the meal is either completely or mostly gluten-free, with any gluten foods kept separate and reminders to all to keep their serving spoons away from other foods. Accommodations vary when others host. But either way, it’s still about the food, and food is still stressful. Even when the meal is 100% gluten free, I no longer get any joy from focusing on food. It’s simply associated too much with negative things for me. Plus, the talk about the food isn’t limited to the food on the table, and that’s even more stressful. I am immensely grateful that my mother goes out of her way to make me feel comfortable eating the food at her events, but I still wish we could focus less on the food altogether.
As for me hosting a family event, that’s not likely to happen. For one thing, my apartment is small and I don’t have a lot of space. But for another, I have no desire to host. Some people love to cook, decorate, and have lots of people over for a party. That’s not me, and it never has been. Plus, even if I wanted to do that, I don’t have the energy for it. I can cook a meal OR attend a gathering, but I certainly can’t do both, never mind hosting duties. When I go to someone else’s home and bring food with me, it’s always something that can be prepared a day or two in advance because doing it the same day is too exhausting for me.
But let’s be realistic. Even if I could find a way to host, there would still be the issue that the gathering would be all about the food because I might be able to change the circumstances, but I can’t change the people. As soon as they walked in they would ask what we were eating, and the conversation would often turn back to food throughout the gathering. If I made all of the food then I wouldn’t be worried about that food in particular, but I still don’t like these conversations. Inevitably people talk about other foods and about restaurants, and at best none of this is enjoyable to me, at worst it upsets me, triggering all sorts of past trauma.
I don’t have a solution. This is something I’m continuing to work on for the sake of my own mental health. I can talk to my family about it and maybe they will occasionally make an effort, at least some of them would, but I know that most would not even try, or they would soon forget. This is ingrained and it’s something they enjoy. I just wish the thing they enjoy so much wasn’t the thing that brings me the most grief.