My family has a boundless appetite — and copious food allergies. Here's how we celebrate holidays

Gluten can't stop us!

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published July 4, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Vegetables on a grill (Getty Images/Betsie Van Der Meer)
Vegetables on a grill (Getty Images/Betsie Van Der Meer)

It was the week of the Fourth of July, and "The Avengers" were going about their day — some at work, some at the beach, and some at the library — when they received the following message: “Menu will consist of: London broil, Beyond Burgers, corn on the cob, vegetarian baked beans, cole claw, potato salad, fireworks, Tito’s, wine, Etc…..”

This was the text blast my dad (who is, alas, not Nick Fury) sent to my family’s Marvel-named family group chat, alerting us to the upcoming holiday spread and giving us the green light to begin girding our loins in anticipation. 

If you know my family, this text comes as no surprise. Amongst friends, we are defined by many trademark qualities — our seven-person-heavy brood, our close-knit dynamic, and perhaps most notably, our boundless appetites. If you’re someone who typically researches the menu of a restaurant several days in advance to literally whet your appetite, or struggles to leave a plate unfinished, then you’re in good company with us. 

It’s more than a little ironic then, that a litany of allergies and modifications somewhat undercuts my family’s food fervor. Of the seven of us, four are gluten-allergic (myself and my three sisters) and three are vegetarian (my brother and my parents.) Two of “the gluten-frees,” as my parents collectively call us, like some deeply lame band name, have been diagnosed with celiac disease. It’s a chronic autoimmune condition that creates inflammation and atrophy in the lining of the small intestine, stymying it from absorbing nutrients properly. It’s why, before we knew that my youngest sister suffered from the illness, she was severely undersized. At age ten, she looked as though she were about six, which was confounding given that the rest of us have always soared well into the upper percentiles for height. 

Celiac begets a host of nasty long and short-term side effects aside from stunted growth. Fertility issues, neuropathy, iron deficiency anemia, lactose intolerance (one of “the celiacs” has this) and lymphoma are all potential problems that can manifest as a result of celiac. 

While I haven’t formally been tested for celiac, what I do know is that whenever I eat a bagel or pasta, my stomach swells to the size of a bowling ball and I become massively fatigued. Not to mention, gluten seems to trigger onsets of intense brain fog — a byproduct of my Lyme disease, a regrettable consequence of growing up in one the most deer-tick-populated areas of America. Suffice to say, I am forced to steer clear of some of the best foods out there in order to keep my health in check. 

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When it comes to vegetarianism in my family, the fundamental reasons underpinning my parents and brother’s choice to abstain from meat can be effectively siloed into three categories: environmental awareness, animal welfare, and general health. My parents had dabbled in drawn-out periods of vegetarianism throughout the 30-plus years they’ve been together, before officially committing to the lifestyle full-time about five years ago. My brother boarded the meat-free bandwagon around the same time — as a clean energy mechanical engineer and spirited Bernie supporter, it only seemed right that he ditch the beef and its subsequent greenhouse gas emissions for tofu.

This all means that dinners on nights when we are all under the same roof are often incongruous — our table looks like it’s set for Thanksgiving or Christmas, every inch covered for seven disparate diets. 

The “holiday approach” is one my family has honed for years. When it comes to the Fourth of July, a traditionally meat and bread-heavy celebration, we will typically sniff out what’s on the planned menu (if we are attending a party) to deduce how much of our own food to supply. It’s also a common practice at family gatherings — where there are other gluten-frees — to label buffet dishes and desserts with Post-It notes to prevent the younger kids from squirreling away with our only options.

And, as with anything within the purview of internet soap boxers and social media writ large, eating gluten-free and vegetarian begets a certain amount of social stigma, especially in an era where food has become increasingly politicized. Some right-wing zealots have conflated carnivorous diets with masculinity, while vegetarianism and food allergies are deemed liberal fodder. Lab-grown meat found its place as cultural grist as soon as Florida’s staunchly conservative governor, Ron DeSantis, barred the sale of lab-grown meat in the state in an effort to “save our steaks!” And less than ten years ago, gluten was marketed as a bogeyman. The“gluten-free-craze,” which was co-opted by celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and her Goop-yness, drowned out the concerns faced by at least 2 million Americans genuinely allergic to the wheat protein. 

And while many eating establishments have become more allergen accessible, it’s difficult to quell the creeping anxiety of ordering with dietary restrictions without feeling like you’re inconveniencing someone. My sisters and I have weathered frustrated huffs, rolled eyes, and worst of all, the painstaking process of sending an order back to the kitchen because a critical mistake was made. No, we aren’t demanding Karens. We just don’t want our guts to be in shambles after eating our meal. 

Thankfully, conversations about food-related allergies, and the treatments for them, are steadily expanding. This is particularly important, given that autoimmune and allergic diseases are rising. It’s not just peanuts that kill, people! Along those lines, research underscoring the climate benefits of meat-less — and lessened — diets continue to dominate the broader sustainability discourse.

Still, implementing these dietary changes isn’t seamless, even in the long term. Though my family has spent years perfecting the art of using two separate serving utensils at the dinner table to avoid cross-contamination, and ensuring that there’s an option for everybody, recalling our motley assortment of dietary needs sometimes proves to be a challenge. 

“Sounds great!” my sister said in response to my dad’s text. “But please don’t forget to pick up a few packs of gluten-free hamburger buns!”

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Allergies Celiac Disease Essay Fourth Of July Gluten Lactose Intolerance Vegetarian