An Educational Gluten-Free Restaurant Experience

I think I have made it clear in the past that I do not eat out often, and I really don’t, maybe a couple of times a month, if that.  I assume a personal risk each and every time I dine out, as cross-contamination lurks everywhere, despite the best intentions to lower that risk.  I try to reduce my risk as much as possible because that is all anyone who walks in my shoes can do, reduce risk for gluten exposure, because it is our own health and well-being at stake.  If I ate out every day or even a few times a week, I would be exposed to cross-contamination entirely too much for my own good.

Want to know the funny thing?  I don’t worry about getting physically ill from being “gluten-ed,” because I do not react to gluten that way.  I do not exhibit the “classic” symptoms of celiac disease, but that does not mean I am not reacting to gluten nonetheless.  I often envy the folks that do go through the GI symptoms because at least they know they have come in contact with the poison that has the potential of taking their life one day.  I do not get that “flashing warning sign.”  I could eat out everyday and accidentally eat a crouton crumb, etc. and would not physically know about it… but that toxic protein is still wrecking havoc on my body.  I may not know about it today or even a week from now but I could find out about it years from now if I get handed another major medical diagnosis, like cancer.

Yesterday was one of those days that I decided to enjoy a lunch date with my husband at one of my favorite places dine, Bravo! Cucina Italiana.  My local Bravo has quite a few gluten-free menu options (including GF pasta) and the staff is always helpful in assisting me to find a safe option. I have spoken with the manager, Fred, in the past about celiac disease and we had a wonderful conversation about the gluten-free diet, cross-contamination, etc..  Fred told me that it has “been difficult to keep GF pasta in stock because his distributors are always out, due to the popularity of the gluten-free diet.”  That still bafoodles me, that I am actually living in a time that I once could only dream of!  Fred often has to go to the store himself to buy GF pasta for his patrons!

I ordered my usual Bravo Chopped Salad, which does not come with croutons but I still go through the spiel of asking that it be made in a fresh bowl, etc., because it just has to be done.  I also ordered the Penne Mediterranean, subbing GF pasta spirals for the gluten-filled Penne.  My local Bravo has recently been carrying Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Pasta (they used to carry DeBoles, which I do not care for but the Trader Joe’s GF pasta is actually pretty good!).  Quick note for my local ABQ’ers, if you decide to go to Bravo (ABQ Uptown) be sure to let your server know right away if you will be wanting the GF pasta, it takes about 20 minutes for them to prepare it because they start a fresh pot of water to cook the GF pasta in, so “Bravo” to Bravo on that one! 😀

My salad arrived and I mindlessly started to eat it because I have never had an issue before at Bravo.  About 6 bites in, I detected a crispy crunch in my mouth and as I looked down, there it was: a fried piece of Crispy Pasta.

See the little gluten visitor that found it's way into my salad?

I stopped eating the salad and when our server came over, I kindly pointed it out to her, to which she apologized, took the salad and went to speak with the manager.  The restaurant had started to get busy for the lunch rush so Fred didn’t come by my table personally, which I will admit was disappointing because I thought it would be a good learning experience.  Fred may have also assumed that I would go all wackadoodle on him about it, but I no longer get angry when these things happen because I was the one who decided to take the risk by eating out in the first place.

Getting angry is not productive and I certainly do not want restaurant managers to quit providing gluten-free options because they don’t want to deal with “disgruntled” gluten intolerant guests.  I have found that by being calm and kind, restaurant managers are much more receptive to further education, and adapting better protocols to better avoid repeat incidents.  I used to be a restaurant manager and I can tell you from personal experience, the people that screamed the loudest… I just wanted to quickly resolve the issue at hand then prayed I would never have to see them again.  Yelling may get you what you want in the short term, like a comp bill; but it will only come back to bite you later.  I think that kindly raising awareness and taking a moment to educate are much more effective than getting angry, because really, if you have already be “gluten-ed,” the damage has already been done and getting angry will not change that.

I will still go back to Bravo, (although I will comb through my salad first!).  I will also probably lay low on dining out for awhile so my body can heal from whatever damage that was done; because I am reacting internally, regardless of the fact that I am not bent over in physical pain.

Warning: ADD Tangent …

I really want to emphasize something to newly diagnosed “asymptomatic” celiacs and/or people with Dermatitis Herpetiformis (I have both), who do not have the “classic symptoms” of celiac disease and may be tinkering with the idea that maybe they really don’t have a problem with gluten afterall, just because they do not “feel bad” when they eat it (yes, I am speaking from personal experience).   Just because you are not in gastrointestinal distress, does NOT mean your immune system is not reacting nonetheless.  Celiac Disease and DH are Autoimmune Diseases, to which there is no cure, and only strict adherence to the gluten-free diet will reduce your risk for all the potential complications associated with untreated CD and DH.  While gluten exposure does not have an immediate physical consequence for folks like me, there will eventually be a price to pay, and potentially, that could be with one’s own life.  How much risk are you willing to take and do you understand the potential consequences?  How badly do you really want that gluten treat you miss so much?  Have you ever asked yourself why?  I did, and after a lot of hard work, I realized it never had a single thing to do with the food itself.

If you are newly diagnosed with celiac disease and are having difficulty coming to terms with your diagnosis, or simply want to know more FACTS, I would like to recommend two books that have personally helped me get out of that denial phase (I definitely went through the 5 stages of grief after my diagnosis) and into the acceptance phase.  Both books can be found here, on The University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research website.

