As Thanksgiving approaches, I wanted to share the opening chapter of Food Saved Me. If you’re newly on the path to changing your health through food, the words below may resonate deeply with you. Or you may have had your own scene similar to this years ago when you embarked on your own Food Saved Me journey.
I wrote this chapter shortly after my hospitalization in 2019. It was the first time I had been hospitalized for my disease in a decade, and I was released just a few days before Thanksgiving. After a month of not being able to consume food, I had my heart set on enjoying at least a bite of a few of my favorite Thanksgiving foods that night.
After everyone had gone, I hoisted myself into bed with an aching back, racing heart, and fatigued body from pushing myself to enjoy the day a little too hard. But I had the most grateful heart. My family had lovingly made all of the Thanksgiving recipes from my Celebrations cookbook – all dairy/grain/gluten/sugar free – that night so I could safely eat a little bit. Their support and love through those actions was such a gift. And living in that moment of thankfulness brought back the memories of my very first Thanksgiving after changing the way I ate.
I never would have imagined the scene that night in 2019 to have taken place back in 2009, during my first thanksgiving eating SCD (specific carbohydrate diet). That night, I thought I would never get to enjoy my traditions and family gatherings again. I thought in order to regain my health, I would have to resign myself to a life free from the joy that food had previously brought me. You will read through the 12 year journey from this point below to where we are today in Food Saved Me.
A little spoiler- “food saved me in so many ways. Yes—it saved my body. But it also saved my dreams. My ideals. It may have saved my marriage. My life as a mom. My hopes of hospitality. Food gave me a career. One could even say food saved my faith.”
I wrote Food Saved Me to share my journey so that you will know that there is a path forward after an autoimmune or chronic illness diagnosis — there is healing and there is hope. If you take nothing else from reading my story, I pray it will be that—there is hope. Hope that you can live a full, happy, and healthy life without ever feeling hungry, excluded, or deprived. Hope that with each setback comes new learning and a renewed sense of determination. And hope that food can radically change your life for the better.
The holidays can be a difficult time to stick to your resolve, no matter how many years you are into this. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. You’re in this for the long haul, and you’re going to stumble every once in a while. We all do. And that’s okay. It’s part of the journey. But know that you don’t have to give up the beautiful memories, traditions, and FOOD that these upcoming holidays center around. It’s been my life’s mission to recreate each and every one of them with healthier ingredients so that you don’t have to.
I decided to intersperse photos of the dishes from my Celebrations cookbook throughout this story. I wanted you to be able to read how desperate I felt back then, but then see how much beauty and delicious food came from that desperation. If you’re feeling similar despair, know that it won’t last forever and that it’s ok to grieve what you’ve lost. But once you’ve processed, take the step to recreating your traditions with these foods that will nourish your body, and that everyone at your table will adore.
excerpt taken from Food Saved Me: my journey of finding health & hope through the power of food
© Danielle Walker, 2021
It was one in the afternoon, the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2009. In four hours, my husband, Ryan, and I were due at a friend’s house for our annual “Friendsgiving,” where we would celebrate the big day and feast with a few other newlyweds. After we were all sufficiently stuffed like turkeys, we would settle in for a competitive game of Dutch Blitz.
We always did it potluck style. The hostess would prepare the turkey and gravy, while everyone else was tasked with filling in the remaining Thanksgiving dishes—green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, fluffy rolls with butter, crispy bacon-fried brussels sprouts, and of course, pumpkin and pecan pie.
This year, I had signed up for two items, but with trepidation. After spending two years suffering from a debilitating autoimmune
disease that affected my digestion, I had vowed to completely overhaul the way I ate. It was an attempt to ditch at least some of the medications I was on, and with them, some of the symptoms I had been dealing with. I had just eliminated all breads, milk and butter, sugar, and some specific carbohydrates like white potatoes and other root vegetables that could be potential causes of inflammation.
Of course, when I made the decision, I hadn’t thought about how difficult it would be trying to adhere to those new restrictions during an extremely food-focused holiday season. In retrospect, I probably should have put it off until the new year.
Most of my fondest memories were tied to holidays. And nearly all of them involved food. I so looked forward to gathering around the table with family and friends to enjoy one another’s company over a wonderful meal. But now it all felt different. Lost. Abandoned.
All those traditions felt like they were being discarded right alongside my newly rejected foods.
I sat in my kitchen looking at the dishes I had signed up to bring— mashed potatoes and a pumpkin pie—and realized I couldn’t even eat them. I could make them “as is,” so everyone else could enjoy them, but then what would I eat? Just the turkey and possibly a salad— without dressing or croutons—provided someone happened to bring one. That didn’t sound at all like the joyful holidays I remembered so fondly.
Because mashed potatoes with loads of cream and butter is one of Ryan’s favorite side dishes, I resolved to make them “as is” so he could pile his plate high with three scoops as usual, and make a second version for myself. I had read claims in low-carb, healthy recipe blogs and books that pureeing steamed cauliflower with some chicken stock was an even stand-in for mashed potatoes. It sounded a little far-fetched, but what other choice did I have?
So I printed out a recipe and went to work. I boiled the cauliflower and transferred the cooked florets to the mini food processor I’d received two years before as a wedding gift. It could hold only about a cup at a time, so I worked in batches, pulverizing the cooked florets into a white, creamy substance—a white, creamy substance that looked nothing like mashed potatoes with all their stature and texture. It was runny and lacked the billowy volume mashed potatoes have. It more closely resembled cauliflower soup.
I had followed the instructions to a T, so either that blog was fibbing, or the author hadn’t eaten real mashed potatoes in years and had phenomenally low expectations. I, on the other hand, had just made the real deal and accidentally tasted a few bites as I was making them to check for flavor. And there was no tricking my taste buds.
