How to stay gluten-free and still love the Thanksgiving feast

Depending on who sits at your Thanksgiving table, you may already have figured out how to serve vegetarians or guests who are allergic to nuts. But more people are choosing to eat gluten-free or learning they must do without gluten. And with pie crusts and dinner rolls and stuffings, making sure those diners are grateful can pose a holiday challenge.

Turkey is generally gluten-free, but as many diners will tell you, the turkey is often a mere delivery device for dishes like gravy that frequently have wheat — the main food in our diets that contains gluten.

Problems can occur, however, in just about any dish on the holiday table. Kyra Bussanich, who owns the gluten-free Kyra’s Bake Shop in suburban Portland, Ore., was at a big Thanksgiving feast last year, she says, “and there was a turkey — I jokingly said, ‘This is gluten-free, right?” Turned out the cook had used beer in the brine — and beer has gluten in it.

“You have to be really vigilant, ask questions. Let the host know,” Bussanich says. One reason to do that is so the host won’t be insulted about what you don’t eat.

A person who has celiac disease can become very sick by ingesting the smallest amount of gluten, even flour dust that spreads during a pie-baking binge. But gluten-free diets also have become rather a craze, and those people may decide the holidays are a time for fewer restrictions. So figure out your guests’ requirements.

“There’s no reason why people on a restricted diet can’t enjoy festivities as much as other people, it just takes cooperation and understanding from the food preparers," said Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center.

The cooks don’t always take issues seriously enough, especially because eating gluten-free has become a fad as well as a response to a serious disease, he said.

“With it being a fad, it may make it seem less important for some people,” he said. And despite the attention that’s been given to gluten recently, he said, a recent survey with chefs showed that many of them didn’t understand gluten or what foods contained it.

To avoid gluten, read every label. And seek out alternatives. Rice or almond flours may work in pie crusts, for example. Or make a crust with other ground nuts or with ground gluten-free ginger snaps. For stuffings try wild rice with mushrooms, and for gravy try cornstarch.

Rather than dinner rolls, Bussanich suggests pão de queijo, a traditional Brazilian cheese bread that’s made with tapioca flour and is sold frozen at many stores.

Debbie Adler has a 5-year-old son with several food allergies, so she always goes to parties with a dessert that he can eat. “There’s no judgment involved. It’s hard to understand if you don’t live with it,” says Adler, who has an L.A.-based mail-order bakery, Sweet Debbie’s Organic Cupcakes.

Her book, “Sweet Debbie’s Organic Treats,” includes several holiday-friendly recipes, including pumpkin spice doughnut holes, a pumpkin corn bread and acai berry truffles. And Bussanich, whose new book is called “Sweet Cravings,” suggests apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.

Kristine Kidd, a chef who has celiac disease, has published a recipe for gluten-free mushroom gravy. It has the bonus that it's make-ahead.

The availability of gluten-free food has exploded, and many companies -- including Udi’s, Pamela’s, King Arthur and Bob’s Red Mill — have all-purpose flour substitutes or mixes for breads and rolls, as well as packaged baked goods. In her shop, Bussanich makes stuffing mix with gluten-free bread, which people could do with the bread they already use.

So is there anything she misses at the holidays? There was — a Brie en croute that her family always served. But she’s figured out a way to use a “super flaky pie crust” rather than puff pastry and it’s “absolutely delicious.”

For anyone avoiding anything on a holiday table, it might help to remember that the food is not the only point. Bussanich says, “It’s about family and traditions and being together and celebrating.”


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