Gluten-Free But Not Annoying

Dear Helena,
I am gluten-intolerant. Every time I eat a bowl of pasta, my stomach swells up to twice its normal size, and I feel exhausted the next day. But when I go to restaurants, I hate questioning the server about what is in the different dishes. I feel like I sound neurotic, am boring my fellow diners, and am holding up the server if he is busy. If I am on a date, then it is downright embarrassing. Is there a polite and graceful way to ensure my order is gluten-free?

What about when people invite me to dinner? I have to tell them about my condition, but it's not as simple as saying "No bread or pasta" because gluten hides in so many foods. Must I give them a primer on gluten avoidance (tedious and demanding) or resign myself to an upset stomach?
—Pasta-Lover Trapped in Gluten-Intolerant Body

Dear Pasta-Lover,
Let's be honest, some "gluten-sensitive" types actually need a course of psychotherapy, not a dietary overhaul. So it's natural for you to be worried that you'll be mistaken for a neurotic. Kelly Courson, cofounder of Celiac Chicks, says, "When I refuse the pasta, people sometimes assume I'm anorexic." And you're right to worry about boring your fellow diners when you cross-examine the server about whether the french fries are cooked in the same oil as breaded foods or whether the restaurant has wheat-free soy sauce. I feel bored just writing about it.

Unfortunately for you, it's pretty hard to be both low-maintenance and gluten-free, since gluten lurks in so many foods. That's why some people who suffer from celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, carry preprinted cards explaining their condition.

It doesn't help matters that while food allergies have received a lot of media attention, some servers have still never heard of celiac disease or gluten intolerance (though this is changing). You may describe your condition as an "intolerance" or a "sensitivity," but that makes it sound a lot like a neurosis. For that reason, I suggest you use the term "allergy." Yes, this is an inaccurate description, but servers will take you more seriously. As Courson says, "Food 'allergies' are respected by restaurants for fear of anaphylactic shock."

As for grilling the server in the midst of the dinner rush, there's a simple way to avoid it: advance research. Shauna James Ahearn, coauthor of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, advises sending an email. "You never know who you're going to get on the phone; it may be the hostess's first day." But if you're contacting a restaurant where you'll be dining that night, you'll get quicker results by phone. Courson suggests calling "right after 2 when things are winding down [from lunch] or even better, around 3."

At the restaurant, instead of interrogating the server about a particular dish, just ask, "What would be the easiest thing for you to make gluten-free?" Max Seaman, floor manager of Comme Ça in LA, agrees: "Take the chef's advice, rather than [you] trying to modify a dish."

As with any extreme dietary regime, when you're invited to dinner, you should let your host know well in advance and give him the option of bowing out. Tell him you're happy to have drinks instead of dinner, or to bring your own dish.

Inevitably, if you explain your gluten-free needs in full, you're going to come across as a little demanding—like when you ask your host not to use his wooden cutting board because gluten can linger in the fissures. It helps to also provide some suggestions for stuff you can eat. "If you say, 'Here's what I can't eat, plan a menu around that,' people panic," says Ahearn.

At dinner, be consistent. I have a friend who is in slight denial about her gluten intolerance. At a recent party, she ate three canelés. They were homemade, in special tins the cook had bought in Paris, so I understood her slip. But to any guest who didn't know her, it did rather undermine the seriousness of her condition.

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