Halloween Candy, Gluten and Me

My mother was certain I had made myself sick gobbling down all those candies, but it turned out there was another monster to blame

(Photograph by Twenty20)

By the time I finished trick-or-treating on every Halloween of my childhood, the large plastic pumpkin containing my candy haul was so heavy that it made my arms ache.

My mother would take one look at me and sigh. "Must you take every single candy you're offered?"

But candy was the very best thing about Halloween for me. An aching arm or two was worth it for so much sweetness.

Another "best" thing was that we kids were allowed to trick-or-treat without any anxious, buttinsky parents hovering over us. Since we traveled in large packs throughout our working-class Bronx neighborhood, our parents felt there was safety in numbers.

For one glorious night each year, teenagers, tweens and little kids of all races and ethnicities, masquerading as witches, warlocks, superheroes, demons, aliens, Hollywood femme fatales and princesses, co-existed in perfect harmony.

In dulcet tones, we said to one another, "You don't like Tootsie Rolls? Here, take my Almond Joy. Hey, thanks for the Tootsie Roll!"

My absolute favorite was candy corn, a gooey mix of sugar, corn syrup and confectioner's wax. Just looking at its glistening medley of orange, yellow, and white made my pulse race. The instant I took a bite, I experienced an intense, soaring sugar high.

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I also devoured those long red licorice sticks that appeared in many of my treats bags. They too were gooey, waxy, divine.

Next were the Milky Ways. The chewy chocolate and caramel clung tenaciously to my teeth—in a good way—and were irresistibly sweet.

But inevitably, by bedtime, I had a severe bellyache and headache that lasted well into the next day. My mother was certain I had made myself sick gobbling down all those candies, shoving two or three pieces at a time into my mouth. My Yiddish-speaking Grandma Ada, who lived nearby, shook her head and called me a chazer (little pig) with equal parts annoyance and affection.

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What we didn't know back then was that it wasn't just the candy. I'd been born with celiac disease, an autoimmune illness that rendered gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley and rye—toxic to me. Nor did we have any idea how many of the candies I devoured contained it.

For those of us with celiac, gluten has immediate, unpleasant short-term health effects, as well as serious, long-term ones. I'd been underweight since birth. At age 2, I began breaking bones. I developed weird skin rashes. I was anemic and calcium-deficient. I was often fatigued. I spent way, way too much time on the john—so much so that my father and brother would pound on the door of our single bathroom yelling, "We need to go, too! Get out!"

The long-term health issues are too many to list. They include malnutrition, infertility, learning disabilities, neurological problems, osteoporosis and high risk for particular cancers.

Despite my having nearly every classic symptom in "The Book of Celiac," no doctor of the many my mother schlepped me to ever tested me for it. I wasn't diagnosed until well into adulthood. By then, I'd consumed a ton of gluten. Not just in the form of Halloween candies like red licorice sticks and Milky Ways (both of which contain gluten galore), but also in bread, pasta, pizza and the occasional rum & coke. Even my fire-engine red lipstick contained gluten as a thickening ingredient.

As soon as I received the diagnosis, my life radically changed. I suddenly morphed into the "difficult" guest at dinner parties. I asked hosts to inform me beforehand of cooking ingredients. I implored them to be wary of cross-contamination. Sometimes I had to bring my own food and dealt with those obnoxious, nosy guests demanding to know why I ate a chicken breast and steamed veggies while the host served pasta and bread.

More recently, as the gluten-free diet has taken off even among those without celiac, I've been accused of being a silly fad follower.

I had to learn an entirely new way of cooking. Gradually, I grew to love pizza with quinoa crust (although I pronounced quinoa incorrectly for years), gluten-free soy sauce and bread made with tapioca flour.

I never again shared a toaster with my family or anyone else. Hidden crumbs could cause cross contamination.

In the end, though, living gluten-free is worth it (just as those aching arms once were at Halloween). I've saved my body and myself. As Grandma Ada used to say to ward off the evil eye: "Kenahora—pu pup pu!"

There's more good news: my beloved gooey, waxy candy corn is gluten-free.

And, some amazing news, at least for me: I'm feeling brave enough this year to throw my first-ever Halloween party. I've asked each guest to bring a favorite candy, one that reminds them of happy Halloween memories.

I'll supply candy corn, of course. My friend Mindy and my teenage daughter have volunteered to bring, respectively, gluten-free Reese's Pieces and gluten-free pumpkin-shaped Peeps.

Undoubtedly, some friends will arrive bearing red licorice and Milky Ways. But I'm finally confident that my years of vigilance about gluten means that I'll be resolute in the face of those sticky, chewy, beautiful candies, no matter the vestigial cravings they may arouse in me.

I'm also confident that, were my mother and Grandma Ada still with us, they'd be proud of me. My mother would smile and say, "So, finally, you're not taking every candy you're offered!"

Grandma Ada would add, "Mayn kind, you're no longer a chazer—pu pup pu!"