Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Family HIstory

This past weekend my family again gathered to celebrate my great aunt’s life. This time we were joined at the retirement community where she spent the last years of her life by many more friends. Those who couldn’t join us sent their love.

We laughed and cried and shared our best memories of her. After the memorial we adjourned to my cousin’s home to share stories that we had heard from her or about her. Everyone remembers things differently. She doled out information to each of us, almost as if she knew we wouldn’t put the whole puzzle together unless we were all together in one place. We celebrated her the way she would have wanted: as a family, around a loaded table, with full wine glasses. She will be greatly missed.

One special treat for me was to see a friend of my mother’s from the Old Neighborhood. As he noted, my great aunt was the last of a generation. But generations overlap, and Richard is old enough to remember her as a young woman, as well as her parents, and the vitality of that old Italian immigrant community. My aunt was accompanied his mother to the hospital when he was born.

He and my mother shared memories of my great grandparents, stories I’ve never heard or only vaguely remember. My great grandfather owned an apartment building on Seaman Avenue and Richard’s father was the super. He remembers spending summer days on the roof with his father and my great grandfather, keeping it wet so that my great grandmother could stay cool. They lugged up the radio and listened to Italian opera, if Richard behaved, they let him listen to The Lone Ranger or another of ‘his’ programs afterwards. It’s wonderful to hear these tales. My mother doesn’t know these stories; the roof was a Man’s Place.

Besides being one of the last people to have known my great grandparents, Richard was great friends with my uncle when they were growing up. I remember my uncle, known in those circles as Kenny, fondly. He embarrassed me at times, but he was the best uncle a tom-boy like me could have asked for. I didn’t see him often since he had fallen out with my grandmother early in his life and he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. Saturday night Richard and his wife Linda told me, for the first time, just how important I was to him. They said I was his world. I can easily believe that.

And over the veggie tray, I learned some other information about my uncle. His myriad health problems may have been the result of undiagnosed celiac as well.

The origin of my gluten intolerance has been a bit of a mystery to the family. I suffered severe skin reactions and deep depression along with bloating and general severe stomach pains. No one on either side of my family has ever manifested symptoms like this. I am an anomaly.

The huge missing link in our health history has always been my mother’s father. He was adopted at a young age and knew very little about his own parents, he abandoned the family when my mother was 7. Stories always seem to point to the likelihood that he suffered from depression, and possibly heart trouble. No one believes that he survives, although we have no way of knowing.

My memories of my uncle are of a vigorous, tall lanky man with a large pot belly (and an embarrassingly hairy chest). By the age of 55 my uncle had suffered at least one heart attack and one stroke. He also had severe hypothyroidism and refused to accept a diagnosis of depression. This combination proved to be lethal.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, my senior year of college, I was paralyzed by the idea that I would end up like him. Feeling too poorly to be out in public, even to go to the doctor, who might be able to help. After describing my own symptoms of celiac, the ones I suffer now if I get glutened and those leading up to my ‘diagnosis’, a light dawned for all of us. Linda said that for years Kenny had complained of skin ailments, he even described them similarly to how I described mine. The worse his skin got, the more he stayed inside and lived off of processed meat, canned vegetables and bread.

That night we started putting all these pieces together. With Linda, my mother and my own experience I feel confidant that he had celiac as well. It makes me so sad to think that he could have lived a better life, been spared much of his suffering had he known. But knowing that I have found a solution, that I won’t travel the same downward spiraling road is a relief.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Macbeth Goes Gluten Free

Every once in a while I get fed up with the hustle of New York and I’m ready to throw in the towel, pack up and move to a small South American country, leaving no forwarding address and not looking back. And then I get an opportunity like I did this past Sunday. My best girlfriend managed to get us tickets to see Patrick Stewart in Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre.*

To truly appreciate this event you have to understand Alyssa and I. We met in college and took British literature together. She LOVES Patrick Stewart and has been raving about a performance of Othello that she saw him in 10+ years ago. Me, I’ve seen Macbeth four times already. We know what we’re talking about. We were geeks in paradise last night.

Set in Stalinist Russia this is by far the sexiest, bloodiest Macbeth I have ever seen. Stewart made an amazing, introspective, tortured Macbeth, much more depth and emotion than I’ve ever seen portrayed before. And no Macbeth can live up to his potential with out a strong Lady Macbeth; Kate Fleetwood’s young wife brought a May-December aspect to their relationship that was phenomenal.

