Vanessa Maltin, a 2005 graduate, went 21 years without knowing that she suffered from a disease that prevents her body from properly digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and many commercially prepared foods.
Maltin, a journalism major as an undergraduate, said she still remembers University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s inspiring words at her Colonial Inauguration five years ago: “Don’t let your studies get in the way of your education.” But nothing Maltin learned in college taught her why her stomach was always in crippling pain, she said.
At age 23, though, Maltin is educated and ready to teach others who also suffer from celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. Last week she celebrated the release of her cookbook, “Beyond Rice Cakes: A Young Person’s Guide to Cooking, Eating & Living Gluten Free.”
If it wasn’t for Maltin’s summer internship at The Palm Beach Post in Florida, she would still be suffering from constant stomach aches, migraine headaches and unexplained skin problems, unaware of the culprit behind her physical ails.
As a Post intern in the summer of 2004, Maltin was assigned to cover the National Institutes of Health’s consensus conference. It was here that she stumbled upon and interviewed several celiac disease experts, and started considering the possibility that she might have it.
While at the conference, something inside Maltin clicked. When she left, she went straight to her doctor – interview notes in hand – and got tested. After two decades of thinking she just had a lot of upset stomachs, Maltin finally discovered what had been making her life miserable. Her tests came back positive for celiac disease.
“After I was diagnosed with the disease, I changed my diet and within two weeks I felt like a different person,” Maltin said. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, 1 in 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease and can’t process foods that contain gluten properly.
After Maltin found out she had celiac disease, seven of her friends were also diagnosed. Maltin and her friends found out that the only cure for celiac is a life-long gluten-free diet.
So friends, family members and fellow celiacs gathered downtown at Shanghai Gardens on the 4400 block of Connecticut Avenue Wednesday night to celebrate the release of Maltin’s new cookbook, a guide on how to eat gluten- free, filled with more than 150 celiac-friendly recipes.
Maltin said as a senior at GW she couldn’t find many healthy things to eat on campus. She cheated on her new diet more times than not because it was easier to eat the available food then hunting for a gluten-free option, she explains in the author’s note of her new cookbook.
Maltin said she wrote the book while volunteering for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness during her senior year at GW. There, she helped to help other young people learn how to cut foods containing gluten out of their diets without sacrificing taste.
“I want this book to be a resource for young people,” she said.
“Beyond Rice Cakes” is the first guide to gluten-free cooking for college students, Maltin said. Not only does this cookbook offer tasty and easy recipes, it also includes humorous first person accounts of embarrassing situations that come with the territory of being a celiac.
“I was on a date and the waiter asked us to leave because I asked if there was gluten in the sauce at a Malaysian restaurant in D.C.,” Maltin said, giving an example. Another embarrassing moment she remembers was at a party. “I couldn’t drink the beer and people said, ‘oh, it’s like gonorrhea (referring to celiac disease).’ People are uneducated; there is no support system.”
The cookbook began as a binder filled with recipes from Maltin’s mom, she said. With some help from her mom, grandmother and the Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Maltin is showing young people that cooking gluten-free is easy to master. She also includes useful advice from celiac experts interspersed throughout the book.
From polenta lasagna to baked chicken pasta salad and grandma’s noodle kugel, “Beyond Rice Cakes” provides people with a wide array of tasty main dishes, desserts, snacks and finger-food recipes, Maltin said.
“Beyond Rice Cakes” also includes words from Maltin’s closest friends – cleverly dubbed the “gluten-free girls” – who don’t suffer from celiac disease but supported Maltin in her quest to change her eating habits.
“Instead of feeling embarrassed or awkward at a party when she had to turn down a beer, Vanessa became proactive,” Maltin’s gluten-free girl Kate Ackerman said at the book release party. “She took the time to educate our friends about celiac and started hosting gluten-free dinner parties.”
Maltin said she’s convinced her friends that gluten-free cooking can be tasty – using her chocolate fudge brownies and easy peanut butter cookies as an example.
Now a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Health Systems and Administrations program, Maltin continues to reach out to college-age people with her latest project, Young Advocates for Awareness. The organization will host a gluten-free happy hour series at local bars that serve gluten-fee beer, and potluck dinners where everyone cooks his or her favorite gluten-free dishes.
Alice Best, executive director of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, assisted Maltin in writing her cookbook. She said she believes Maltin’s work will help reach out to young people who need some advice on living with the disease.
“‘Beyond Rice Cakes’ is a must-read for people with celiac, their friends and their families,” she said at the book release party. “The gluten-free girls’ tips and recipes are more than strategies for simply coping with celiac.”