I love monitoring the search terms in my Google Analytics: seeing how people find this place is often funny (“buckwheat beer tastes like crap,” “friend gave me free beer,” “why do some people love peaches while others hate”) and always informative. Twice in the past couple of weeks, I have been troubled to learn that someone has found this blog by Googling, “i hate gluten free people.” In late 2011, someone found the blog by searching for “hate being around someone who is gluten free,” and in January, someone arrived here by Googling “i hate gluten intolerant people.” I know nothing else about these visitors—even if Analytics allowed me to know more, I respect their privacy and wouldn’t want to—but their expressions of aversion got me thinking about the source of their angst.
My initial thoughts upon seeing these search terms were to feel that I can’t completely blame these people for feeling that way. Some of our prominent images of gluten-free people lead people to believe that we are all insufferable, demanding and a drag to be around because of our imaginary illnesses and our histrionics. Over the past several months, I’ve nearly stopped going to restaurants, only eating out at places like Blue Moon Burgers because I know they are gluten-free friendly, with gluten-free buns, a dedicated fryer, and knowledgeable staff, so I don’t have to feel that I am troubling anyone with my requests. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a restaurant, making the minimum requests that will keep me safe (“There’s no flour in that soup, right?”) and feeling like a bother. Sometimes, restaurants are able to accommodate, but sometimes, they are not. So I cook for myself. It’s cheap, and so am I.
It’s only online that I have read about the demanding restaurant behavior that I, too, consider an embarrassment toward the rest of us. I would much rather eat my own getting-better-every-day cooking than display such a sense of entitlement. If you really need to worry so much about cross-contamination in a restaurant, perhaps you should eat at one that is comfortable with your needs, or eat at home.
It took a little while for me to realize that the search terms are really more troubling than I had noticed at first glance. These statements, i hate gluten free people and i hate gluten intolerant people, are not about behavior. They are about people. I am not an abstraction or an idea; I cannot ever change my disease, and I will not ever change the fact that I don’t eat gluten. The fact that someone might hate me because of that disturbs me.
The hate, I know, has nothing to do with the sickness. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the food. Nobody cares whether I eat wheat, barley and rye or not. It is about the demarcation of difference, about drawing attention to oneself, and about the perception that we made this stuff up.
I have discussed my concern about the fact that Shauna James Ahern, aka Gluten-Free Girl, has instructed her celiac readers to tell waiters that a single speck of gluten will cause the sufferer to get sick in the restaurant. In that post, I wrote that I was no longer interested in reading Ahern’s blog because I no longer felt that she was speaking for me.
Ahern has begun blogging for Epicurious, beginning with a post on April 11, “The Grace of a Gluten-free Meal.” At the time of this writing, there are thirty comments on the post, both positive and negative, and moderators have obviously removed some comments. Clearly, this brief post about an Easter meal brought on a flurry of discussion that ranged beyond the post topic.
Several of Ahern’s Epicurious posts have spoken to a desire for special treatment that seems to be the cause for widespread resentment that I believe has trickled down to the rest of us. In “Gluten-Free Italian,” she writes:
“Those with diagnosed celiac are given two paid work days a month to go food shopping, since gluten-free baked goods can be more difficult to find. And in farmacias in small towns, there are shelves of gluten-free packaged pasta, croissants, and rolls. That’s at the pharmacy.”
A commenter, JulesGlutenFree (probably the Jules of JulesGlutenFree.com, although Epicurous does not provide spots in profiles for commenters to link to their own blogs), calls on Dr. Alessio Fasano, the head of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, to help refute some of this information. Dr. Fasano, who is Italian, says of Ahern’s post about Italy,
“It is almost ALL WRONG. It is not true that the prevalence in Italy is 10%, it is not true that kids must be screened before entering kindergarten, and it is not true that diagnosed celiac have 2 paid work days to go shopping. It is true that GF products are in farmacias (pharmacy), since the Italian government subside the cost of GF products in the order of ~100 euro/person/month. They have a ticket to claim their products at the pharmacy and that is the reason why pharmacies carry large number of GF products.”
