Gluten Free Idiocy
In March, chef Damian Cardone made news (and maybe history) simply by venting on Facebook. You can read the down and dirty account of his admission, and some of the news that followed, here. His account has since been deleted.
However, his words have already been released. Once heard, and repeated, they remain in the consciousness of those who read them. The thing is, he's not the first person to hold these feelings, or even to speak them aloud. The sentiment, unfortunately, is all too familiar to those following a gluten free diet. Idiocy. Ridiculous. Maybe that's okay for kids who are sick (but then, parents of Celiac kids often find themselves criticised for their cruelty in restricting their diets. After all, a few weeks of digestive distress and potential lifelong damage leading to cancer is a small price to pay for getting to eat pizza and cupcakes with the rest of the class.)
Food is emotional.
No one wants their food options limited. We want junk food. We want fast food. We want sodas. We want peanut butter in classrooms. And why would anyone give up gluten? It's the center of so many of our dietary favorites. Bread. Donuts. Cupcakes. Pizza.
Some people, like Chef Cardone referenced above, think there must be something wrong in the heads of anyone who eliminates all gluten from their diets. They equate gluten intolerance (A valid medical condition caused by an autoimmune disorder) with an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. Except instead of calories, the patient avoids gluten. The skeptics smile, and offer a sugar coated lie. "It's gluten free".
The damage is done and the diner gone home before the true consequences appear. And the one offering disguised gluten is left smugly believing that they were justified. They might even believe they've just done someone somewhere a favor by sneaking gluten into the diner's diets.
The gluten intolerant individual is left with digestive discomfort and broken trust. They did everything right, and still they suffer.
How Can You Tell If They Really Need to Be Gluten Free?
You can't tell why someone gives up gluten just be looking at them. And you can't tell how careful they need to be. That's why it's important to respect food choices. After all, if they want to give up gluten because they think it's healthier, how does it really hurt you? Their meal may not be as aesthetically pleasing. But that's their loss, not the chef's. Unless the individual is diagnosed by a medical professional with orthorexia (the condition of seeking a healthy diet to the exclusion of a healthy varied diet) their avoidance of one specific food item is not hurting anyone. And if they are diagnosed with orthorexia, their treatment is between themselves and their doctor. Not up to a chef or party host.
Why Would Someone Give Up Gluten?
There are many reasons a person might choose to eat gluten free. I'm the first to admit that not all of them are rational. There are a few people who remember the dog food scare, and avoid gluten because there was contaminated gluten(an isolated compound) found during that timeframe. They don't realize that gluten is a naturally occurring component of gluten grains.
Then there are people who want to lose weight. It's not an exact science, giving up gluten isn't inherently any better than giving up bacon. Using a gluten free diet to lose weight is a lot more complicated than simply choosing gluten free alternatives to old favorites. But it could be a course to latch onto, to use as an excuse to give up high calorie, high fat favorites. As long as their diet is otherwise varied, it's harmless. (In other words, there's no reason to 'sneak' gluten pasta in place of gluten free for the weight loss enthusiast.)
There are also individuals who are gluten intolerant. They find that gluten grains tend to cause pain and discomfort, but they don'thave medical documentation. These individuals have as much right to feel well as anyone else, and maybe are more dubious of 'gluten free' offerings because they've heard 'Maybe it's just stress...' one too many times. Sneaking them gluten and lying about it is going to do more harm than good for someone who knows food is a problem, and is having trouble getting their symptoms under control.
And then there are those with a valid medical reason to give up gluten for good. These are the individuals with a proved medical diagnosis. They need to avoid gluten in every form. Even just a few crumbs. If a friend, family member, or restaurant chef decides to sneak gluten into their food the results can be disastrous. Or at least, very uncomfortable. And, yet again, the one offering the hidden gluten might be none the wiser because the damage won't be visible until well after the meal.
Dealing With Gluten Free Diners
So what do you do when someone you're hosting, whether it's a restaurant patron, a party guest or a family member, insists they need to eat gluten free?
Why not simply humor them? Ask what their diet entails, and let them know before the meal what exactly you are willing and able to provide. That might mean a salad. It might mean a full roast chicken, side of potatoes and veggies, and they'll bring the gluten free bread and dessert. It might mean you skip dinner and get together for cocktails.
If you consider a person's dietary choices to be 'idiotic' like the infamous Chef above did, then you aren't respecting them as a person either. A gluten free individual is not making their dietary choices for pride or out of some twisted desire to deny you gluten. They are making an informed choice about their own bodies. That choice, like any other, will result in consequences of their own choosing. If you, or a restaurant, can't provide an appealing gluten free meal, the consequences of their choice to eat gluten free will be a meal that is less appealing than it might have been without restriction.
Most gluten free diners are okay with that. They put their health well before their tastebuds.
But if you, or a restaurant, can't provide an appealing gluten free meal, and then decide to simply provide an appealing meal and ignore concerns while reassuring the diner, then the gluten free diner will suffer consequences of your choosing. That's condescending, and possibly cruel. After all, it's their body. Which would you rather risk insulting? Their health, or their tastebuds?
Most gluten free diners would much rather have a chef say "We can't accommodate you" than risk getting sick. If you're interested in learning more about gluten free dining, read up on one of the many articles, hubs and other literature available. Learn kitchen safety and how to avoid gluten ingredients and cross contamination. But don't just serve up gluten.
What About The Idiots?
There will still be people who make it abundantly clear that they are gluten free...and clueless. There will always be people like that, whether they're on the gluten free boat or another one. Don't let them take away from the safety of the legitimate gluten avoiders by blowing off their self imposed restrictions.
Respect is a complicated thing. You may not think someone's viewpoint, whether it's diet or politics or religion, is valid. That doesn't make it invalid...to them. I think it boils down to what our mother's used to tell us on the playground. If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. But there's more to it than that. If you can't respect what someone else feels, walk away. Chef Cardone is entitled to his feelings regarding gluten free diners. His mistake was in misleading them to believe that he was catering to their requests. (Some people might think his mistake was in venting on Facebook. And as much of an error in judgement as that vent may have been, it was the attitude that dietary requests are invalid and actively dismissing them that was the real problem)
In our society, we don't have a lot of control over our food supply. In fact, the more regulations that the government puts into place to try to protect us, it seems the less real control we have over where our food comes from. We can't all live on farms. We can't grow all our own food. (Although, some try) We need to rely on others for grains, meats, and many vegetables. We need to be free to purchase a variety of items at our local grocery store. Which means trusting food manufacturers.
The way our society relies on restaurants and delis to supplement our meals, and to provide a neutral meeting place for social and business purposes, we also need to be able to trust chef's and establishments. Trust comes from respect. Whether the chef, server, hostess or your best friend agrees with a dietary choice or not, they need to be able to respect it.
The real 'idiots' aren't the ones going gluten free for questionable reasons. They're the ones who dismiss concerns and treat dietary restrictions as discipline issues or some sort of irrational fear. Food and emotions are too entwined. When we cross a line between respecting someone's health limitations and convincing them to ingest foods that might make them violently ill, we've gone too far. After all, just because they want to eat gluten free pasta (or bread, or cookies) doesn't mean they are rejecting the one offering the gluten filled versions. For the vast majority of gluten free eaters, they turn down the offered delicacies because they respect themselves enough to protect themselves.
That doesn't seem like idiocy to me.