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Turkey, of course, is gluten-free, assuming you do not baste it with any liquid containing gluten (such as soy sauce).
If you are expecting guests at Thanksgiving dinner who have the gluten sensitivity condition known as celiac disease, nothing is more important to a successful meal than providing dishes that are absolutely, positively gluten-free. It is unlikely that anyone who has celiac disease would have an adverse reaction while still at the table, but the tiniest speck of any kind of wheat, barley, or rye can cause the gluten-sensitive to spend hours or even days dealing with bloating, diarrhea, gas, and severe intestinal inflammation. These are just not the way you want your Thanksgiving dinner to be remembered.

Celiac disease (spelling coeliac disease in most of the English-speaking world outside of North America) is an autoimmune disorder. Beginning just a few months after birth, one or both of the two genes that can cause the disease change the immune system so that it begins to recognize the protein in grain as an infection. When the protein enters the wall of the intestine to be absorbed,  antibodies generated by the immune system destroy it and the intestinal tissue surrounding it.

Colonoscopies performed on people who have celiac disease show that just a few hours after consuming gluten, the lining of the intestine takes on a reddened, inflamed texture that looks like oozing eczema. The inflammation is greatest in the villi, the tiny pockets of the intestine that absorb fat and fat-soluble vitamins from food. Since the the intestine cannot take fat out of the mass of digested food, the fat stays in the stool to cause the bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence associated with the disease.

Scientists have recently learned that the effects of celiac disease are not limited to the intestine. Microscopic tears in the intestine can admit undigested particles of other proteins that cause food allergies. Also, the antibodies that attack gluten in the intestine can get into the bloodstream and cause problems throughout the body, including headaches, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms.

Foods the Gluten-Sensitive Have to Avoid

How severe this reaction is depends on whether the celiac sufferer has one or both genes for the disease and how much gluten has been consumed, but a serving of grain the size of an imitation bacon bit (which is usually made from wheat protein) or a Communion wafer is enough to set off a severe reaction in most people with the condition. As little as 10 milligrams (about 1/200 of an ounce) of gluten a day is enough to cause severe and chronic intestinal inflammation. Even worse, many people who have celiac disease are also allergic to milk, soy, eggs, one or more sources of animal protein, and the preservatives BHA and BHT. It is essential to avoid cross-contamination of any Thanksgiving dishes with ingredients that cause the inflammatory reaction.

How can you make Thanksgiving dinner celiac-safe? This means that to make Thanksgiving dinner safe, gluten-sensitive guests may not anything made with a recipe that includes or anything that has been cross-contaminated by wheat, rye, malt, barley, triticale, couscous, kamut, spelt, or semolina. It means you should not use store-bought bread, breaded foods, cakes, cookies, crackers, croutons, pasta, or pizza unless it is labeled gluten-free. You even have to be careful about using canned broth, ketchup, mustard, cheese spread, dips for chips, imitation bacon, seafood marinades, instant coffee, instant tea, luncheon meats, soup base, and soy sauce.

If you are preparing a Thanksgiving meal outside the United States, be careful with anything labeled as “starch.” In the USA, starch is usually made from corn , which is safe for celiac disease. Outside the USA, especially in Europe, starch is usually a wheat product. If you cannot find foods that guaranteed to be gluten-free, then it is best to cook from scratch.

So What Foods Can You Make for Your Gluten-Sensitive Guests?

Turkey, of course, is gluten-free, assuming you do not baste it with any liquid containing gluten (such as soy sauce). Stuffing and dressing is fine, too, as long as it is made with corn bread (containing absolutely no wheat flour—be sure to read the label if you are using a corn bread mix) and not white bread, rye bread, or wheat flour biscuits.

It's hard to go wrong with fresh vegetables you cook yourself. All green, orange, red, purple, and yellow vegetables are OK, along with corn and potatoes. Just be sure not to add commercial soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, imitation bacon bits, or mayonnaise, or to serve gravy made from a mix. And it's even to make the rest of a traditional Thanksgiving meal gluten-free.

Gluten-Free Stuffing. Stuffing, or dressing, as it is called in the South, is easy to make gluten-free. If you usually use bread in your stuffing, just be sure to pick up a loaf of gluten-free bread with your other Thanksgiving foods. If you usually use corn bread, be sure that your mix does not contain any white or wheat flour. Many markets will also offer gluten-free corn bread ready made this time of year.

White and wild rice are also celiac-safe. Spices, walnuts, pistachios, cranberries, prunes, sausage, and red pepper are also OK as far gluten sensitivity is concerned.

Gluten-Free Rolls. If hot homemade rolls are an important part of your Thanksgiving tradition, you don't have to forgo them to go gluten-free. Make your rolls with gluten-free flours such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, teff, and gluten-free oatmeal. These flours require a little extra coaxing to get the right texture. Look for recipes that use high-protein flours, milk, and eggs to get a stretchy dough that has the right mouth feel. Or doctor your dough with the tapioca starch marketed as Expandex before baking. Use carbonated water instead of tap water in your mix. Add a teaspoon of fruit pectin to your dry ingredients. Allowing all your ingredients to come to room temperature before mixing also helps the texture of the dough. It also helps to bake your loaves in a Pan de Mie or Pullman baking pan, which covers the bread to keep it moist and allows the crust to brown evenly.

Gluten-Free Pie Crust. What is Thanksgiving dinner without pie? You could serve your guests the custard baked without the crust, but you can also make a safe pie crust. Use your favorite shortening or butter cut into rice flour, adding tiny amounts of cold water to keep the dough flexible. If you have never made a pie crust with rice flour before, you may want to experiment several times before cooking the pies you will serve at your Thanksgiving meal.

Preparing a gluten-free Thanksgiving meal is a real labor of love. The time and attention you give to getting the meal right are measure of real hospitality and affection for your guests.

  • Shelley Case. Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Reference Guide (Centax Books, 2008).