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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Realities of Dining Out

do i have my serious discussion face on? good

Options for gluten free dining are probably very limited where you are. I feel I can safely assume this because I live in a veritable mecca of gluten free & the options here are still very limited (granted my options are further limited by a dairy intolerance). I'm not complaining. I've always enjoyed cooking for myself & Celiac Disease is another very good reason to do just that.

But, you might say, there are lots of joints that offer gluten free options on their menus where you live. Well! I'm here to tell you (in a very pedantic & condescending tone [you're welcome]) that those options probably aren't good enough for you.

The state of the food service industry regarding its knowledge & treatment of gluten free food & labeling is far from perfect. Even the FDA hasn't come to a complete conclusion on how to handle gluten free labeling. It's a hotly debated issue right now, right here in the Northwest (see the gluten free/gluten removed debate surrounding Omission Beer).

I've held a few jobs in the food service industry (so I'm an expert authority) & I can say that in my experience a decent understanding of Celiac Disease/gluten free food was extremely uncommon. To be honest, it's pretty rare in anyone I've met who isn't struggling with the disease. (I'm aware of a  few "gluten intolerant" people who can't or don't want to really commit to eating gluten free. They don't read labels on processed foods! I've even run into to this with well meaning friends & family members [sorry folks]). I've worked as a busser & a dishwasher, so I've seen the front and back end of the business & I've found that there are means for serious cross contamination that just might not occur to you or the people preparing & serving your food. For instance, at one restaurant where gluten free toast was served, it was toasted in the same toasters as all the rest of the bagels & bread. That might be okay for some gluten intolerant people (as I understand there is a spectrum), but will definitely make someone with Celiac Disease very sick.

On the other hand, I have worked with some people in the industry who were particularly cautious because they had a serious allergy themselves & even if their knowledge of Celiac Disease wasn't very comprehensive, they were well versed in the necessities of food allergies (e.g. preparing food with clean tools on clean surfaces & double checking with their guests regarding uncertain additives or ingredients). I have also been to restaurants where the labeling was very honest. They called their food gluten friendly (an absolutely ridiculous term, but more accurate than gluten free) or they had a "gluten free" menu with a very big disclaimer that detailed the precautionary measures taken to ensure that the food is as removed from contamination as possible.

All of that can be quite helpful. However, if it's not a gluten free facility, there really is no guarantee you wont get sick. Restaurant kitchens (and kitchens in general) are messy places & gluten is the kind of contaminant that can easily be everywhere. Flour is practically an airborne contaminant. Gluten can sneak into your meal in the form of food additives & sauces, if labels aren't being carefully read. Even the most sympathetic servers & cooks with the best intentions may lack some specific knowledge regarding a preparation or ingredient & its suitability; they aren't nutritionists. So at best, dining out is a crap shoot.

I'm not sure what my point is here. I guess this is mostly a cautionary tale & a paranoid rant & an alienation of friends and family (sorry again folks). Basically, you have to be very careful with what you eat if you're eating out. Ask a lot of questions (call ahead if you can). If the answers don't seem certain & satisfactory, don't eat. Bring your own food. It's a shitty situation. Food is so fundamental to our lives; it's such a communal thing & it is definitely deeply tied to our emotions. I know how difficult using caution can be. I feel rude just asking about the preparation of the food at a restaurant where I'm paying to be served, forget about trying to bring it up to a friend or family member who's invited me to dinner (I think my case may be somewhat extreme as I have a serious complex involving putting anyone out, asking for special consideration or hurting people's feelings). It's rough, but we have to do it! Our friends and family will understand if we take the time to explain our situation to them. I hope.

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