Monday, November 7, 2011

Thankful for Change

When one mentions the holidays, common associations may include colder weather, relatives, gift shopping, changing leaves, knit hats, vacation, turkey, and pine trees covered in tinsel.  Stress may also come to mind, as to-do and to-buy lists have a tendency to continue growing past our budget and our patience.  But for me, when it all boils down, the holidays are a special reminder of how fortunate and blessed I am.  Blessed to have family and friends that love and support me.  Fortunate to not only have a job, but a job that I enjoy.  And exceedingly grateful for my health and the harmony I have found with my body.

Now when I was younger, just the thought of the holidays would set my mind awhirl with anxiety and fear.  Starting in middle school, I began experiencing frequent panic attacks, and my strategy during family gatherings was to mill about long enough that everyone saw me and then go hide in the bedroom set aside for everyone's coats.  And though I didn't make the connection at the time, in hindsight, the panic was very likely linked to my "sensitive stomach" and the tendency for it to "complain" during these parties.  Aside from being an unruly, rebellious teenager (which I definitely was), the underlying reason for not wanting to be at those parties was because it hurt.

And while in that situation, "hurt" mostly refers to physical pain and discomfort, as I grew older and became less unruly, "hurt" began to include increasing amounts of emotional pain as well.  This was especially the case after moving across the country to Austin.  It was a fresh start for me in so many ways - new climate, new apartment, new school, new friends, etc.  I had a glimmer of hope that perhaps I had left the panic attacks and digestive mutiny back in Michigan.  But alas, that was just wishful thinking.

When the holidays rolled around and a bunch of us grad school "orphans" who were away from family got together, I truly wanted to enjoy myself.  I wanted to connect with my new friends, go back to the table for seconds, laugh and relax and smile.  That's the Jonathan I wanted to be.  But I was stuck in a rut, walking on eggshells and keeping an eye on the clock and on the door.  And that internal struggle of wanting and not wanting, approaching and avoiding, really started to frustrate and depress me.  And eventually it got to the point that if I didn't go home to Michigan for the holidays, I would just treat those days like any other, perhaps making brief appearances at gatherings, but mostly keeping to myself.  They were just another day off.

Fast forward to 2007, and finally making the connection between what I was eating and how I was feeling, you'd think the holidays would be better, right?  Just take the gluten out, and done.  But like many transitions we make in life, it can often be darker before the sun rises.  Now that I had a better idea of why the holidays and gatherings made me anxious and sick, I wanted to give the holidays a try again and not feel like I had to spend them on my own.  But being so new to gluten-free, I still had far more questions than answers.  And as a result, when it came down to communicating this new dietary constraint to others at holiday gatherings, a lot got lost in translation.  And so anxious and sick made their encore.

Despite all that, it didn't discourage me.  If anything, it brought to light that instead of trying to make various holiday traditions conform to my dietary constraints, I needed to create new traditions that would respect and celebrate the needs of my body.  I needed to embrace this fresh start to write my own rules and find and make new recipes for the holidays.  And most importantly, I needed to connect with other "canaries" who would understand what I was going through.

So in 2010, I finally co-hosted a gluten-free, dairy-free Thanksgiving - an event that was three years in the making (at least in my mind).  Words can only scratch the surface of how amazing it felt.  All the food was gluten and dairy free, and as motley as our group was, the diversity of traditions represented in everyone's dishes reflected that.  Beautifully.

Hummus trio with crudite

Chicken dumpling soup, butternut squash bisque, and mulled wine

And while many attending were gluten-free and/or dairy-free, some friends who weren't food sensitive also joined us.  And when everyone had arrived and we began to eat, everyone's eyes got bigger as we exchanged glances, not verbalizing but understanding how each other was feeling.  The food was incredible.  And when people returned for seconds (and sometimes, thirds), it was often with amazement that they hadn't been hit by the food coma truck yet.

Collards with ham, carrots, and mushrooms

Turkey stuffed with oranges

I had been so nervous, not sure of how people would respond to the food and different ingredients.  But all of those doubts quickly disappeared.  There was so much love in the room and love in the food.

Sweet potatoes filled with herbed Daiya cheese and wrapped in prosciutto

Cornbread casserole with jalapeno and red bell peppers

And at the end of the night, cleaning up and packing leftovers for everyone, I was left feeling immensely proud.  And with my Pavlovian conditioned association of holidays with stress and fear failing to make an appearance, it encouraged and inspired me.

Pumpkin Snickerdoodles

Pumpkin bread pudding with almonds

So with Thanksgiving less than a month away, and this being the first Thanksgiving while writing The Canary Files, I wanted to share that love, that encouragement, and that inspiration.  I don't know of anyone for whom the holidays are "easy."  But for those with specific diets it can be especially difficult, and I know all too well the feelings of isolation, frustration, and even anger that can result.  But trust that the sun will rise, knowing that you are not alone.

In the next three weeks, I will be churning out as many holiday and season inspired recipes as humanly possible.  Some familiar, some loosely based in tradition, and one or two straight from left field.  They are all recipes that I would love to include in my own Thanksgiving feast, inspired by the sights, smells, and tastes of autumn.  And even if I don't have the opportunity to enjoy a repeat of last year's gathering, at least I'll be sharing this food with you.  And hopefully through you, with those whom you hold dear.


Change requires a lot of us, and at times it may feel easier to just give up and walk away.  But maintain the faith that whether it's "good" or "bad," change forces us to grow, to learn things about ourselves and the world around us, and to find strength from within that we never knew was there.  And in my case, through that faith, wisdom, and strength,  I came closer to becoming the Jonathan I aspire towards - conquering fears, dispelling doubts, and leading with love and light.

And for that, I am grateful. 


  1. Mmm mmm mmm the Holidays. Makes me think of freshly brewed salabat, cocoa and lovely soups. That and the crazy parties with relatives and people overplaying holiday music. I know what you were talking about about parties being daunting. I remember them being a lot easier when we were younger because we could focus on playing with the other kids and having 'private meetings' in a Florida room while one kid chomped on a monstrous turkey leg while recounting tales of their parents. You know what I'm referring to? ;p Anyway, I'm glad that you've been able to find a harmony. Above all else the Holidays really do make you reflect on what or who you cherish most in your life. It's easy to feel lonely during the Holidays when you see billions of advertisements showing picture perfect gatherings with a super happy family. Not everybody has that, but we do have many different kinds of family. I think what I love most about the Holidays is that you get share and give and when this has to do with the food department.... you know me. Anyway,I hope you have a great 2011 Thanksgiving... I can't believe it's nearly 2 weeks away! I will see you in December and we'll have a feast!

  2. Yep, I know what you're referring to. :) It is true that "happy" means a lot of things to many people during the holidays. And while most won't have that picture perfect gathering, they can at least be reminded of what's really important to them. I'm also excited to see you guys - it is hard to believe that it's coming up so fast.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting, as always, Jess. Give Seeley a bellyrub for me. :)

  3. What a great happy ending! To be able to really enjoy a food holiday is the best. Hope you have a fantastic Thanksgiving this year!

  4. That it is. :) Hope you have a fantastic Thanksgiving as well, Lisa!

  5. can i have the chicken dumpling soup recipe? :) for my dad when he comes to town


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