I’d rather eat a sesame-seed bagel than Ben and Jerrys.
Or a steak.
I’m a starch-a-holic. For nearly a decade, when I was running marathons, I ate nothing but bread—French bread, buttermilk bread, oatmeal, multi-grain, sprouted. You name it, and I ate it. The best, of course, was fresh out of our home brew bread maker, toasted, slathered with anything handy.
This was during my “vegetarian period,” a time I eschewed fat. So no beef, chicken, or pork.
Not everyone though this was a good idea.
“You’re the only vegetarian I know that hates vegetables,” Karin said.
“You’re the one that decided to call me a vegetarian,” I replied. “I am just eating a low-fat diet.”
“More like the Manhattan Bagel diet,” she said. “You need more variety, and when was the last time you ate anything green?”
I though about telling her I’d been REALLY hungry a few day before and scarfed up a moldy muffin. But I thought better of it.
“Hey, I like corn.”
“That’s a grain,” Karin said. “How about some spinach?”
“Ugh,” I flinched. I had vivid memories of being made to sit at my parents’ dinner table w-a-y into the evening one Friday night when I refused to eat my greens. It became a battle of wills, and I wasn’t about to eat something that looked like it had already been downed once by someone with a weak stomach.
Karin had heard this story, and she was reading my mind.
“It is spinach but it’s not cooked,” she said. “Why not try a salad with cucumbers, beets, onions, and some carrots?”
“How about just giving me the carrots and some ranch dip?” I countered.
“You’re impossible,” she sighed.
And that’s how things were for a long, long time. Finally, out of concern that eating nothing but eggs for protein would clog my arteries, I relented and began eating chicken.
Eventually steak made its way back on the menu, too. It was just too hard to resist.
But I still piled my plate with starch. God I love it so. And, when no one was looking, I slid my untouched veggies back into the serving platter.
That was my M.O. for a good decade, but then something strange happened to my GI system. My internal organs took a vote, without asking me, and decided they were going to stage a sit-down protest whenever I ate wheat. This came on quite suddenly, and for almost three years I was in agony without knowing why. I consulted my doctor, who wrote it off to stress. After all, I’m a worrier, and I had a lot going on then at work and with my extended family. So, I just ate tons of Tums.
But I was mostly miserable.
Then, when life got less crazy, my innards still delighted in jumping up and down at the most inopportune times. Travel became “interesting,” and it was a good thing that my workplace has an abundance of restroom facilities.
Eventually, I learned I was “gluten intolerant.” I found this out when Karin suggested that I try cutting wheat out of my diet, especially bread, and see if this helped. She had a friend at work who made this change to good effect. So I did, reluctantly, and the results were immediate and encouraging.
I got my life back, sort of, but I’m convinced this is a part of an evil cosmic plot to make me eat vegetables.
Eating greens helps, but I still have problems. Shopping now is quite different. I must scan labels for gluten-speak to make sure I don’t accidentally jolt my GI system. This is a real chore. What contains this nasty protein-glue? Just about everything but broccoli,
And the phrase “secret ingredient” takes on a whole new meaning.
For starters, anything breaded has gluten in it. And even when my meat isn’t breaded or fried, I have to be sure it’s not been in a toxic marinade. Worcestershire and Teriyaki sauce have gluten in them to name but two no-longer-friendly condiments.
Soups can be trouble. Wheat is often a thickening agent in them and in most gravies.
Damn. I’m getting hungry just writing this piece.
But the real tragedy is that the 4-Cs, my favorites, are now but a faint memory: cake, cookies, crackers and crust.
So eating isn’t much fun these days, and dining out—formerly a treat—now begins with Karin looking at a restaurant’s marquee and asking, “Do you think they’ll have anything you can eat?”
Italian restaurants were once my favorites, but it’s just too painful, literally, to go there any more.
So how do I manage?
Let me take you through a typical a evening-out experience.
First, after you’re seated and the server hands you the establishment’s richly-illustrated regular menu, you politely decline. Instead, you ask if they have a “gluten free menu.” The server will now do one of three things.
First, he may look at you quizzically and ask, “You want ‘free food?’”
You then have to explain yourself.
The second possibility is that he will hang his head and say, “No, but they’ve been talking about it.”
This is supposed to make you feel better. Like being given a “participants medal” when you finish out of the top ten.
The third thing that can happen is that he’ll brighten and say, “Yes, let me bring it!”
Then you experience a moment of hope… right up to the point that the “gluten-free” menu arrives.
I have seen no less that two dozen of these, and they’re all the same. Imagine a photocopied memo from corporate headquarters, wrapped in plastic that still, somehow, has grease stains underneath. At in a small box near the top of the page are the items that are gluten free, and they invariably consist of the same three offerings: Caesar salad, milk, and a baked potato—your basic “who needs teeth?” three-course meal.
OK, there are a FEW variations. But this is usually it. With one additional thing—a salutation from their attorney:
If you keel over and do a face-plant in our guacamole, we are not culinarily culpable. Because we, heretofore known as the party of the first part, have duly notified you, hencetoforth known party of the second part, forthwith, of the following facts and falderal, namely:
“The food-like dishes you will- or will-not be served are prepared in a kitchen-like space that may or may-not contain other, gluten-like cootie-compounds. We really don’t know and could, legally speaking, care less. But rest assured, our staff has taken reasonably-prudent protective measures. Specifically, we’ve attached this disclaimer to your menu and made you read it…. So now you can’t sue us.
“Neener, neener, neener.”
I don’t know about you, but this really spikes my appetite, but not so much as going days without eating anything more substantial than a toasted tablecloth.
After I read the menu, and put it down, the waiter returns, with a look of concern on his face, and asks two questions.
“Did you find anything you like?”
And then, without waiting for an answer, they wonder aloud…
“So what happens when you DO eat gluten?”
I used to think they were being polite. Now I realize that they’re terrified that the fumes from the garlic bread are going to cause me to have a seizure. I assure them that they needn’t worry; I’m not allergic—I won’t end up in an ER—I’m just intolerant.
Then comes the bonus-round question.
“So, what’s that like?”
You have to wonder what sort of hospitality-training invites discussion, over dinner in a public place, of projectile vomiting or explosive diarrhea.
I usually say, “I just don’t feel well.” But this seems to disappoint them. After all, I’ve gone to the trouble of asking for a special menu, and becoming their most-fussy customer of the evening. My great-aunts used to do this, and I hated going out for family reunions with them because I was embarrassed and annoyed by their prissiness. I was not subtle in my complaints. My intent was for my theatrical groans to be loud enough to be heard even if their hearing aids were acting up.
These otherwise saintly women must be in heaven right now, laughing their asses off, as I groan for real.
So, to end this line of questioning, I usually say something like this:
“Well. It’s a bit like eating a small bag of sleeping gerbils. They go down smooth, but then they wake up, very angry, and are determined to scratch and claw their way of of my stomach and intestines.”
This usually produces a grimace. Then, I lean in, and whisper my closer.
“Ever see the movie ‘Alien?’ The scene where the person gags and then explodes?”
At this point, the server nods, horrified.
“They used a gluten-intolerant stunt double, and fed him a Twinkie.”
So that’s life without gluten. It’s possible, but I can’t recommend it. It reminds me of the conversation I had years ago with my grandfather, when he was told to give up bacon and eggs. I called him one morning, and he was grumpy and gruff. So I tried to cheer him up.
“Remember,” I chirped, “it’s good for you.”
“But, Grandpa, the doctor says you’ll live longer.”
“No, you won’t,” he snorted. “You’ll just feel like you have.”
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reach at email@example.com.