Having your cake

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election I was working on a short, “fun” essay for a food website about what it’s like to watch The Great British Baking Show when you have celiac disease. We did one round of edits and then Trump was elected and it seemed impossible that anyone would ever care about any short “fun” essays ever again, least of all me. I told the editor I didn’t want to keep working on the essay, forgot about it, and basically continued to feel that way about professional first person writing that wasn’t explicitly connected to the crises at the forefront of my consciousness for the next three years.

Then last night I was watching The Great British Baking Show and I started thinking about that essay, so today I reread it. It’s not a huge loss that it won’t ever be published but it was kind of good, and sad! It made me realize how much my celiac diagnosis affected my career trajectory. In the years leading up to it, I had begun to write seriously about food. I hosted a YouTube cooking show in my apartment, inviting authors I’d never met to come and cook with me while we talked about their novels and memoirs. I reviewed cookbooks and had a food blog and volunteered in a soup kitchen. I made cinnamon rolls that tasted just like Cinnabon’s and pork buns that tasted just like Momofuku’s. Everything was going well except that I felt sick pretty much all the time.

I kept doing some of those things after eliminating gluten from my diet, but I still feel bad about foisting some of the things I (gratefully) eat on guests who don’t have any reason to avoid wheat (and rye and barley and spelt etc). Gluten-free baked goods are almost universally inferior to gluten-full ones, sorry to this flan. In some respects, of course, my cooking has improved out of necessity, and I’ve explored recipes from countries where wheat isn’t as much of a staple as it is in Euro-American cooking. But I’m also forced to cook for myself the majority of the time, since only relatively expensive restaurants can be counted on to avoid cross-contamination and keep track of allergens well enough that I won’t get sick from their food. Cooking all the time, especially with kids, has made me much less enthusiastic about cooking, as subscribers to these complaints already know. I also just don’t really look forward to things the way I used to. Like, for example, food-focused holidays, or traveling. I think of the logistical headaches involved in being not hungry rather than looking forward to meals. More than anything I miss the sense of freedom and possibility that I felt back when I could still respond to a dinner invitation by saying “wherever, I eat everything!”

On the other hand, though: I now very rarely experience the shaky, poisoned-gut pain that plagued me for years of my twenties. And I still love thinking about everything that food means and everything that cooking can do. I also still love Bakeoff, even as I understand this love to be slightly rooted in masochism. Then again, imaginary cakes — the ones on tv, the ones in cookbooks and memoirs and novels — are the kind I have always liked best.

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