May 9, 2007 — -- Picture chefs in crisp whites, competing en masse in a dizzying display of glimmering cutlery, simmering sauces, with the aroma of baked goods permeating the air.
Now, imagine this culinary ballet without wheat flour.
Although the majority of us may scoff at the idea of tapioca starch pie crust and potato flour cakes, for those with celiac disease at the recent Gluten Free Cooking Spree in Washington, D.C., it was was truly a movable feast.
My personal experience with celiac disease involved only unprovoked fainting spells that occurred periodically during my third year of college while studying abroad in London.
After numerous unexplained episodes of passing out on the Tube, at the Tower of London and while touring Trafalgar Square, I flew home for some medical tests.
I soon learned I was so severely anemic that I would require a blood transfusion if I wanted to return to England to complete the semester. I remained in the United States and after three months of dizziness, lack of energy and nausea, doctors were able to make the diagnosis of celiac disease.
But for many, the illness lasts years, perhaps decades, before a diagnosis can be reached, and often the consequences can be far more serious.
If the disorder is not recognized, celiac disease can lead to infertility, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, neurological disorders and several additional autoimmune disorders, including diabetes, psoriasis and liver disease.
Undoubtedly, the primary difficulty in treatment is the lack of awareness of celiac disease.
At the event Friday, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness set out to maximize exposure of the disorder in all communities.
Doctors, members of the media and health care professionals were challenged to engage in a fun-natured cooking competition using all gluten free ingredients.
The highlight of the evening: devouring an exquisite feast made without wheat, and therefore without the added worry of hidden gluten.
Awareness of food allergies has significantly increased in the public arena. In fact, several chain restaurants will cater to the special dietary needs of celiac patients.
At any Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill or P.F. Chang's location, the staff not only knows what "gluten free" means, but they offer a comprehensive menu closely labeled with options for celiacs.
Similar strides have been made by food retailers. Since January 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has required that if food products contain any ingredient derived from any of the eight major allergens -- wheat, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts or soy -- it must be labeled explicitly.
Although great progress has been made in research and treatment, it's hoped the Gluten Free Cooking Spree will provide an impetus for additional and continued advancement in food-producing practices and restaurant service, as well as inspire medical professionals to become more educated about celiac disease.
May has been named Celiac Awareness Month by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and the Gluten Free Cooking Spree Friday served as a grand initiation.
Doctors, reporters and top Washington chefs flocked to the event to learn more about celiac disease and create a night to remember for those of us who are affected by the condition.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that impairs digestion and absorption in the small intestine.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, it is "a disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. People who have celiac disease cannot tolerate a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley."
If gluten exposure is prolonged, the small hairlike villi of the small intestine are destroyed via an immune attack, preventing the absorption of any nutrients or vitamins.
An estimated 3 million people in the United States have celiac disease, however, 97 percent of those afflicted are not aware that their symptoms are related to the disorder. This is because the disease manifests itself in numerous ways, making it challenging to diagnose.
Symptoms, which vary from abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, muscle cramps, reproductive problems, behavioral changes, skin rashes, fatigue and anemia, often make it difficult to relate directly to celiac disease.
For more information on celiac disease, or to attend a NCFA cooking spree in your area, log on to http://www.celiaccentral.org.