The month of May is Celiac Disease Awareness month and is supposed to be a time of education and support. However, lately I’ve been noticing that comedians have selected a new victim to pick on: people that follow gluten-free diets. One of Jimmy Kimmel’s recent Man on the Street style interviews asked people who followed gluten-free diets what gluten is. A simple enough question in theory and yet almost no one was able to answer it. The fact that these people weren’t able to answer what gluten really is, doesn’t bother me, different people have various reasons for avoiding gluten and some might not have done their research. It was Jimmy’s comments that did, like, “maybe gluten just doesn’t exist” and “some people can’t eat gluten because of medical reasons, which I get- it annoys me- but I get it.”
Look, I get it, Jimmy. A joke is just a joke, right? It’s all in the name of fun. Or is it? My problem isn’t that comedians have chosen to focus on making fun of people on gluten-free diets. I wouldn’t choose it, but I also wouldn’t like them to poke ‘fun’ at any group of people. My issue is with the public perception of it. The more people that see these segments (and Jimmy’s alone has 2.5 million views), the more people start to think that being gluten-free isn’t serious. And for some people, I realize that it’s not. I know it’s “trendy” now and the latest health food fad and that’s ok. But for those of us with Celiac disease, it’s something entirely different.
In the past seven months, I’ve been glutenized twice at restaurants. The first time was at Whole Foods, supposedly the mecca of healthy eating. I purchased a soup that said it was gluten-free, read the ingredients list three times and left the store. I specifically chose the soup because I thought it had the least chance of cross-contamination as they have only one ladle per soup. I ate my soup on the way to a movie and within minutes, was throwing up in the bathroom. Tears were streaming down my face and I was screaming from the excruciating pain. I was on the floor of the lobby of the theater and basically had to be carried out to the car and rushed to the Emergency Room. At the ER, it took doctors three doses of very strong medicines to stop the pain. I was dreadfully sick for about a week and almost missed Christmas. But here’s the part that people don’t realize. It took me months for my body to recover. For people with Celiac disease, gluten doesn’t just cause outward symptoms, it’s actually damaging the villi in the small intestine which allows for absorption in the body. Finally, months later, my body slowly started to recover. Then a little while ago it happened again. I am so careful about what I eat and there are very few restaurants that I trust, but there is one Italian restaurant that has a gluten-free menu that has always been safe for me. I ordered plain grilled chicken and vegetables and explained Celiac disease at length to my waitress and told her how extremely sensitive I am to gluten. She said that she understood and would hate for me to get sick on her watch and said she would tell the kitchen.
20-minutes after I ate, I was screaming and crying in pain again.
Now the common thread in both instances was that the meals I purchased did not have gluten in the ingredients. So both reactions were from cross-contamination. If you are new the world of a Celiac, you might not know, but it only takes 1 crumb to make someone with Celiac horribly sick… one single crumb!
And yet if the cooks in the kitchen had watched Jimmy Kimmel or watched and read other numerous comics and jokes on the topic, they might think that someone is making this illness up. That the person they are serving can’t really be that sensitive and it won’t matter if they use the same work area as where the bread was sitting, or use a spoon that was touching wheat noodles to stir a soup or use the same pans that the pasta was just cooked in. It is all really that easy to cross-contaminate and has dire consequences. Every time someone with Celiac disease eats at a restaurant, they’re putting their lives in the hands of the cook. And it’s really scary. It makes it extremely difficult to enjoy a meal without being nervous, both for myself, and as I recently found out, my family too. Everyone just kind of holds their breath and you hope that they took your order seriously. I understand that some people may wonder why people with Celiac go out to eat at all if it’s such a big risk. It’s just that so much of our culture and getting together is meeting for meals that to eliminate that really bars you off from something you used to enjoy. Plus, as much as I enjoy cooking, it’s also really nice to have someone else prepare a meal too.
I can take a joke, but I draw the line when it could be the very thing that compromises someone’s health. Let’s face it, what people hear infiltrates their thoughts and they might find themselves at a party, contaminating the one gluten-free item or in a kitchen rolling their eyes at the thought of taking special care to make sure a dish doesn’t come into contact with gluten. I think that there are far funnier subjects that we can be discussing, rather than someone’s serious illness. Let’s change the conversation.
*This isn’t to say that all restaurants and bakeries don’t take it seriously and I will being doing spotlight posts on some great establishments that do!