Thursday, October 28, 2010

The perils of dining out

About a month ago I had the worst gluten reaction I have had in years at an expensive restaurant in Cleveland. I’ve been so careful over the years about what I eat, but even now, when I have no qualms about telling the server that I am allergic to gluten, dining out is always a little bit dangerous.

It’s gotten better. Even five years ago, people would look at me funny when I ordered a hamburger without the bread, and downright annoyed if I asked what something was made of, as if I were trying to steal the recipe and sell it on ebay. Now most people have heard of gluten, and many have heard of celiac disease, and they don’t even blink when I tell them I don’t want any bread, thank you very much. For a long time I was so afraid of accidental gluten ingestion that I would only eat salads and hamburgers sans bun when I went to a restaurant. It just wasn’t worth the risk.

At first I was embarrassed to tell the server that I had special dietary needs, as if my health were somehow not as important as the inconvenience to the restaurant staff. Even before all this happened, I never returned an item or complained about the food, even if it was the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted. In my family, that kind of thing “just isn’t done.” Say that phrase in the hushed, faux-shocked voice that my grandparents used about those people down the road who had a child out of wedlock., and you’ll understand just how taboo “that sort of thing” was.

But I got sick of hamburgers and salads, and, ever so timidly, I began to ask the servers to find out what was safest for me to eat on the menu. Most of the time they were really nice about it, and hid their confusion fairly well.

Gluten is in everything. Sometimes I feel that it’s so pervasive in American cuisine that if I walk too close to a McDonald’s I’ll accidentally breathe it in. It hides in foods that look perfectly safe. French fries can be sprinkled with wheat to keep them from sticking together when frozen. Too late, I discovered that it can be used to thicken soups (although that French onion soup was delicious), sauces, and dressings. And I’ve reserved a special place in hell for whoever came up with the idea of adding wheat to a completely harmless spice mix.

Last month I got careless. I’d gotten used to being treated with respect in a restaurant, and so when the waitress told me that she’d make sure that everything was prepared according to my dietary needs, I should have noticed that she rolled her eyes. Just slightly, like a teenager responding to her mother. I only had a bite of the spinach, but it tasted too good to just have butter on it, and I knew. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s dinner. Instead I ended up spending the rest of the evening in the bathroom and ruined everyone’s evening anyway. Sick people aren’t a lot of fun.

I learned my lesson. Again. Last night when Hilarie and Joel took us out to a nice restaurant, I had a special conversation with the waiter, mentally vowing that if he even looked the tiniest bit put out about my needs that I would either leave or have a short discussion with the manager involving a few well prepared, choice words that I probably can’t put in print.  Maybe he sensed that, or maybe he was just a really good waiter, but the meal was so good I actually felt better after eating.  Maybe that’s what healthy people feel like all the time. I could get used to that.

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