As always, ultimately it’s the director’s vision that makes or breaks any performance. Rupert Goold’s use of the stark stage and projected images allowed the acting to shine through, no fancy props aside from a refrigerator, two gurneys and a sink that ran water from one tap and blood from the other. His insertion of the Weird Sisters into scenes where they have no lines was impressive. If you’re in New York in the near future and you have a chance to see this production, we highly recommend it.

After the show I took Alyssa to Lilli and Loo, site of the first Worry Free Dinner, to share my find with her. Since it was our evening out we decided to splurge and share an appetizer and two meals, thinking we’d have plenty of leftovers. They have a whole separate gluten free menu so we didn’t need to worry about picking items out of the main menu.

The food was so good, there was nothing left to take home. Obviously we were in the mood for shrimp. We ordered Shrimp Tempura, Masaman Shrimp Curry and Saigon Shrimp. It’s so nice to eat with someone who understands and accommodates your dietary restrictions and is game to try whatever you want to. I love tempura, and this one wasn’t quite as light and crispy as I remember the very best being, it was definitely equal to most tempura that I’ve had, and the citrus mayo was a nice touch. It’s hard to go wrong with a curry, sweet, creamy and rich, Alyssa would have liked it to be a little spicier. The Saigon shrimp was covered in a richly textured, spicier glaze that really hit the spot. We topped that with a gluten free blueberry cake and left with full tummies and sated taste buds.

An evening of great theatre, great food and fellowship was just what the doctor ordered. By the end of the evening, I felt like I was completely over my cold.

*note that Alyssa's apple martini is not gluten free, but she insisted it appear in at least one picture.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Lesson at the End of Life

I planned this blog to post reviews and recipes. I knew that I would also share my experiences dealing with celiac disease and how that, and being gluten free, affects my life. The time has come to share more of my personal life. As I write this I am sitting in a nursing home, at the bedside of my great aunt, the sister of my grandmother. Our Italian family’s matriarch. My last connection with the Old Country.

She was my grandmother’s younger sister, but my Nonna was an artist, a free spirit, never still for very long. Lily and her late husband were the established heads of the family. No matter where we gathered, she was always the hostess. Her word was the last word

Growing up I felt like the ugly duckling. I knew I was loved and included, but I was not the golden child that her own grandchildren were. I never felt like my piece of the puzzle fit quite right, that one piece that comes in the box, but you can never figure out exactly where it goes. Marrying into the family I think my dad feels this way too sometimes.

During hard time we’ve always been family. She came to see my Nonna when she had Alzheimer’s, though her own husband was dying at the same time. Of all the family that I invited to my high school graduation, she was the only one who came, saying that if my grandmother couldn’t be there, at least one grandmother would. When she moved to New York to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren she had all of her extra furniture and fixtures shipped to me to furnish my first apartment.

When I moved to New York I had to leave most of that furniture in Ohio, but that was fine with her. Here’s the thing: In the four years that I have lived in New York, a 40 minute train ride from her and my cousins I have visited exactly five times. Christmas and her 90th birthday bash.

Am I bad family? I was always to busy, or felt like was imposing, or I simply felt like I didn’t belong. Whatever my reasons they seem pretty stupid. I’m here now, I’ve been out to see her as much as I can, now that she doesn’t recognize us or acknowledge out presence beyond a week hand squeeze.

I’m asking myself if this counts for anything, if it makes up for anything. Following on the heels of this self-doubt comes the guilt of not visiting. So many missed opportunities to hear stories about my own grandmother as a girl. Stories about their parents, the woman I am named for, the first Vittoria. I am about to lose the last person who knew or contacted our family in Italy. I don’t even know where all her papers and pictures are.

Her two daughters will inherit all these, but this is my legacy too. We all share a common root, Enrico and Vittoria Silano. Never again will I hear vaguely remembered stories of my great grandmother and her two sisters. Nor will I hear how uppity Lily and my Nonna were as American teenagers standing up to their Italian father in the 192030s.

I always intended to ask her to come with me to the Story Corps project when it was at Grand Central. Obviously I never did, because I just didn’t feel comfortable making a request like that of her. Why do we always seem to be let these opportunities pass?

They say that hindsight is 20/20 and that’s the truth. All the harsh thoughts, false starts and missed connections. I know I can’t torture myself with this, or blame myself. At the very least, our whole family is coming together now. My mother will be here tomorrow, and for one last time Lily, her daughters and niece will all be together. The only woman of our family who will be missing is Lily’s granddaughter Amy, who’s away at college finishing her semester.

This truly is one of life’s great lessons, made gluten free because I am gluten free. Don’t miss opportunities when you have them. Don’t ignore a sunny day. And don’t forget to live and love your life. My one hope is that I will have such wonderful family surrounding me when I am 93. Most importantly, never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spring in the City

Today was so beautiful that I set out to do some of my Saturday errands on foot. As I walked through the neighborhoods of Queens I was struck by the beauty of spring in New York. The real New York.

