Satisfying Substitutions by
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Prompted By Comfort Food

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While chocolate isn’t strictly off limits, I’ve reduced my consumption.

My favorite comfort food of my childhood was a hot turkey sandwich. TV dinners offered them, but the best was at the Claremont Diner. I can still savor the soft bread, chewy but tender turkey, the tang of the gravy, the smooth mashed potatoes, and the tart cranberry sauce on the side. When I was 18, I got a very bad case of mononucleosis complicated by hepatitis. To build my strength without consuming fat, the doctors ordered me to eat a lot of sugar in any form I could tolerate. I have a sweet tooth to this day.

I often kid people that I was "gluten-free and paleo" before those concepts existed.

During my college years and adulthood, chocolate became my go-to comfort food. Not milk chocolate, just the good, dark kind. I am glad to know it might have had some health benefits! Pasta was also great for improving a bad mood. Ice cream and any cold milky comforts had long been eliminated due to my dairy intolerance, but I did relish a good piece of cake, with any dairy in it well heated, at my favorite bakery in Palo Alto.

My diet radically changed about 15 years ago, when I was tested and diagnosed with multiple food sensitivities–to wheat, corn, and soy. My dairy intolerance turned out to be a true allergy. Rather than slowly remove these foods from my diet, I decided to go “cold turkey” (with apologies to that comforting sandwich) and change everything all at once. This was actually less painful than addressing one food at a time. These radical changes affected my comfort food choices along with my day-to-day eating.

I often kid people that I was “gluten-free and paleo” before those concepts existed. When I first made the diet changes, there were very few pre-made comfort foods available that I could have. And those that were available were pretty terrible: imagine a piece of gluten-free bread that looked and tasted like a dish sponge. Not comforting … Dark chocolate remained an OK treat, but my aging digestion couldn’t take as much as in my younger days.

As time went on, more gluten-free items became available, and these days I do have the option of comfort food in the form of cookies and the like. Hot turkey sandwiches would take a lot of work to modify. Cake is very tricky, with success at gluten-free baking a 50-50 proposition, even with recipes. For the winter holidays I have made a pumpkin pie with a wheat-free crust and coconut milk. I’m proud to report that no one realized the substitutions. And, recently I lucked out and found a very easy recipe for a vanilla torte made with almond flour and no dairy. Yum, it was delicious!

Because of the (still) limited options for comfort food, I have turned to other senses for comfort by watching baking shows on TV. I love how the bakers put together all these beautiful desserts and enjoy their visual appeal. In my mind, I imagine their texture and taste. Dick looks as me oddly when I tune into these shows. “Aren’t you just frustrating yourself?” he asks. Not at all. These shows often satisfy my comfort food needs by exercising my imagination–and there are no calories involved. Who could argue with enjoying a show when they baked chocolate cream pie and then made chocolate sauce for an ice cream sundae?


Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Gluten free used to be difficult. When my now 15 year old granddaughter was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, they also thought she might have a gluten allergy. We made a party and all of the baked goods came from a gluten-free bakery (now out of business). Everyone proclaimed the food “not bad.” So glad things have improved since then. By the way, although she didn’t have an allergy, she is now paleo/vegan. Go figure!

    • Marian says:

      “Not bad” is a common reaction to these foods by most people, Laurie. And it’s a thing for young people to be paleo and vegan. I joke sometimes that I am a pegan, a vegan who eats meat, because that comes closest to my diet. You have to laugh, sometimes.

  2. Dave Ventre says:

    Diner hot turkey sandwich platters…mmmmmmmmmmm!

  3. I wish I had a good rationale as you do to explain my sweet tooth, which persists through the decades, even for the less sophisticated forms of candy!
    congratulations on the delicious gluten-free pumpkin pie and vanilla torte. You made my mouth water with your excellent description of a hot turkey sandwich with gravy and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce–oh my! And I am with you on the vicarious pleasure of looking at wonderful delicacies, or even watching them be confected, even if one has no intention of consuming them.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    It must have been hard to make all those changes, but it seems you have adapted well, including vicariously enjoying things your gastrointestinal tract wouldn’t. You were ahead of the recent dietary trends as it turned out, and comfort is wherever you find it. Sorry it doesn’t still include the hot turkey sandwiches (have to agree those are wonderful), but that pumpkin pie sounds pretty darn good.

  5. Suzy says:

    Mare, you and I have talked about the Claremont Diner before – it was the best, although I mainly remember their cheesecake. I’m sure I loved the hot turkey sandwich too, but loved the cheesecake more. And yes to dark chocolate – thank goodness you can still eat that! Glad you’ve found some gluten-free baking options too.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    This is a fascinating angle on comfort foods — even at a sad cost to you — and thanks for sharing it with us. My younger daughter has also developed some food ellergies over the years, but hers seem very specific, and do not involve gluten, so I am still pretty clueless as to what is OK and not, other than what is said on the labels or the menus (and can they always be trusted?).

    I am glad that you have adapted as well as you have and that the baking shows are a nice release. (Perhaps the analogy between “food porn” and real porn is not so far off.) I, too, enjoy the baking and cooking shows. In fact, my only regret is the obvious fallacy of a theory that I heard from some pundit years ago; i.e., that if one watches a food show with fattening foods on it but don’t eat them yourself, you have thereby deducted that amount of calories from your own intake. If only…..

    • Marian says:

      There definitely is a food porn aspect to these shows, John, although at least you won’t gain weight if you don’t snack while watching them. My sensitivities are rather complex, so I find I need to be a biochemist regarding labels, and unfortunately need to avoid well intentioned friends who try to prepare dishes for me.

  7. Mare, I know many gluten-free folks including my sister who was diagnosed with celiac as a child.
    Lucky indeed that now there are so many options, whole gluten-free aisles in many supermarkets , and health food stores abounding.

    But like Dick, it seems to me watching baking shows would be frustrating for you, but as you learned to make easy substitutes for the taboo ingredients – all good!

    • Marian says:

      I feel so fortunate that there are these options available now. It must have been super tough on your sister to have celiac in the 1950s. There are now celiac potluck groups (I was invited to one, even though I don’t have celiac), and it was a liberating experience to be able to have so much choice about what to eat!

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Mare, you’ve given us a great list of what foods comforted you at various stages before you were forced to give them up as your allergies and autoimmune disorders took over.

    Though not a baker, I, too, love to watch the Great British Bake Show, just for the sheer spectacle of what can be accomplished. Those creations are so glorious and it is amazing to see them come together. I am in awe.

    My husband and I were talking last night about a wonderful glutton-free bakery we discovered a few years ago in Santa Barbara called Lilac Patisserie at 1017 State Street, 805-845-7400. Some of their items can be ordered online for shipping. You might want to look into them.

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