This special treatment of celiac sufferers is a strange pipe dream. I’m not sure why I would need to spend more time shopping than anyone else; I recently wrote about the fact that I’m over anything that comes in a package marked “gluten-free.” After writing it, I read Sari Botton’s fantastic piece about all the gluten-free crap she hates, the cookies she doesn’t care to eat. It’s much easier to avoid that stuff altogether. There’s no need for two days off for shopping when I can run into the market, grab some vegetables and meat, pay, and run out.
In “Good Food at the Airport?” Ahern again tells Epicurious readers about her special needs:
“This doesn’t include the questions about cross-contamination you have to ask an overwhelmed teenage food service worker. Could you change your gloves after you make that guy’s sandwich but make my food? Could you clean off that plastic cutting board of the crumbs? Do you know if there’s any gluten in the salad dressing? Has there been any flour on that surface recently? Is there soy sauce in anything?”
I couldn’t help but comment on that one. After all, I’ve written about food at the airport before and found it incredibly easy to disappear among the other eaters in the concourse, all trying to make satisfying choices, some trying to be healthy as well. “Healthy” means something different for each person and I found that the airport I was in had many choices, but I didn’t need to buy any of them, because I brought my own food. Ahern has written about the airport before and seems uninterested in arriving prepared, which I find puzzling.
I know that these days, I eat at restaurants less than the average person, and that’s my personal choice, but come on—does every meal have to be a dining experience? Do we always have to be impressed by what we eat? (I don’t believe our stomachs always need to be full, but that’s a different blog post.) Isn’t it okay for an airport to be a place that planes fly into and out of, a transitional space we briefly stop into, one that doesn’t need to impress us or take care of us? And when we do dine out, why choose a chancy item that will require a game of twenty questions about soy sauce and surfaces?
I do not wish to attempt any feats of mind-reading or analysis of Shauna Ahern’s personal habits or predilections, but I do have a vested interest in the personality she projects on her blog, because it affects everyone who is forced to share the label of celiac, who must ask restaurant staff about the food choices available, and who knows that people might hold negative opinions of us and our illness just because of the behavior of others who share our diagnosis.
I remember the gluten-free newbie fear of being glutened in a restaurant, the wish to make sure that everything is safe, but that wore off. Now, I know how to quickly and quietly navigate the terrain. I do not want special treatment. I want to go to a restaurant, very quietly check in—”I’ll have the salad, no croutons,” or “Burger, no bun please”—and not think about gluten for the rest of my meal; or I want to go to the place where I know I’ve ordered from a GF menu before and just order from it without fanfare. Honestly, I don’t want to think about gluten at all. After all, I’m gluten-free.
I don’t want my life to be ruled by gluten, or by gluten-free, strange in its huge presence because it is a negation. I don’t want to be run by the need to eat, either. If gluten controls my social life, makes me speak its name every time I enter into a food-based give-and-take with another person, I am not in control, and I become defined by gluten. This, perhaps, is what tires people about celiac sufferers: everything is about gluten. It gets old fast.
My plan to not let gluten control me, and to not let myself be one of those gluten-free people that others hate, has gone something like this.
- I will not constantly point out the food I can’t have when others are eating it.
- Before asking for special treatment by someone who is about to prepare food for me, I will consider whether the request is feasible, and whether it will inconvenience the person asked. Additionally, I will consider whether I might be able to choose an option that would not require special treatment.
- I will try to go entire days without using the word “gluten.”
- I will be comfortable going without food if no options are available to me.
- I will be appreciative of the hard work of those who prepare food for me, whether or not they are knowledgeable about celiac disease.
- I will keep in mind that my nourishment is not the center/purpose of a gathering.
- I will take full responsibility for my own health by opting to cook my own nutritious meals at home most of the time.
That way, food can function in the way I need it to, providing sustenance and satisfaction, while getting out of the way of my life. I don’t want gluten-free, gluten-intolerant or celiac people to be hated, so I’m doing my best to stay on best behavior, hoping “gluten-free” will someday no longer elicit eye-rollings.