Of course Manhattan is New York, with 5th Avenue and Rockefeller Center, but that’s not where the life of the city is. That’s in the numerous small neighborhoods and communities. Spring comes early to midtown. I walk past carts of forced flowers for the Today Show every morning. Diligent city workers have filled the large cement planters of 5th Avenue and Rockefeller Plaza with daffodils that are already in full bloom. One day, overnight, they will be replaced by tulips.

But spring arrived in my neighborhood this week. Barren tree are pushing out buds, puffs of flowers hover around the gnarled branches. Crocuses, daffodils, tulips, hostas and flowers I can’t name have pushed their way through the earth to welcome back the sun. Magnolia trees are in full glory. The building and most trees are still bare, but buds and flowers abound.

At this time of year I am always surprised, joyfully, at how nature has maintained it’s foothold in this paved over city. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, indeed. And flowers bloom in Queens.

Green shoots push though every possible crack. Place where bricks have been prized up. Iron strong tree roots push up and break sidewalk squares, making room for verdant grass and ever smiling dandelions.

As I walk, I can’t help myself. I have to take pictures of the juxtaposition of city and nature. Bright life growing around the drab remainders of our grey winter hibernation. Flowers don’t know from fences, they wiggle through and pull themselves up to share their light. Greenery creeps and snakes along fences and walls. Trees become balls of color.

Soon people will come out of hiding, infected by the new life that’s spreading. Jackets will be shed, midriffs will be bared, car windows will open to spill music into the streets. The neighborhood will re-emerge. Slowly, picking up momentum, life will seep out of shuttered homes onto porches, into the streets.

This is the New York everyone should know. Ethnic food on every corner, perfuming the air so that you can find your way by smell. Socks, trinkets anything you could want for sale on every block. Folk of all ages strutting and preening in their colorful best stretching their style after a bundled up winter. Neighborhoods boisterous with life from within, each stocked with their own cast of characters.

As I walk in the sun, sharing its glow with the daffodil next to me, I remember the joy of quieter springs past. But this miracle of life, rebirth amongst the huge apartment blocks, elevated trains and paved streets resonates more. It’s as if the blooming of the first flower brings the whole city back to light and life after the grey, dreary winter.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gluten Free Travelogue, Home at Last

I actually got home to New York, via my parents in Ann Arbor, MI, on Sunday night. But then I was lazy on Monday, spending time with my boyfriend and his family, only venturing out to go to the gym and get some groceries in the Afternoon.Coming out of the mountains on Saturday I took a number of pictures from the car window. We stopped in Golden, CO to visit the new Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum
with Geege. She brought me a fantastic brownie from a local Denver gluten free bakery, Deby's. After a crash spending spree at the Eddie Bauer outlet we were on our way to the airport.

Right now things are crazy busy at work, getting my boss ready for a big jewelry show in Switzerland. Until I have a chance to post again, I'll leave you with more pictures of the Rockies

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Gluten Free Travelogue, Day 6

So far we’re still having lots of fun. The snow and skiing conditions have been great. It’s time to post some pictures from Winter Park. The view last night was just spectacular! Aside from skiing, we went into ‘town’ to window shop and see the sights. My mom got new ski boots and I’ve been exhausted every night. I’m so glad that we rented the studio with a kitchenette. There’s nothing better than getting back from a hard day of skiing then cooking a delicious healthy meal. (More on that later)

So I will devote the rest of the post to beautiful pictures of Winter Park, CO.View of the Rockies from the hotel parking lot

The hotel we're staying in, to the left you can see some of the runs on the mountain

Me, freezing in the parking lot as my mom takes the requisite picture for posterity

Monday, March 17, 2008

Gluten Free Travelogue: Day 3

Yesterday was another day full of travel. I really don’t like airplanes. After leaving my parents house at 5:45 in the morning, well fortified with gluten free foods for the flight, our flight went smoothly and we landed in Denver.

We were greeted by my mom’s friend at the baggage claim and preceded to pick up our rental car. Geege had planned out a little itinerary for us; an organic grocery to stock up on gluten free supplies and lunch at a gluten free deli. Unfortunately, the deli was closed on Sunday, so when we got to the grocery, we settled on Chipotle instead. I was far to hungry to wait, and I knew that I would be able to get good, edible food there. The young woman who served me was nice enough to change her gloves before preparing my salad, and the woman in line in front of me said: “oh, my boss has to do that too.”

