29 July 2010

Lingering Questions of My Gluten-Free Existence

An article in the San Francisco Gate caught my attention this week. "I'll have the BLT - no bacon, lettuce or tomato" touches upon restaurant diners with specific dietary preferences and if/when chefs are required to meet their requests.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, adjusting to dining out has perhaps been the most difficult aspect of my new gluten-free lifestyle. Granted becoming unemployed around the same time as my diagnosis definitely helped me quit my habit of $30+ entrees at Boston's best restaurants pretty much cold turkey, but it's still been a challenge. Meeting friends for a quick, cheap meal like a burrito or sandwich is no longer possible; even salad dressing often has gluten in it. I've taken to suggesting ice cream or coffee (which I do not drink) instead. In case of emergencies (or snack attacks) I bring food with me everywhere I go (I even chowed down on a LaraBar while rocking out to Wolf Parade at the House of Blues earlier this month).

As a passionate foodie and aspiring chef, I have the utmost respect for chefs with the talent, skill and stamina to work 18 hour days in tiny, windowless sweatbox kitchens. So even though I am paying good money to dine at their respected establishments, I find myself feeling terrible when inquiring about the gluten status of menu items. For the most part, my servers have been attentive to my dietary needs and I have not had any issues. But not wanting to inconvenience anyone in any way, I still wonder how servers and chefs truly feel about needs of their patrons. So much preparation is done long before a diner even sits down at the table that many modifications are not possible. The SF Gate article combined with a Reader's Digest article (shared with me by my dear friend Jessica) titled "20 Secrets Your Waiter Won't Tell You" (sorry, industry folks, apparently RD does not like the term 'server') has me in quite a untrustworthy tizzy. I already knew quite a few of these so-called secrets (one not mentioned: don't order pasta after 9pm - the water has been used for dozens of other patrons and is quite nasty). It's apparent blatant lying to diners is quite rampant.

When debating these issues in my head, my first thoughts relate to people who make choices about their dietary restrictions vs. people told by a doctor to restrict certain foods and ingredients. For example, I know a great number of vegetarians and vegans who choose not to eat animal products. I also know many people who are lactose or gluten intolerant, or have medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease which affect their ability to consume certain foods; they have no choice but to restrain. But this is the United States of America and we live in a modern world where people have the freedom to elect special diets; we also have amazing medical care which is helping people lead longer, healthier lives than previous generations. So whether by choice or by fate, what rights do we have to request special treatment when dining out?

I don't really have the answer to this question, but absolutely agree with Chef Charlie Hallowell's statement "When people come to Pizzaiolo and say, 'I don't eat wheat or cheese,' I'm like, 'Why did you come to a pizzeria?'". As much as I miss ordering delivery from The Upper Crust, I understand there is absolutely nothing they can do to create a pizza I can eat. So I make my own pizza at home and try to forget about the perfection that is Upper Crust thin crust. (Expect me to soon trek to Cambridge to try gluten-free pizzas at Zing! Pizza and Stone Hearth Pizza). So for someone allergic to shellfish, wheat and dairy to attempt to eat an upscale restaurant with a busy kitchen, then get angry about the restaurant's inability to accommodate them, is mind-boggling to me. Accept the dietary hand you have been dealt and find ways to enjoy foods you can still eat.

The other issue these questions brings up is the responsibilities of food service establishments who are boldly and kindly offering allergen-friendly options on their menus. While many places I have been take extreme care to prevent error, we're all human and mistakes are made. Unfortunately, I appear to have been mistakenly "glutened" yesterday when visiting the very new, very hip Treat Cupcake Bar in Needham. Treat is not just another cupcake shop popping up on the corner; Treat is a cupcake BAR, where customers can either order pre-made cupcakes or create their own flavor combination at the bar (a sort of Coldstone Creamery for cupcakes). They also very thoughtfully offer a gluten-free cupcake variety every day which can be customized with their gluten-free, dairy-free vanilla buttercream frosting. Obviously, it was worth a trip to adorable Needham Center for this cupcake queen. The bakery is gorgeous, the staff is friendly and the cupcake was divine. Too divine.

