“She ordered the burger without THE BUN.  I mean…I like the bun.”  

The she in this case was me.

I’d stopped in a restaurant for a quick bite to eat, and the server couldn’t have been more helpful when I told her I couldn’t have gluten.  We settled on my order, and then the aforementioned burger arrived, blanketed in cheddar cheese and strips of bacon and beautifully presented on a round wooden board.  The plate in front of me, my meal now felt like an event.

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And then as I took my first bite, I heard the judgement from the table next to me. I will admit it took some of the joy out of the moment.

People make judgements all the time.

“I’d like to have the chocolate crema catalana,” I said to the server during a meal out at a hot new restaurant.

“That’s good, because that’s all you can have on the menu,” he said, meaning to be funny.  I think.

Judgements and snarky comments—and so it goes along my now year-long journey of being gluten free.

I’d gone to a doctor friend for help with a medical issue I’d been dealing with, and since he was taking blood, he figured he’d test for a few other things.  As he gave me my results, unexpected words rolled off his tongue.  “…and you have a pretty serious gluten intolerance.”  I didn’t know what to think about it at the time—beyond shock at the thought of cutting out pizza and carbonara pasta and chocolate chip cookies—but I cut it out of my diet and hoped it would make a difference.

Suddenly, issues I’d been having—among them bloating and itchiness—began to dissipate.  I wasn’t fatigued as I’d gotten used to feeling, and I began to sleep better.  There is no better way to become a believer than to feel like a vibrant, energetic human being again.

Based on the reactions from both strangers and friends, not everyone is as easily swayed.

Disbelief:  “How come everyone suddenly has a gluten allergy? It’s just a made up thing!” 

Near hysteria: “You love food…what are you going to do? No, really, what are you going to do? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO???”

Annoyance: “Can’t you just not be gluten free today?”

Somehow, an encounter with someone who has a food allergy gives some people license feel annoyed and say whatever comes to mind.  I honestly believe most people do not mean to be rude— that they don’t realize they are being rude—much in the way of someone who touches the stomach of pregnant woman whom she does not know.  But, still.

If you know me well (or even, honestly, not very well), you know that food is important to me.  I have loved it for as long as I can remember.  It is more than just something to give me fuel and to keep me running through my day.  A good meal touches my soul.  It fills an emotional hunger like nothing else.

When I went gluten free, I was struck by how easily I let that change into my life. I didn’t delve into substitutes, mainly because I didn’t want the crutch.  I wanted to learn how to feed myself properly, with real food.  I wanted to get used to my new normal.  I had gotten used to feeling bad.  I’d even gotten used to looking terrible.

Now, there are lots of gluten-free options in the world.  And while there are an overabundance of horrible, tasteless choices, I’ve found a number of substitutes that make eating pleasurable, even fun.

Still, nothing remains the same.  There is much that I miss.

I miss being able to walk into any restaurant knowing that I can eat anything on the menu.   I miss stopping into any pizza place in the city and grabbing a slice to eat as I walked down the street.  I miss being free from wondering if the server knew what he was talking about or if he was just indifferent or if there was bread pureed in the sauce or if the bread that the guy at the salad place just dumped on top of my beautifully curated salad will contaminate the greens that came in contact with it. I miss my Sunday morning ritual of a coffee with half-and-half and a chocolate croissant.  I miss the comfort of a Sprinkles cupcake.

I miss the freedom to eat whatever I want, whenever I want.

After I was diagnosed with an intolerance or sensitivity or whatever word you’d like to call it, I went grocery shopping.  In the middle of an aisle at Whole Foods, I stood looking at all the things that I could no longer eat.  A single thought came into my head:  I must mourn this.

I did.  And I’ve been fine.  And, I have moments when it’s tough.

But, there have also been benefits, despite the challenges.

By watching other people dealing with their allergies, I’ve learned how to ask for what I need.  When you order in a restaurant, if with trepidation you apologetically say that you may have a slight gluten intolerance, you will have a wishy-washy and confused server.  If you go down the list of every item on the menu and ask, “does this have gluten in it?  Does that have gluten in it?”, they will not take you seriously.   If you don’t tell your server that you have a food issue, and your dish arrives breaded and fried and you pitch a fit, they will hate you.

But if you examine the menu and make an educated guess about what can work for you, then enlist the server as a partner, explaining simply about your gluten allergy and to let you know if you are going in the wrong direction with your order, they are usually happy to steer you in the right direction.

I’ve learned how to take care of myself, sometimes the hard (and itchy) way.

At a cooking class in my friend’s apartment, it was pasta night. The chef very thoughtfully brought a gluten-free recipe for me to work on, so I wouldn’t be left out of the evening. I was grateful.  My pasta was passable, though not swoon-worthy.  One of my friends made ricotta gnocchi.

Now, gnocchi is one of my most favorite foods in the world.  (My mouth waters thinking of the simply prepared gnocchi in tomato sauce I had sitting in an outdoor Roman cafe years ago.)  At the class, these looked pillowy and airy and completely delicious.  Gluten be damned, I resolved to taste them.

The chef eyed me with my fork in hand and gnocchi in mouth and said, “I can’t believe you’re eating gluten.”  There are moments you file away, the ones when someone says something that resonates so deep in your soul that you will always remember the way they looked at you when they said it.  And then you very quickly ignore it.

The next day, I was perfectly fine.  HA!  Maybe I just needed to stay away from gluten for a while.  Maybe I really can eat it every now and then.

The day after that, I was still feeling okay, but starting to become itchy all over.

Three days after the gluttonous bites, my neck was covered in painful eczema and I was an itchy mess.

I’ve learned to take care of myself.

I’ve also discovered the kindness of strangers.  Service industry folks are a great group of people who, for the most part, want to ensure that your needs have been met.  They will often very kindly go out of their way to be certain that you are not hurt by eating in their restaurant.  They are my greatest allies and I have the utmost respect for them.

I’ve learned to ask for help.

As I make my way through this new landscape, I find that I am writing less about food.  How can you write about something when the language for it is barely formed in your head?  When each day presents the question, ‘what am I able to eat today?’

In the meantime, I continue to experiment in the store and in the kitchen.

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I eat because without food I wouldn’t survive.  I eat in restaurants because it makes me happy.  I cook because I must, because it feeds more than just my belly.  It satisfies the deepest part my soul.

And that is grace.

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