Garlic and Gluten-Free Guts
I just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Garlic and Sapphires. The former New York Times restaurant critic’s sumptuous details and rich descriptions lured me in from the start, and I couldn’t help but think she had the best job around—and that no one in her position could ever be celiac.
I immediately decided I would one day add “four-star celiac food critic” to my list of professions. After all, I’d already become a natural at the art of mainstream fine dining, celiac style. I wasn’t about to let my condition scare me away from the champagne taste I somehow managed to keep up on my decidedly less sparkling budget.
When I first got diagnosed, I worried my dining out options would be permanently limited to plain grilled chicken and brown rice. I’d always been a healthy eater in that I avoided fried food, full-fat dairy, and starchy, processed carbs like white bread and sub rolls, but I was still an adventurous eater. The spicier the sauce or more exotic the marinade, the better.
Did this mean saying goodbye to piping hot Indian food, delicate Vietnamese soups, rich French sauces, authentic Italian entrees, and hearty Irish pub food forever?
So I did what any newly-diagnosed, slightly obsessive/compulsive celiac with a photographic memory would do—I immediately memorized the extensive list of “forbidden” foods I found online, learned how to scan ingredient lists in under 30 seconds, and road-tested the quickest route to Trader Joe’s I could find. I experimented with new recipes, and, most importantly, I learned from my mistakes.
Some people around me are still terrified to serve me food—eschewing a lifetime of tradition, my Italian grandmother won’t even cook for me, and my brothers still precede a visit of mine with several phone calls of the “what can you eat? Can you have X?” variety, but I am over it.
I’d always been the type of customer who hated to make a fuss—if my chicken was pink, I’d gingerly eat around the undercooked parts rather than send it back. If I got the wrong side, I’d pretend I genuinely liked brussell sprouts. But now that I knew I was celiac, I couldn’t be meek.
Preparation was the key to successfully dining out. When possible, I checked out menus online beforehand, making a shortlist of items I thought were “safe” so I could inquire about them. Sometimes I even called ahead to make sure accommodations could be made for me. I learned to be upfront from the beginning of the meal and wasn’t afraid to ask a lot of questions. When a waiter replied “I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have any flour,” I wouldn’t order until he’d physically gone to check into it.
I am pleasantly surprised by how many kitchens and servers are familiar with celiac disease. It’s music to my ears when a waitress says, “Oh, you’re celiac? No problem. I’ll show you the four entrees I know are safe, and can talk to the chef if you’re interested in something else.” A few times, a chef has gone as far as personally marking the menu so I’d know all my options. I remember the places like that and talk them up to everyone I know, and like Ruth Reichl’s focus on good service for every customer, famous or not, I also remember the places that couldn’t be bothered to answer my questions.