Thursday, July 20, 2006

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.


Anonymous said...

Hey Laurie,
Garlic and Gluten-Free Guts…..

Boy do I know how you feel. I have food allergies that are serious, anaphylactic serious…I got to the point that I just refused to eat out. I was (and probably still am) so paranoid that I just refuse to eat anything that was cooked by anyone who didn’t know me.

I have a sister, niece and nephew who are celiac. My mother is the queen of baking, gluten free, dairy free, egg free wonders of culinary delight.

When I finally ventured out for my best friends graduation I rang the restaurant in advance and asked to talk to the chef.
I asked what ingredients he put into virtually everything on the menu. He asked if I had food allergies and when I said yes, he asked what….. I am allergic to anything that comes from a cow….all dairy products and anything that has even the smallest of dairy enzymes like sodium caseinate.
I’m also allergic to eggs, and egg proteins…so the chief says, “Oh, so you’re lactose intolerant” and I said “NO!!! If you put anything with dairy or egg in my meal, or use the same kitchen utensils as you have with dairy or egg, I WILL DIE!”…. that’s not usually the look a busy restaurant is going for…dead patrons tend to detract attention to good food and wines…
There was a strange pregnant pause on the other end of the line… and he handed the phone over to the owner of the restaurant….I explained my situation and, as we were a fairly large dinner party, he was keen for us not to change restaurants, so he offered to cook my meal himself and told me that there would be a “clean’ area set up in the kitchen and they would get a new glass board and knives and I could watch him prepare and cook my meal.
So the day came round and after a long day of ceremonies and church services and marches we finally arrived at the restaurant.
True to his word, the owner came out and took me into the kitchen where he had prepared a clean area and to be twice as sure he had wrapped the whole area in cling film…the funniest thing I have ever seen but he was going out of his way to ensure it was safe….and the meal was fantastic!!
I went back into the dining room and took my place at the table and we had a great night….I don’t eat deserts as a rule…It’s usually too much of a hassle, but as the deserts arrived for the others, so did one for me that I hadn’t ordered…fresh fruit salad and a home made sorbet that he had been ultra careful to make safe….on the house. It was blimmen awesome!!!
All my friends know about this restaurant and we eat there quite a bit…the owner now does a wide range of allergy free foods and I told my dietician who has spread the word amongst her other clients….
Business at “The Rooftops” is booming….
But I still haven’t been keen to spread my wings and eat out elsewhere. I have to live life armed with an Epi-pen, but compared to what else I have to live with, it’s minor….
Like you, (I hope you don’t mind my phrasing) I’m a medical freak of nature. When God had finished making all the other humans, He had some odd spare parts lying around and decided to throw them all together as an experiment to keep the medical world on their toes….and on their toes I stand!!! But only on good days….;-P
My health doesn’t stop me from doing things and living life, I just have to do them a little slower than the rest of the world and I have to accept that I need to take a break every now and then, and that that’s okay. I am a 33 year old chick. I have Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy affecting my spine and legs, epilepsy, asthma, haemochromatosis, and genetic liver disease, I have danced the waltz with cancer and I’m permanently immunosuppressed….I am allergic to dairy and its constituents, egg and its constituents, which means that some of the medications I need to survive have to be custom made as lactose is a pretty common tableting agent…I have to take 43 tablets a day to function… and I mean physically, without them I would be pretty close to dead ( been there, done that, don’t want the tee-shirt), I have anaphylactic allergies to 5 major drugs and minor allergies to several more drug types….Life is never boring!!
My motto is stay young, you have all the time in the world to grow old….I plan never to!! The perpetual teenager….making up for lost time….I guess I may have to change that motto somewhere around 60, but I have a lot of living to do before then ‘coz you never know when you might just wake up dead!!

Your blog makes me feel less like a freak of nature, more like a regular human!!!

Kiwi Jo

Laurie said...

Thanks for the good words, Kiwi Jo! It's reassuring to know there are other people out there in similar (enough) situations. I love what you said about doing things, just doing them at your own pace. It's a lesson I'm learning every day, and something that really resonated with me.

I just came home from a delicious meal at The Fireplace in Brookline, MA--several meals were gluten-free and the waitress knew just what to ask the chef for me. I had two of my favorite things--polenta and spinach--in one meal, which never happens. All in all, a wonderful and accomodating restaurant!

Anonymous said...

Hi Laurie! I just wanted to say thanks for all of your Boston-area tips for celiac-friendly places to eat out. You've made my mom-newly diagnosed and still a bit intimidated with eating out-feel comfortable and have helped my family celebrate many an event. THANKS!

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