Gluten Free Menus, etc. – An Intractable Problem?

I haven’t been blogging lately because I am in a funk again about being stuck on a gluten free diet. That doesn’t seem particularly helpful to anyone to write about. Or rather, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to me. I find that wallowing in self-pity gets me nowhere, and complaining about the problem may only make it worse.

Here’s the issue: gluten free menus and gluten free restaurant eating in general. In the past week, I have eaten out a bunch of times, including five trips to restaurants on my vacation in Southwest Florida. In three of those five restaurant visits I had problems with eating gluten free. Not because I chose a restaurant that wasn’t on the “good” list for being supportive of gluten free diners. Because of a glitch or process item that wasn’t properly addressed. Here are three screw ups I can count in that week.

1) We ate lunch at _____ in Fort Myers, FL. They have a gluten free menu online, and I had luck at their restaurant in Bonita Springs a few years back. Seemed like a good choice. When I arrived, I was presented with an “allergen” menu that had just about everything X’ed out as off limits except grits. The hostess said it is because everything is served with bread. When I told her that was particularly unhelpful, she shrugged and said, “I know.” I swore I had seen a gluten free menu online, but the hostess didn’t know anything about it. My 88-year-old grandmother was already heading for a table as I discovered this, and it was 1 pm (kind of late to eat), so I steadied myself for a soda and no food. The waiter then said, “Oh yes, we have a gluten free menu but it is only online.” Are you kidding me? So if I don’t have a Smart Phone I don’t know what to order? That was about right. He assured me that the kitchen knew what to do. I took a chance, since I was starving, ordering only scrambled eggs and bacon with no condiments or toppings. Not surprisingly, I got sick after lunch.

2) We ate at ________, Fort Myers, for the second time in a week, preferring to return to a known quantity after the experience above. Upon arrival, we were told that “somebody from corporate” had destroyed all the gluten free menus and new ones hadn’t been printed yet, but I could ask questions and get the answers I wanted. Huh? Something clearly must have happened to precipitate the change, but like the weather you sometimes have no idea what caused it. I ordered from memory the same thing I had the previous time. Not sick, thankfully.

3) Upon returning to our hometown in Stamford, CT, we ate at an old standby _____ during yesterday’s Columbus (no school) Day. It’s somewhere my kids and I can agree on eating. This time, there was not only cross-contamination, but they actually brought my daughter a flour tortilla even though she wrote clearly on her order (you order by writing with pencil on a menu), in seven-year-old but very legible handwriting, “Gluten Free Corn Tortia [tortilla].” The manager and waitress profusely apologized, and the waitress said her note of “corn only” must have been misinterpreted. (I guess she did not also write “gluten free”.) This restaurant has been good to me in the past, and it is usually one of the places that actually cares about gluten free diners, making efforts to cater to our needs. Clearly there was a new chef in the kitchen or some other snafu. Today I am feeling sick again, and it just may be from the same restaurant (the only place I have eaten out, where I can’t have control over my food prep, in the past 48 hours).

So here’s the intractable problem. If I fill in the blanks above and blast these three restaurants, will I only drive them away from serving folks with allergies? Blogging and other social media has made us all watch dogs, giving a voice to the voiceless and greater voice to those with social sway. Should I post on Yelp and everywhere else not to frequent these places if someone is gluten free?

On the other hand, it is easier for a restaurant to just say “we don’t cater to people with allergies”. Those folks never get their feet held to the fire for screwing up. They go along their merry way, making money hand over fist (or failing or whatever, but not because of failing to live up to allergy-free hard or soft promises). Maybe the restaurants who don’t even try are the real ones we should be blasting???

I had a huge problem last summer when I launched by own business and needed to go out and network. Everyone wants to do lunch, and no one wants to hear about how only a handful of restaurants are “safe”. When you network, point #1 is not to make it all about you. Should I start a cause for gluten free folks getting some government protection or equal rights in restaurants? How could that possibly be policed, and would it do more harm than good? Even though it affects me personally, and I miss more than enough days of happiness feeling sick working off the effects of “gluten poison” in my system or staying home (occasionally) from social events revolving around food, is it really a pressing enough social problem I should try to solve? And is it an intractable problem, one that has no good solution?

What do you think?

About Glutenfreelandia

Glutenfreelandia - It's where I live. Do you live there too? This blog is devoted to the joy, peace, health and struggle of living a gluten free life. For celiacs, gluten intolerants and those who love them. Glutenfreelandia - es donde vivo yo. Y tú? Este blog está dedicada a la alegría, la paz, la salud y la lucha de vivir una vida libre de gluten. Para los celíacos, intolerantes al gluten y los que los aman.
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3 Responses to Gluten Free Menus, etc. – An Intractable Problem?

  1. Mercedes says:

    I live in Ireland and while restaurants are very good here as coeliac disease is so prolific cross contamination is the bug bear of all gluten free customers. Part of the problem is that there are two types of Gluten free customers; people who choose Gluten free for its general health benefits and those who require a Gluten free diet to remain healthy. Yes restaurant staff should give Gluten feee food when requested by customers but how free of Gluten? Customers who choose this diet won’t feel the side effects and customers who require it will. It can be confusing for staff who don’t understand the difference. I really think it is risky to start scaring places off as you say and all it will do is put us back in the dark ages. Much better to be positive and education is the way to go. Perhaps we need to do talks at catering schools, coeliac society here has a card you can pass to your waiter with suggestions, try and publish more articles about it to raise awareness. It is particularly tricky when dining out with clients, i had a restaurant bring me a plate of iceberg lettuce once and while i appreciated the cautious approach i think they could have stretched to a tomato or two :).

    • Hi Mercedes, thanks for the comment! I totally agree with you. There is a great restaurant here that has an extensive gluten free menu, but everything tastes like it was made on a low sodium diet (I jokingly say I am gluten free but not 90 years old). Wish they would take some risks – but keep it safe at the same time. Also, you are right, the folks that are gluten free for other reasons make it a bit complicated. Hopefully over time all boats will rise. Take care.

  2. I realize that having web-based gluten-free menus isn’t a 100% solution but I sure find it helpful. Even if I have to make my selections before I head to the restaurant, at least I have a clue. My pie-in-the-sky wish is for all ingredients to be listed. I also have a severe corn allergy. Try getting the wait staff to understand that even corn starch in a sauce or xanthan gum in the salad dressing is a problem.

    FYI – the allergy interactive menu is totally becoming a thing.

    http://www.creatingsilverlinings.com/red-lobster-allergy-wizard/

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