a restauranting we will go

This gluten thing is simultaneously easy and hard. Easy because there’s a LOT of food available to eat that naturally doesn’t have gluten. All meats, all fruits & veggies, all dairy. Hard because they slip gluten into the most unexpected places — soy sauce, chicken stock — so when you get to more complicated dishes you really have to know the ingredients inside the ingredients. Chinese buffet? Sounds easy — avoid the noodles and put everything on a bed of rice; good enough, no? — except when you start to analyze the sauces. Brown sauce? There’s a good chance it’s been flavored with soy sauce, so that’s out. White sauce? What the thickener, please?

My son and I ate a Chinese buffet in Cedarburg last week. Out of all the items on the buffet, I could only have the chicken w/broccoli (white sauce, made with corn starch) on rice. Good thing the buffet was only 5 bucks. Unfortunately, Chinese white sauces generally have MSG in them. I had a headache the rest of the day.

Thanksgiving was easy. And fun. And delicious. I made everything. But since then, and especially since my birthday triggered a bunch of free coupons for birthday meals at restaurants (my favorite part of having a birthday), I’ve had to do a lot of questioning of waiters, which makes me uncomfortable. Granted, they’ve all been fabulous. But I just hate making a fuss. “Excuse me, I’m not going to have a violent reaction and spew my guts all over your walls or anything, in fact I’m not even SURE I’m gluten intolerant … but could you please ask everyone in your restaurant to go to a lot of extra work preparing my food just especially for me? Thank you sweetie!” *smile*

I just have to keep thinking how I’m doing good for the celiacs who come after me. For each exposure to a gluten-intolerant individual, everyone learns just a little bit more.

Some restaurants have the whole routine down pat. Like Noodles & Company. You even breathe the word “gluten” to them, and they’re pulling out the special pans and the special ingredients off the special shelves, cooking them in the special wing of the kitchen that’s free of any airborn wheat particulates, then washing them up in special sinks with special sponges. [My interpretation of their commitment to an allergen-free dining experience.] Bd’s Mongolian has a special allergy-free zone as well. In fact, when I asked my waiter there about gluten, she answered me nicely, and then about two minutes later I looked up and there was the general manager standing next to my table, handing me a hand-printed stack of their nutritional information, ingredients and allergy content. Fabulous.

I had the best experience tonight, though, at Devon Seafood Grill. Again, I always feel just awful asking questions when the waiter says, “I don’t know but I’ll go ask the chef, ok? I’ll be right back.” And then I look around and feel horrible that he’s busy but I’m asking him to leave his other customers just to ask questions for me, when I might not even order the item I just asked about. I feel like if I’m such a problem to cook for, why don’t I just stay home?

But after the initial awkwardness of my asking, the experience at Devon turned great. The waiter took a few minutes coming back, but brought a distinguished looking older man in a white shirt with him. The white shirt answered my questions, telling me he had called up the chef who created the recipe (!) just to ask if the mushroom risotto had gluten in it, and found out it was cooked in chicken stock, which was a no-no. We had a little discussion about the brussel sprouts with pancetta, which passed muster, and the mashed potatoes. I thanked him very much and he left our table.

On our way out, the host handed me a coupon for $20 off my next visit. I looked at him, puzzled, because they had done nothing wrong. And then I saw the white shirt gentleman standing to my other side. Turns out he was the VP of the restaurant chain, up from Kansas City. He told me that in a few weeks their website would feature a gluten free menu and all their servers would be trained in how to answer our questions correctly.

I had a really nice chat with him about my dinner tonight and about the restaurant overall, and I told him about one meal in particular I had eaten there a year ago that was just so perfect as to be memorable, and when I left I think we were both warmer & fuzzier for the experience.

Anyway. A piece of me is asking if I can be done with all this soon. Another piece of me realizes that this may be a lifetime commitment. Weirdly, it’s something deep inside of me that is telling me that this is going to be for the rest of my life. I should really get the “official” tests done, to see if my body is officially sensitive to gluten and/or anything else (I also suspect lactose, *sigh*). I have heard the words “Auto-immune disease” in my medical history before. My body attacks my own thyroid hormones. These food sensitivities are all tied up into the auto-immune thing, which leads me to believe I’m probably one of the unlucky ones who’s sensitive to just about everything. (Celery was probably my very first awareness of a food making me feel badly, and just today I saw it officially included on a list of food allergens.)

I should probably plan a little going-away party for all the foods I’ve traditionally enjoyed, and then hold a nice little open house for the vegetable family. Because I think I’m going to be getting a lot closer to them than I ever used to be.

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