Dairy, gluten, no more
by Greta Caruso
When asked to describe her culinary background, Laura Silber doesn’t hesitate: “It’s a hodge-podge.” The experiences that contribute to her dexterity in the kitchen are indeed diverse, from foraging in the mountains of Idaho to cooking spa cuisine in California. It is this variety, though, that has informed her adaptability most, and it is no wonder that her private chef business runs year after year without a hitch. The menus she develops daily for her clients are determined completely by what is available and in season on the Island. The results are fantastic. As one client puts it, “Laura’s down-to-earth persona and low-key demeanor belie her unimpeachable credentials…there is a lost art that Laura practices: the complete chef.”
A little over a year ago—with her business humming along—Laura Silber’s son Isaac turned four in the house she built some years ago off of Lamberts Cove Road. Just after Isaac’s birthday, he suffered a language and skills collapse and was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Laura immediately turned to other parents whose children had received similar diagnoses: “I talked to at least six parents who all said, ‘Does he have any history of gastrointestinal issues?’ The answer was yes, which indicated an underlying medical condition that might be interacting with Isaac’s neuroloigcal issues.
Their first piece of advice was to put him on a low impact gluten-free, dairy-free diet to give his digestive system some relief while possible causations could be pursued.” When Laura spoke to Isaac’s terrific developmental pediatrician, however, the doctor expressed concern that such a dramatic change in his diet would be too upsetting. Laura thought, “You can’t act like diet isn’t a component…. If you put diesel into a car that takes unleaded, you’re going to have problems.” Laura’s firm belief was also informed by experience: she had cleared up a troublesome condition in her own body by forgoing wheat, caffeine, and dairy for three years. So, on May 13 Isaac received his diagnosis and on May 24, Laura converted to an entirely gluten-free and dairy-free kitchen. The change in diet was far from upsetting, and within three weeks, Laura saw drastic improvements in Isaac’s behavior.
Laura and Isaac soon got in to see Dr. Tim Buie, the head of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Mass General and Harvard Medical School, and one of two American doctors who specialize in a link between gastrointestinal issues and autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Buie lies in the middle of an ongoing debate in the medical comunity and media. The bitter frustration surrounding autism’s unknown cause(s) has only been exacerbated by the exponential increase of diagnoses in the recent past, and even the hypothesis that there is a connection between the gastrointestinal system and autism yields controversy. So although many doctors are hesitant to admit that dietary supports like Isaac’s help, Buie recognized the benefits Isaac was reaping as undeniable, and kept him on the diet. They subsequently found a medical causation in a pancreatic disorder, and with the combination of pancreatic replacement enzymes and the continued gluten-free, dairy-free diet, Isaac’s body began to absorb nutrition correctly and his pain and discomfort disappeared.
Although Laura was no stranger to the kitchen, the massive change in Isaac’s diet was at first overwhelming to the single working mother. “Like many parents with a developmentally challenged child with medical issues, I was thinking, ‘And now I have to cook every morsel of food and can no longer buy a cupcake at the Black Dog.”
Initial panic aside, Laura soon found a functional system. When she has ample time, she combines various gluten-free flours in bulk to make her own baking mixes (see p. 19 for recipes), but in case of emergencies she always has a stash of pre-made gluten-free mixes on hand. She keeps snacks in her car, “So if we go to somebody’s house and they have cookies, we have cookies too,” and provides the school with cakes and ice cream they can keep in their freezer in case somebody is celebrating a birthday with the same dessert. “He’s five years old. The biggest deal in the world to him is when somebody brings in a birthday cake…When you’re first getting a child on the diet, that level of equivalency has to exist.” She shops online for gluten-free products that she can’t find on the Island and special orders some items in bulk with an always-willing Elio Silva at Vineyard Grocer.
She has also become an expert at label reading and often calls companies on her cell phone from the aisle at Cronig’s to clarify their product’s ingredients. It helps, too, that gluten-free and dairy-free products have very recently hit the mass market: even Betty Crocker has come out with a gluten-free product line.
As a chef, the new parameters in the kitchen have been an exciting change for Laura, one in which she gets to draw on all aspects of her varied past. She likens it to moving to a completely different country or becoming kosher—once you shift your frame of mind, working with a completely different set of ingredients is fascinating.
For someone who spent time as a specialty pastry chef, gluten-free dairy-free baking has been an unique challenge. “It’s actually incredibly fun and satisfying to experiment and come up with great results…and it’s not all work, especially when the end result involves cake and frosting.”
The emotional ramifications are complex though, and Laura quickly began to understand how she had to approach things in order to create the best environment for Isaac: “You have to view it as: ‘I’m helping my child seize his opportunity in the world.’”
Laura also emphasizes the importance of solidarity—although she is not intolerant to gluten herself, she never eats anything containing gluten in front of her son. “One of the most important things is to never make them feel like they’re missing out on anything…to help them feel like they’re making a positive choice to keep themselves healthy, and that you’re doing it with them.” This, she says, is particularly important in ensuring that the child doesn’t develop a skewed relationship with food. Oftentimes, parents balk at the gluten-free dairy-free diet and are daunted by the scope of the change, especially if they have more than one child. Laura has seen the best success in families who have adopted an “all for one and one for all approach” and converted the whole house.
“It sounds daunting, but it’s actually easier; you get the best voluntary compliance and the least amount of accidental dietary infractions. And you’re supporting your child by example, which is just huge, really huge. It does force you as an adult to reexamine your own relationship with food, but that’s fine—many of us need to do that anyway.”
Now Isaac, happy and comfortable with his diet, is able to focus on the important things in the life of a five-year old. For Laura, all of the thought, effort and planning ahead, boils down to one simple thing: “It’s just an expression of love.”