I have one regret with this blog, that I choose to post it on Monday. I work at a medical call center (yeah that’s a thing) and for some reason everyone and their mother (and their doctor) feels like it’s important to call on a Monday. Monday we handle 25% of our weekly call volume. That may not seem like a lot, but we’re open 7 days a week. Anyway, working in a medical office (of sorts), I have a lot of perspective on the needs a requests that patients make. Last week, I had someone tell me about a doozy of a call. It was someone with IBIS, asking their doctor for a card to take to restaurants that says she has a medical reason to bring her own food into their restaurant…
I had so many feels about this request. One, where the fuck are you eating lady!? Two…fucking waaaah.
I have a lot of sympathy for the fellow suffers of intestinal issues. I really do. There’s a lot of “no” when you’re dealing with food, but I wouldn’t expect to go into a McDonalds and expect them to create me something that I CAN eat. No, I avoid McDonalds…and Burger King…and Pizza Hut…well a lot of places. I do not expect the restaurant to bend over backwards to meet my needs, I will take the time to make sure I can eat there. Call the restaurant to ask about their safety precautions, read others reviews about their experience. If I get sick, I don’t blame the restaurant, I blame myself. Usually it is my fault. And I DO NOT ask my doctor for a special card that gives me permission to bring food into another restaurant’s space. Food isn’t like a service animal, it can and will negatively impact the restaurant if you bring your own food in. And, really, it’s not that hard to make sure you can eat someplace. People with all sorts of food based illnesses (from allergies to…well…celiac) do it all the time. There are even people with Crones and Diverticulitis that eat out, IBIS isn’t nearly as negatively impactful as either of those.
If you just got your diagnosis, you have probably been in a bit of a gluten hermitage. You have sequestered yourself in your home because home is safe. Home is good. Home is where you can control EVERYTHING! Well, you cannot stay home for the rest of your life. You will need to eat out at some point in tie. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. At some point, you will need to burst out of that little bubble that you are in, and just go for it, but you gotta make sure you look before you leap. Every time someone says that to me, I picture that scene from the swords and the stone where Merlin and Arthur are both squirrels learning to jump from branch to branch. That’s pretty much your new life. You will be leaping from a safe place to a safe place and hoping you don’t fall.
You first line of defense…Google. Google can find anything you need. You can view menus and look at reviews. Just plan on doing that for the rest of your life (or until someone find a cure for celiac disease). Right now take a moment and Google some of your favorite places to eat. Really…Google their name with the words gluten free, it’ll auto-populate. I’ll wait and take another sip of the super yummy GF Grapefruit Vodka that I found this week. Heck, take an hour, I got a whole glass.
Now, you might like what you found, you might not like what you found. You probably found Find Me Gluten Free, it’s like Yelp for the gluten free community. Take some of the reviews for what they are, because they aren’t always great, but it’s the same with Yelp. Now you have a place to start. Sure your favorite pizza place might have a gluten free crust, but do they cook it in the same oven with the gluten pizzas? Do they use the same containers of toppings? Do they use their hands for utensils? Yup, you have to ask all of those questions. Some of them you might know, some you might now. You cannot see into the back of a Pizza Hut, but something like a Mod pizza, you can get a pretty good idea. I had a friend working at Mod after I got my diagnosis. He looked at their practices and thought to himself, “why do you even sell gluten free anything? The people who need it can’t eat here?” It explains why I got glutened after I ate at Mod. I honestly wasn’t thinking. They used the same hands and spoons on the gluten crusts that they used on the gluten free ones. Even changing your gloves can’t help with that. If you live in Oregon, you might be able to go to Subway and get a gluten free sub (yes we are very envious of Oregon), but unless they’re pulling their ingredients from the cooler, can a celiac really eat there? I think nay.
I’m sure you came across at least one place that you like to eat and has a gluten free menu, but no review. You can try it, and should try it and submit a review to Find Me Gluten Free, but you will need to do some reconnaissance. Pick up your phone and call! Really, I mean speaking to people. It’s totally novel! When you call you want to ask a couple of general questions and a couple of really pointed ones at an item or two you’re actually interested in eating, but the conversation needs to start the same way. “Hi, I have celiac disease and I’m interesting in eating at your establishment.” The rest comes from there. If they ask you what celiac is, hang up the phone. There have been no precautions made. If they say that their chief doesn’t believe in gluten intolerance, hang up the phone because that is just ignorant. For the most part, people will know. 1 in 33 people…by this point in time, someone has come across it. The rest is just some simple questions:
- Do you have a separate part in your kitchen that you use to prepare your gluten free food? If no, do you use clean knifes and cutting boards?
- Do the gluten free ingredients share a griddle or cooking surface with bread or any other gluteny foods?
- Do you have a dedicated gluten free fryer?
- Questions about substitutions and or questionable ingredients…
If the answer to question one is at all no, find another place. It doesn’t matter if you really love the place, find anywhere else. I went to one breakfast here in Seattle that boasted about this gluten free fare. They had gluten free bread and gluten free French toast and gluten free pancakes…yay right? What did I end up eating, an omelet and a bowl of fruit. It was an okay omelet and fresh fruit, but to have all of these gluten free things dangled in front of me, I felt kind of cheated. They only had one griddle, one toaster, one vat of French toast batter…yeah…I wasn’t satisfied. And that was with a phone call. I knew going in I wasn’t going to be able to eat a lot, so I planned for it. Still didn’t have to bring my own food in, but I still wasn’t happy with the experience.
What I’m coming around to is one really important truth. No one is judging you! Really, you can go into a restaurant and act like an episode of Portlandia and (if they’re worth you business) you are not being judged.
My mother has a lot of food allergies: eggs, nut, citrus, soy, and peanuts. Those are just the big ones. She wanders around with Benadryl and an epi pen and knows how and when to use them. She has sent things back so many times over the 18 years that I lived with her, and we have NEVER been kicked out of a place. We have walked out. We have sent food back multiple times. We have had to had brand new food made, and still never been kicked out of anywhere. A celiac asking for a few precautions is nothing compared to that. Food allergy suffers have so much more to deal with, and they still eat out. It’s doable.
Have some confidence in yourself. When the server comes to your table, just let them know, “I have celiac, so I have to be 100% gluten free. Can you make sure you inform the chiefs of my food issues?” The answer to this will always be “absolutely.” If there answer is anything else, walk away. Just get up and walk away. Put some money for drinks on your table and walk away. This is your health here, and you don’t mess with your health. And considering that places like Red Robin and PF Chang’s can get it right, it shouldn’t be a problem for most family and fine dining restaurants. And, you know what, they won’t really judge you as long as your polite and reasonable. Ask questions, and engage the server.
So, in summary:
- Call ahead
- Stand your ground
- Tip well (it’s not an apology it’s a reward for getting it all right)
With those things, you can easily have a life. You can still enjoy having someone else make you food. Sure, you’re always going to be the one to make the choice of the bar to meet your friends for happy hour. You will always choose the location of your dinner party, but you can enjoy having someone else make your food. And it doesn’t matter if you have IBS or Crones or Celiac, don’t feel bad standing up for yourself and your health. Anyone worth taking your money will respect that.
Now, it’s the end of a Monday, and I just really want to spend some time relaxing. Tomorrow I have to go back to work.