Food is number one on my list of values. It’s my top priority in life. Good food gives me so much pleasure and everything about bad food upsets me deeply. I have a favourite teaspoon for boiled eggs, specific mugs for specific teas and so many expectations and standards around food, it’s a nightmare for my family and friends.
It’s hardly surprising. When I was two I looked like a starving baby on the TV charity adverts. I had stick-thin arms and legs and a big swollen belly. I didn’t move much all day and slept constantly. I had no energy for anything. My mum was seriously worried. She took me to the doctors again and again and they said there was nothing wrong. Finally, they tested my blood and found the lowest haemoglobin score they’d ever seen. I was hospitalised and put on liquid iron. I had x-rays and tests and spent my third birthday on the children’s ward. Ironically, we all had pancakes as my birthday fell on Shrove Tuesday that year. Ironically because what they suspected but couldn’t confirm back in 1968 was coeliac disease. I remember the barium meal x-rays. I remember the smell of the red rubber cover they put over me as I lay on the x-ray table. I remember everyone else scurrying from the room and the weight of the rubber pinning me down. They told my parents not to put me on a gluten-free diet because I was so young. They said I would grow out of it.
Through the rest of my childhood I was regularly anaemic and had blood tests and courses of iron. My favourite food was anything with rice. Yoghurt, custard and any other dairy desserts made my mouth feel furry – I hated them and being made to eat them made me gag. My idea of the perfect evening was when my parents went out and I cooked myself a rice-based meal which I ate sitting at the coffee table my mum made at an evening class in front of an episode of Kojak. I started doing this aged about 10 and still love it now 40 years later but without the Kojak!
Times have changed though. Throughout my 20s I was plagued with digestive problems. I was told I had IBS, then a stomach ulcer and acid reflux. I sometimes had days and days off work because I couldn’t move from the house with diarrhoea and stomach pain. By the time I was 29 I could rarely eat a meal out without severe consequences. I started to experiment with different diets – Michel Montignac’s Dine out and Lose Weight diet seemed to suit me best in the early 90s. It was really the precursor to the Atkins diet – an early form of low carb and food combining. I finished up on a hugely restricted diet. I was vegan (because dairy upset me and I had trouble digesting meat). What suited me best was brown rice and vegetables. When I travelled in Indonesia for a month aged 30 my stomach was flat for the first time in my life. But I still didn’t make the connection with gluten.
That didn’t happen until I moved out of London and needed to register with a new GP in order to get the acid inhibitor medication I was prescribed to control regular flare-ups. I remember the GP’s name was Jeremy and he was very young. I wrote and thanked him later. His form asked about hospital stays and I’d only ever had that one when I was three. He said: “Suspected coeliac disease? Well, was it or wasn’t it?!” The penny dropped for me there and then and I went gluten-free from that day onwards – it was September 1999. He took blood and it showed very strong gluten antibodies. A subsequent biopsy (I will never ever go through endoscopy again without a general anaesthetic!) showed a lot of damage to the lining of my small intestine – even after three months of being gluten-free. The gastro-enterologist at Bournemouth Hospital was amazed at how tall and healthy I was when we met – he said that looking at my results made him expect that someone much smaller and weaker would walk through his door. He also said my life had definitely been shortened by having eaten gluten all my life. Great positive talk!!
So, that’s why good food is so important to me. My idea of ‘good’ is simple combinations of ‘clean’, natural ingredients, preferably organic and definitely seasonal and ideally locally-produced. Right now (2015) I know that low carb and zero grains (except for small amounts of my beloved rice – always my comforting staple) suits me best. I went through a phase of being militantly coeliac – joining groups, reviewing restaurants with no gluten-free options, getting replacement foods on prescription, etc but now I focus on it a lot less and just eat naturally gluten-free simple meals based mostly around eggs, meat, fish and vegetables. And I feel really well.