The Sunflower Farmer’s Market left much to be desired in the gluten free department. The produce and other product selection was great. They have an extensive bulk food department, although you never know whose touched those items. In the freezer case we were directed to there were about 3 types of gluten free breads. I did find some EnviroKids gluten free cereals and cereal bars along with some really good corn thins; something I’ve never seen before but is like a skinny rice cake made from corn.

After stocking up on what we were able to find we headed out to the ski resort, checked in and went to get fitted for our rental skis. After drama in the rental shop, apparently our reservation wasn’t booked into the computer yet; we headed to get the rest of our supplies. My mom got us a room with a little kitchenette so that we (I) could prepare all the meals and wouldn’t have to worry about eating out. I really appreciate this because it takes a lot of stress out of the trip. And seriously, people in Manhattan would kill for a studio as nice as this hotel room.

Today we skied. And skied. And skied some more. What else is there to say? The conditions were good and had fun even though I wasn’t satisfied with my skis. I’ve got new pair to demo tomorrow.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gluten Free Travelogue; Day 1

My Office is closed next week; this means a vacation for me! Today I embarked on the first leg of my weeklong ski trip in Colorado with my mother. Flying form New York to Michigan isn’t usually too bad. I packed last night, and only forgot a few things.

Along with my ski boots and clothes I probably have more gluten free protein bars than the two of us can eat in 5 days. Protein powders, vitamins, prednisone, creams and other emergency supplies. I packed gluten free food for the time I’d be stuck in the airport; my experience with LaGuardia is that it’s no great shakes, gluten free or otherwise.

Spending the night at home in Ann Arbor I was less worried about gluten than I was about maintaining my normal diet. I’m not quite sure how to explain this; the term carb addict comes to mind. Whenever I eat bread or pasta, even gluten free ones, for a meal I am never satisfied, I keep going back and eating more and more until I feel sick and disgusted with myself. A slice of bread or a little rice is one thing, but a sandwich is never satisfactory.

I was worried because earlier this week my mom told me that she had prepared gluten free lasagna for us to eat. She made one earlier in the week, which my parents sampled and them froze for me dad to eat while my mom and I are away. She said that the Tinkyada whole grain rice pasta she used turned out really well. She said she preferred it to standard pasta.

I was afraid it was going to be a fatty, cheesy mess that would ruin my diet, but then I remembered that my dad is on a heart healthy diet. She used low fat mozzarella, fat free ricotta and a mixture of beef, veal and bison. And it was really good, except for all those noodles. The noodles themselves were great, maybe a little over cooked, but she made the lasagna itself several days ago and only baked it today. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the right balance of foods that I needed after a day of upheaval and travel. I kept going back for more without satisfaction.

I’m reminded that I really need to pay attention to my body and head it’s signals, I would have been much happier with a simple piece of fish or cottage cheese and granola. I must remember to emphasize this when we shop for supplies in Colorado. At least we’re staying in a joint with a kitchen, and we’ll be able to cook for ourselves this coming week. The challenge may be finding supplies.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Musings on the F Train

As much as New Yorkers love to gripe about the subway, it really is a remarkable system. It moves I don’t know how many people all around the city everyday. Where else can you see so many different kinds of people all in one place, united in the same pursuit: trying to get ‘there’. So many cultures merge, and sometimes collide. I marvel at the diversity.

Today, as I stood in the F train surveying my fellow riders I saw nothing unusual. Two teenage boys sharing headphones, an elderly man with can and newspaper, a can of soda here, a bottle of juice there. One woman eating licorice and reading a gossip mag, another with her Starbucks yogurt parfait. Empty calories, Mindless eating.

For a moment I was struck with how jealous I was of them, able to pick up whatever the feel like without a second thought. I missed that, not readying every label with eagle eyes before a purchase.

And then I took another bite of my celery and was reminded of what I do have: my health. And mindful eating. Being gluten free has made me so aware of my body. What it needs, what it doesn’t need, and how it reacts to different things.

I think to myself: if I have to stop to read the labels, why not smell the proverbial roses while I’m there? Take this opportunity to be conscious of everything I eat, even, especially, the things I know are gluten free.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Congratulations Nick & Erin

This blog isn’t just about gluten free food. It’s about living and enjoying life too, my life happens to be gluten free. There are few things that make me happier than creating beautiful objects. Specifically, jewelry that brings joy to others as well.

I recently had the privilege to do this for one of my very good friends. After much work on my part, a young gentleman I know, Nick, ended or successful conspiracy by proposing to my friend, Erin, with a (gluten free) ring that I designed and made just for her.