My midnight snack after a wonderful evening at the DCR Hatch Shell for a free performance by the Boston Landmark Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera, I was blown away by how much like a 'regular' cupcake it tasted. It was not granular or heavy, but moist and light. I thought to myself "This can't be gluten-free." And sure enough, my stomach agreed with me this morning. And all day long. My terrible headache, shaky hands, achy body and exhaustion further proved to me that there was a mix-up at Treat and I got my wish for a 'real' cupcake. Be careful what you wish for, as they say. As the cupcake from Treat was the only food I ate yesterday not prepared by me in my kitchen and I was feeling completely fine earlier, I have to attribute my illness to the cupcake (oh, how it pains me to write that).

I contacted Treat via email and received a very apologetic response within hours. I will absolutely go back to Treat again soon and give them another chance (anyone want to tag along?) but the incident only fuels the fire of my distrust of food service establishments and their inability to accommodate patrons with special dietary needs (especially when advertising they can do so). But despite my concerns, I am not going to let it impede my appetite for life, and gluten-free food. And I'm very curious what others with self-imposed or medically diagnosed dietary restrictions think about these issues - please comment!


  1. This is a tough one. Being a strict (close to vegan) vegetarian by choice AND dealing with often debilitating IBS that requires me to completely eliminate certain foods from my diet not only makes me a very picky eater and a sometimes obnoxious restaurant patron, but also allows me to empathize with those who restrict their diet by choice and due to a medical issue.

    First I will say that at least a few times a year I am served meat when I clearly tell the server that I am a vegetarian. Whether or not this is the fault of the server or the kitchen staff, it does reflect poorly on the restaurant...yet in most cases they have been so apologetic that it doesn't quite turn me away for good.

    Honestly, a lot of times I resort to lying. A lot of servers don't really care if you're a vegetarian (and I'm not about to go into detail about my IBS) but if you tell them that you have a severe allergy to a certain food and that there would be some sort of impending doom if you were to encounter it, they tend to be a lot more accommodating. Although, unfortunately they messed up your cupcake pretty bad anyway.

    I understand what you're saying about how chefs put a lot of time and effort into preparing a meal. I like going to places that have scratch kitchens because it's usually no big deal for them to leave out an ingredient. And I do get annoyed when I go to a restaurant and NONE of their entrees are vegetarian. But with all the dietary choices that people make or are forced to live with, I understand that it's hard for restaurants to cater to everyone.

    It's funny that you wrote this today, but just this evening I went to a restaurant (Prose in Arlington, MA) with 2 vegans and my boyfriend who is a pescetarian. The proprietor (who served as chef and server - yes, the service was really slow as a result, but it was worth it!) who clearly takes a lot of pride in the food she prepares, prepared a family style meal for us that satisfied each of our dietary restrictions. It was kind of exciting because we had no idea what was coming next, but we knew that it would be something that we could eat. Obviously encountering that kind of service is rare, but it was a truly great experience!

    I think you're right though. In most cases we just have to suck it up and deal with it. I end up eating a lot of salads when I would much rather be eating a seitan steak, but I can't win every time.

    And this comment is long enough that I ought to have just written my own blog post. :)

    Great post, Gina! Keep up the good work.

  2. Just found your blog. :) It seems you live in Boston, but you mentioned SF Gate and Pizzaiolo . . . I live in the bay area (live in Oakland/work in SF) and Pizzaiolo is one of my favorite restaurants EVER. I've been there twice in the past week, even. :| (It helps that it's about an 8 minute walk from my house). I can't imagine being gluten-free and dining out, as I'm sure it's such a difficult feat trying to order, but I am a strict vegetarian and I've definitely been given meat accidentally before--not a happy experience. :(

  3. Hi! Thank you for stopping by my blog and I'm glad now that I've found yours!
    In the recent Best of Boston magazine - there was an add for some new cute looking gluten free place ...I'm searching for the mag now!

  4. Glad to find this blog! I am in Boston too and have been GF for a year now! I have come to love love All Can Eat in Randolph everything they have is completely gluten free, soy free, and they are welcoming to all allergens! Really great lil place.