By Marietta Menchini
Sitting on the couch eating my lunch, I am already thinking about what we will eat for dinner. It’s only Saturday afternoon. Rich is eating salad with some sort of leftover chicken added to it. Crumbled gluten-free crackers are his croutons.
“What do you want for dinner tonight?”
“I don’t care, it’s lunchtime…”
“Where do you want to eat?” “Do you want to eat out?”
“I don’t care. Whichever you feel like….Mama’s or Outback?”
The truth is we really don’t have much choice and it’s not because we live in the boondocks. These are the only two restaurants we have found in our neighborhood that offer a safe dining experience for my husband. After years of calling ahead, talking with managers and owners of various restaurants, and then carefully explaining the reasons for this precaution, we’ve simply decided to stick with restaurants that offer a gluten-free menu. It’s just too risky at times, to step out of that comfort zone. Rich has celiac disease and so does my daughter. So, when we choose a restaurant we have an interesting set of criteria. Have we eaten there, AND has Rich gotten sick after eating there? What should be a fun social event, most of the time, is not. Who wants to eat out and get violently ill afterwards? Rich has often asked the question, “Do we really have to go out, tonight?” My response is always, “No,” even though I am lying.
If we are feeling particularly adventurous, we may take a long ride to PF Chang’s. They offer Asian-themed gluten-free food, but with a disclaimer on their menu that goes something like “We will do our best to accommodate the dietary needs of our customers.” The ride to Westbury is quite a trip, and this restaurant is always crowded at dinnertime. We always wait at least a half hour or more to be seated at this restaurant. But they offer this gluten-free menu and, more importantly, Rich hasn’t gotten sick after eating there.
Sometimes I notice a look of isolation in my husband’s eyes. After packing his clothes for a business trip, his next chore is packing enough food to get him through the trip just in case he can’t find an Outback in town. I’ve never really asked him how it all feels because I am aware he doesn’t like to talk about it. Occasionally, he will send a text, “Good news! I found an Outback on the way to the hotel!” and I will sigh with relief. He is a really good sport about this lifestyle and, fortunately, he is one of those people who “eats to live” and not “lives to eat.”
Another fortunate turn of events recently has been that gluten–or rather, gluten-free–is being mentioned much more frequently these days in the mainstream. Television shows such as Parenthood, the Celebrity Apprentice and Man Up, have turned it into a punchline. The shows make fun of the food or the person that needs the special food, especially if this character is causing a dining-out annoyance. Chelsea Clinton caused a media frenzy when she ordered a gluten-free wedding cake. Celebrities such as Elizabeth Hasselback, Zooey Deschanel, Keith Olberman, Gywneth Paltrow and Miley Cyrus have gone gluten-free. Food manufacturers are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, too. In fact, Chex is labeling their newest cereal gluten-free. It’s not really new, though. They just removed the malt barley ingredient that contained the gluten, slapped a new label on the box and raised the price. Could this newest food trend be something more? There is a buck to be made here, and by golly, these manufacturers will make it. Just double the price of your original product, meet the gluten-free requirements set by the FDA and wait for celiacs to buy it. They have no choice because their life depends upon it.
According to Celiac.com, celiac disease is identified as genetic disorder that affects 1 in 133 people. It is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by ingested gluten. This trigger, a protein that is contained in wheat, barley, spelt and rye grains, produces antibodies that circulate in the bloodstream and cause an immune response in the body. This immune response is an internal war of sorts, whereby the body begins to attack itself. In some individuals, the response to the gluten affects not only their digestive organs, but other organs in their body as well. These symptoms can be neurological, gastrointestinal, or appear as skin rashes that may cover parts of the body. There are many individuals who may not realize they have the disease and can be outwardly symptom-free, but their gastrointestinal system is damaged and goes undetected. The symptoms are varied and, without an endoscopy, you may never know you have celiac disease. There are no medications to cure this disease. To say the least, the disease is cured by removing gluten from your diet.
“Just eat gluten-free, “ the doctor says. This sounds so simple. Living gluten-free requires more than just eliminating gluten from your diet. It requires a spirit of adventure, commitment and a willingness to be unafraid to try new tastes. Sometimes, these tastes include things someone would never be willing to try before a celiac diagnosis. It is a lifelong commitment to this gluten-free diet.
Before purchasing any food item, the ingredient list must be read. So, food shopping is now a literary event as well. Every food purchase, meal preparation, business trip, vacation and every dining out experience requires careful planning, research and time. I can still remember standing in the grocery store, trying to find safe foods for my family, and the tears welling up in my eyes. “What am I going to feed them?” I shudder when I recall these moments. It has become much easier now thanks to “trendy” eating styles and clever marketing trends. Many supermarkets have now incorporated health food aisles. Just recently, Stop and Shop announced their stores have begun labeling their gluten-free items with a blue and white labeling system to assist with customers’ shopping selections. Times sure have changed in the twelve long years since my early, tear-filled shopping trips.
“So… let’s eat out?” We feel like going out to dinner. But it is still a question. Deciding on what kind of food is irrelevant. Adding to a stressful situation, I know I will check out the gluten-free menu and try to imagine what I would order if my life depended on it. The silent prayer that begins in my head goes something like this, “Oh, please, kitchen person, pretend your life depended on this meal. For GF’s sake, don’t cross-contaminate!”
Rich is so sensitive to gluten at this point in his life that a few crumbs of wheat bread, or even a spoon that has stirred wheat pasta that might again be used to stir his gluten-free pasta, will cause severe gastric disturbances and flu-like symptoms that can last for the rest of the evening. So much for a relaxing dinner out with my husband. Half the time, I would rather stay home, mess up the kitchen and open a bottle of wine. Twelve years later and we are still navigating through the fog. The headlights are on, but it’s so difficult to see what’s really on that menu. The menu does not tell you that Chico in the kitchen can’t tell gluten-free bread from wheat bread.
There are times I pray in my own kitchen over my meal preparations. Once while I was preparing gluten-free pasta and wheat pasta side by side on the stove, I mistakenly used the same spoon to stir both pots. Needless to say, dinner that night was a disaster. Trust me; it’s no fun poisoning your own family. Wheat pasta is a now a thing of the past in our kitchen. The kitchen is almost entirely gluten-free. There is a lone “gluten” cabinet containing a loaf of wheat bread, a box of granola bars and a bag of pretzels, but that’s about it. Because fast food is a minefield that the entire family simply avoids, our Friday pizza nights have changed a bit. Rich often tells me I make a terrific homemade gluten-free pizza. My daughter has even suggested that I should write a gluten-free cookbook. As I recall this compliment, the edges of my lips curl into a smile.
The great thing about gluten-free dining is that when it works, it works so well. This is a disease that is entirely curable with diet. How fantastic is that! No drugs, no special treatments, just safe, healthy dining. Oh yes, and a bit of careful planning.