She was so thrilled that I got such a wonderful, incoherent call at the gym that others around my stopped to see what was going on. If I may paraphrase, it went something like this: “I love it! It’s perfect! Oh my God! I love him! I love you! It’s perfect!”

As an artist, I can’t ask for anything more than that! Please join me in wishing Nick and Erin all the happiness they can handle.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Life in the Land of Gluten

I've been feeling poorly lately. Itchy skin, bloating, feelings of despair and self-loathing.

Not to hard to pick up that these are symptoms of gluten exposure for me. Work is stressful, but that doesn’t explain why I’m so exhausted. Why I gained 5 pounds in three days. Why my skin is breaking out in a rash.

It’s time to take stock of my surroundings again. I moved into my current apartment in August, living with my boyfriend and his parents and two brothers (gotta love New York life!). Everyday when I get home from work his mom has food on the stove waiting for all of us. After a long day at work and the gym I usually stuff whatever is on the stove right into my mouth.

Now, everybody here except me is ‘normal’. They eat bread all the time and there is often soup with pasta for dinner. My boyfriend’s mother doesn’t speak English, and I’m not sure she understands that I can’t digest gluten, but she knows I don’t eat bread or pasta or anything with beer in it. I know that she is as conscientious as she can be.

I never put my food on the table, which must be coated in gluten from all the bread they eat here, but somehow I ate something contaminated.

I was in the kitchen playing with my gerbils and I saw my boyfriend’s brother serve himself soup with noodles, and then use the same spoon to serve himself chicken. I had an ‘aha’ moment. His family doesn’t, or won’t, understand how serious this is for me. Even my boyfriend double dips knives between bread and peanut butter or cottage cheese. Every time I remind him he looks at the knife, looks at me, holds it up and says “look, no crumbs” and I have to remind him that you can’t see gluten, even if it’s there.

I’m always telling myself that I shouldn’t be eating the food that’s on the stove. Even though it tastes SO good, I know how it’s made. It’s chuck full of oil and fat. I am reminded again that I shouldn’t be eating anything that I don’t prepare myself. I simply can’t live like this.

My boyfriend is very thoughtful about it when I’m around. He knows what I can and can’t eat. He hides his impatience very well when I read the label on every single thing in the grocery store. He hates to see me when I’m suffering from an episode. He calls my upset stomach 'The Alien'. As I read other gluten free bloggers I see that others, like Gluten Free Girl, have such wonderful support networks. It’s something for me to aspire to, to educate my friends, family and as many total strangers as I can.

For now, I have to crank down and get well, and work on another way to navigate this minefield I live in.

A Case of the Itchies

So I'm laying here in bed pondering what I ate today that could have been contaminated with gluten. I have the itchies, so I know it was something. My best guess is that the food that my future mother-in-law cooked must have been contaminated in some way. It's the only food I didn't prepare myself.

Raise your hands if you have dermatitis herpetiformis too! In my case, my first symptom to manifest, before the systemic and emotional symptoms. My whole life I had itchy dry patches of skin that wouldn't heal for months at a time. My mother was always told that it was eczema, but none of the treatments helped for long if at all. It was this that ultimately led me to a gluten free diet and later diagnosis of celiac disease.

I'm sure everybody's symptoms are slightly different, but I get little pustules that itch and pop and create a rash that won't heal. And, more distressing, the skin on and around my nipples flakes of and bleeds. I have had open wounds on various parts of my body that have lasted anywhere from 4 to 8 months without healing.

I started a new job in August and qualified for health insurance in December. As soon as I was able I started looking for a dermatologist who was in my network, and could see me quickly because my skin was really starting to bother me. Somehow I got lucky enough to find one who had actually heard of celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis and was able to prescribe something that helped. So for all of you that are looking for a solution in addition to a gluten free diet, I highly recommend this new solution. For the itch he gave me a hand full of samples of a new antihistamine called Xyzal. To help with the external manifestation I gave me a 2% topical steroid, Mupirocin, to be mixed with an antibiotic, Fluocinonide, mixed together and applied over affected areas twice daily.

Using this treatment all of my open sores, including those that were at least 4 months old, healed with in the two weeks till my next visit. Since my living arrangement makes it all too easy for me to eat slightly contaminated foods, having a solution like this is crucial. For the first time in my life I am open sore-free, and I'm actually beginning to get vain about all the scars I have from the past. (Whenever I go to get a pedicure I hear "ah, you go camping? Have mosquitoes?")

It's nice not to suffer from itching, open sores, since these easily start to send me into the gluten-induced emotional downward spiral. Knowing that I can head it off at the start helps enormously.