Then, fifteen years ago, Fenster's doctor suggested a surprising cure. "He told me, 'Just stop eating wheat, and you'll probably clear up,'" Fenster remembers. The doctor had diagnosed her intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. The diagnosis meant that Fenster would have to completely revamp her lifestyle -- including the dishes she'd fed herself over the decades.
But when the going gets tough, the tough get cooking. Fenster has based a business on her illness, and today she's one of the nation's leading authors of gluten-free-recipe cookbooks. Her first, Wheat-Free Recipes & Menus: Delicious Dining Without Wheat or Gluten, was published in 1996 and has sold over 55,000 copies. Her next three books sold 55,000 copies collectively, and her one-woman publishing house, the Centennial-based Savory Palate, is about to publish a sixth. Fenster's kitchen tomes (available at www.savorypalate.com) are the Joy of Cooking for people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease, an immune-system disorder of the small intestine.
In early June, Fenster will help welcome celiacs from across the nation to the Gluten Intolerance Group's annual educational conference -- three days of celiac-centered lectures, instruction and social activities. Workshops will teach participants how to fix meals without using wheat products; counseling sessions will show them how to deal with the disease's serious symptoms. Celiac impairs the small intestine's ability to pull nutrition from food that's being digested, and it leads to everything from malnutrition and severe diarrhea, gas and constipation to headaches, blurred vision, behavioral disorders and slurred speech. Experts estimate that over 2 million Americans have the disorder, and many of them are still undiagnosed.
"My doctor told me it was all in my brain," recalls Westminster's Terri Dittmer. But her physical condition deteriorated so badly that one day her husband came home and found her crawling to a toilet, unable to speak. She wound up in the emergency room for treatment of dehydration; a biopsy of her small intestine revealed that she suffered from celiac.
That revelation answered years of questions, yet created many more. "When you're first diagnosed, you feel like you're lost on a desert island," Dittmer says. "You don't know anybody else with the same diagnosis. It's like losing a friend or a pet, and you go through the stages of grief and denial, like part of your life is gone."
Because wheat flour is such a staple of the American diet, celiacs have to avoid most packaged and processed foods and carefully analyze the ingredients of everything they might eat. At home, they replace the typical wheat flour with flours made from gluten-free grains. But those flours don't perform like wheat flours, so Fenster's cookbooks help celiacs learn new cooking and coping skills.
"We are a wheat-saturated society," Fenster says. "You pick up almost any ready-made food on the shelf, and there is probably some component of wheat in it. You have to give thought to every single bite that you take: Is this safe for me? Am I going to get sick? If I do get sick, can I get to a bathroom?"
When Fenster first got her diagnosis, she was in denial and kept eating foods that contained wheat. Finally, at her lowest point, she remembers telling herself: "You'd better get ahold of your life here, or you're going to be sick the rest of your life. And it's not going to be any fun."
She started by revising her favorite recipes to make them gluten-free, and in the process she discovered that cookbook advice on the topic was very limited. So she quit her job as a telecom marketer, wrote her own cookbook and became a full-time gluten-free guru. "I was in the hard-core, dog-eat-dog business world," Fenster recalls. "I thought I could help people."
And she has. "Getting a cookbook helps you get started, and you realize, 'Oh, I can make those,'" Dittmer says.
"Her books are the best," says Kim Toltz, a Denver mother of two children with celiac and food allergies. She and her husband, Randy, went through hell trying to find out what was ailing their young kids. Their son suffered from severe headaches. Their daughter hadn't gained a pound in three years and suffered from mood swings. One minute she'd be a dream child, Toltz says, "the next she'd say she wanted to cut you up with knives."
After years of tests at various clinics, doctors at Children's Hospital determined that gluten was the source of the Toltz children's problems. During their first gluten-free month, the now nine-year-old girl gained five pounds and the boy's headaches stopped. Although the Toltzes were relieved to finally have a diagnosis, "our life revolves around it now," Kim Toltz says. She relies on Fenster's books to guide her through the laborious process of cooking for celiacs, right down to baking special birthday cakes and pizzas that her children can take to friends' parties. "When I make dinner, I make a ton of everything and freeze it," she notes.
Today the Toltzes lead a Denver chapter of Raising Our Celiac Kids (ROCK), which has about forty members. And they'll head up extensive programming for celiac kids and their parents at next month's conference. In addition to adult cooking classes, that event will feature vendors selling gluten-free foods, from pre-made and mixes to new types of wheat-free flours. (Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage and other health-food stores carry a wide variety of such products.) And conference attendees will be able to eat at area restaurants -- Assignments, Maggiano's and Outback Steakhouse -- that cater to gluten-intolerant diners.
But the biggest asset of the event may be the fellowship it provides. "It helps you handle the psychological issues," Dittmer says. "It's nice to know you're not alone."
And Fenster is always there. "One lady sent me an e-mail yesterday saying, 'You've literally saved my life.' She told me how the book was falling apart, she used it so much," Fenster says. "That's very satisfying for me."