The pie was a different story. There wasn’t a stand-in for that. How could there be? Flour (gluten), butter and cream (dairy), and sugar. All things I couldn’t eat. I made the pie from the recipe written in my grandmother’s cursive on an index card, just as I had for years, and pushed past the disappointment that while everyone else was enjoying a slice of my past, I wouldn’t be able to eat it. The autumnal smells of nutmeg and cinnamon wafting from the oven as the pumpkin custard baked were torturous, so I fled the room to shield my senses and set a timer upstairs so I wouldn’t burn it. Actually, part of me kind of hoped it would burn, giving me a convenient excuse for not bringing it while avoiding the devastation of only being able to smell my favorite dessert of the season.
Shortly before four, Ryan loaded up our car with the creamy mashed potatoes, my cauliflower “soup,” and the perfectly golden and set pumpkin pie before we made the ten-minute drive to our friends’ home. When we arrived, the others were unloading their goodies, offering each other Thanksgiving hugs, and peeking under the foil at what others had brought.
“Don’t worry. I brought real mashed potatoes too,” I said as I registered the look on a few of my girlfriends’ faces after they peered into my dish of cauliflower mush and took in the putrid smell that accompanies cooked cruciferous vegetables. I hadn’t yet told our friends that I was embarking on this new way of eating, and I didn’t want anyone to feel nervous about hosting us or guilty for eating my
“off-limits” foods in front of me.
As a few of the ladies finished their remaining prep in the kitchen
and set out some appetizers, the rest of the crew headed to the backyard for the annual game of touch football. As I sat watching the game, one of my friends set a basket of potato chips, a giant bowl of creamy onion dip, and a tray of cut vegetables surrounding a vat of ranch dressing on the bar next to me.
Potatoes are on my list of carbohydrates to cut out, I reminded myself, so none for me. The starches fed the bad bacteria in my gut, which I was trying to eliminate and replace with good, healthy bacteria that fight inflammation.
What is in that onion dip that I love so much? I thought as I eyed the carrots that I knew I could eat. I dreamt about smothering them in the creamy dip or drenching them in the ranch. They probably have milk or sour cream in them—or both, my brain reprimanded my growling stomach. Dry carrots and celery it is. I started munching on them like a bunny, eyeing with disdain the velvety dips that sat taunting me.
I heard the ding of the timer chime from the kitchen and walked inside to see our hostess pulling out the twenty-pound bird, roasted to golden perfection. She applied the final basting of juices and luscious fat that had dripped into the bottom of the pan, then tented the turkey and set it aside to rest while we guests displayed our reheated contributions on the countertop. Her husband did the honors and sliced the bird, presenting heaps of perfectly cooked dark and white meat on a platter adorned with citrus fruits and herbs.
Plates in hand, the gang ceremoniously lined up in the kitchen. I peered ahead of me, silently debating what I could and couldn’t eat, and what might be okay just for tonight, even if it was technically off-limits. When I reached for a small spoonful of the golden, toasted stuffing wafting aromas of thyme and sage, Ryan gave me a gentle nudge. I’d told him on the car ride over not to let me slip up and eat the foods I had avoided over the last couple of months and vowed not to eat tonight, no matter how tempting.
While everybody else skipped my runny cauliflower soup, a poor stand-in for the buttery and creamy mashed potatoes that sat next to them, I ladled a few spoonfuls onto my plate. Like water flowing downhill, they cascaded out and filled my entire plate. As a kid, I hated when my foods touched on the plate. I had lightened up a bit as an adult, but I still preferred my sides and main dishes to have their own places. Apparently, the cauliflower “mashed potatoes” had a mind of their own.
I bypassed the green bean casserole, knowing that if it was anything like the one my sister and I were tasked to make growing up, it contained a can of cream of mushroom soup, a tub of sour cream, and onions coated in flour and fried until crisp. The canned soup likely included wheat and MSG, and it definitely included dairy. I swept over the sweet potatoes because they had golden browned sugar in them and toasted marshmallows on top; skipped the salad because it had croutons and more of that creamy ranch dressing; and didn’t even look at the fluffy, warm dinner rolls and accompanying butter. It was just too cruel.
I finally got to the bird, picked out a few pieces of white meat— my favorite—and put them atop my cauliflower soup. The caramel-hewed pan gravy that sat in a boat next to the meat was calling my name, but I had seen the hostess whisking in cornstarch and wheat flour. I knew my body would not thank me later if I succumbed to its siren call. Having helped myself to all I could, I sat down at the table with my dry turkey and cauliflower soup and looked longingly at everybody else’s plates heaped high with my seasonal favorites.
“How’s it taste?” I asked Ryan.
“Horrible,” he said with a half-smile, knowing that’s what I wanted to hear, even if it was the furthest thing from the truth.
While everyone else chattered away, raving about the food and complimenting each other on the different sides and dishes, I crawled into my own little hole. I felt different. Left out. Like everyone was looking at me. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t even have the courage to explain why I was eating this way for fear that we wouldn’t be invited back to our friends’ homes—or worse, that they wouldn’t ever want to come to our house again.
I looked down at my plate of watery cauliflower. In the US alone, millions of people suffer from autoimmune diseases and millions more have food allergies, and this is the best we can do? This terrible food that sucks the joy out of us? I couldn’t stand the thought that this was what I would be reduced to eating if I wanted to be healthy.
Why not create your own recipes then? I mused.
I did like to cook, but I mostly made simple dishes, and I worked from recipes my mom and grandmas had been using for years. I had never created my own recipes before.
Still . . . . I thought, lifting my fork and watching the diluted soup drip back down onto my plate, whatever I come up with couldn’t be any worse than this.