  • The First Year: Celiac Disease and Living Gluten-Free by Jules Shepard.
  • Fast Facts: Celiac Disease co-authored by Dr. Alessio Fasano, Medical Director of the Center for Celiac Research; Dr. Carlo Catassi, Co-Medical Director of the Center for Celiac Research; and Dr. Geoffrey Holmes

Learning the facts and getting to know my diseases have been instrumental in reaching the place where I am today, happy. 😉

13 Responses

  1. Great post. I really think there are “stages” one goes through when coming to terms with celiac disease. I never had that shock stage, the “OMG-what-will-I-eat” stage. I have family members with celiac, so I was familiar with it. But I was overconfident at first. While I read labels, I wasn’t bothering with the “natural flavors” and those other ambiguous ingredients, and I wasn’t overly concerned about cross contamination. And I told myself that I didn’t feel deprived. Cause I could make anything I wanted at home! And truthfully, at home, I DON’T feel deprived. But if I go out, go to a pot luck, etc, it’s different. And I’m finally to the stage where I know I need to suck it up, be the difficult customer, and ask a million questions so I can be as sure as possible that I get a gluten-free meal. And as you said, it’s always a risk. I am one of those that gets sick with the smallest amount of gluten – which like you said, at least it’s an “alert” system of sorts – but it’s frustrating, because I feel the effects of my risk-taking SO often. We eat out less often as a result, which is good, of course. I agree with you on how to handle a situation like that in a restaurant – no point in getting argumentative!

  2. Thanks for sharing Alta,

    After I pulled my head out of lala land and decided to get more real about the truth, I was still reluctant to do everything that I should have been doing. I felt confident enough to just read labels and did not rely on a gluten-free label nor did I bother to call the company, check websites, etc. It was a pain in the you know what!

    After watching Food, Inc., for the first time, I realized just how stupid that was. I didn’t understand the manufacturing process and how many opportunities there are for cross-contamination. Because I do not get any kind of “gluten alert,” it was easy to tell myself that it was fine, and it may very well be “fine” too, but I know all too well how true the statement is about making assumptions! 🙂

    The fact is, I didn’t want to know, and I certainly didn’t want to change, but in the end, my stubborn resolve lost the war (thankfully). I decided to try on a new attitude and make some lemonade. I have had more fun in the past year learning to accept/embrace the fact that I will be making the majority of our family’s food… not to mention how I have evolved and grown throughout the process.

    It is a journey.

  3. Yet another awesome post Heidi! Thanks for sharing. Pete is the same way as you – doesn’t really know if he’s been gluten-ed! It’s the long-term effects that are scary. When I hear people say they don’t want to get tested because they don’t want to eat a GF diet, I shudder. Don’t they realize what it’s doing to their body? They think they can live with heartburn and tums. Sad. Pete’s sister who has been diagnosed for 30+ years recently developed scleroderma – another auto-immune disease – and it’s awful. Being as careful as you are is SO important. Eating well must be the primary concern of someone with celiac. Okay, I’ll stop now! I could go on and on with you…Good for you for changing your ways and working so hard to stay healthy! xo

  4. Thanks Maggie… I don’t usually get many comments on posts like these so I always wonder if I am the only wackadoodle who had such a difficult time coming to terms with my diagnosis.

    I hope that by sharing some of my (now very embarrassing) journey through the land of denial, that someone (who may really need it), will see that a CD or DH diagnosis is not the end of the world and it CAN be a happy, healthy life if caught early enough.

    One thing that really gets me when I think about it, is that if I thought the GF “diet” was hard… how in the hell would I react to chemo, etc.! 😉

  5. Thank you for your post. Of course I have had the same experience, and I appreciate your reminder that it’s a risk we can choose to take or not, and if we do and something goes awry, then use it as a “teachable moment”. I am a bit baffled when I read on other GF blogs that minor exposures are in any way not problematical. I, too, do not suffer typical and immediately obvious symptoms. Nevertheless, I know that every accidental exposure adds up. All we can do is our best to be careful, but I find the cavalier attitude of some celiacs a bit mystifying.

    I NEVER grieved over learning of my disease. I am so GRATEFUL that there is a cure over which I have (almost) complete control, and I don’t have to take anything (meds) to do it. I’m ecstatic to have regained so much health, much of which I never realized I had lost.

    • Tanya,

      Thank you for your comments! I know that cavalier attitude all too well, and yes you are correct that it is a bit mystifying!

      For me, not “feeling sick” certainly didn’t help matters, but as I began to lose dinner invitations, or had fewer people (including family) accepting my invitations because they no longer liked my food… it was a very sad and lonely place to be. Feeling rejected can make some people do funny things and I kept harming myself by cheating because I wanted to be included in the lives of those I cared for.

      Once my son was diagnosed though, I knew that had to change. Our kids watch us and if Sam saw me struggling to accept the truth… then he would too. That is when I decided to get over the self-pity and try on a new attitude. Once I opened my eyes, I could see everything much more clear. I have been sick for a very long time, most of my life actually, but when you are used to feeling a certain way, you can end up accepting it as normal.

      And Tanya, you brought up great point, of all the illnesses I (or any of us) could have received… Celiac Disease, if caught early enough, is relatively “easy” to treat (compared to having chemo, radiation, organ transplants, surgery, etc.).

      It’s just food.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I was diagnosed as positive for a Celiac marker, whatever that means, on March 4. I started the Gluten Free Diet on March 10. I am a planner, and it took some planning to get there. I have had several “gluten” episodes, and I have been so frustrated, feeling like I take one step forward and then two back. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this is NOT my first medical rodeo, and I realize that it is a slow process in diagnosis and treatment. And in this case the treatment is the diet, so I am trying to be patient. Tonight, for the first time in 46 years, I sat in a Mexican restaurant and did not eat a single chip. I almost started crying, but I couldn’t risk that they had been cross contaminated. I ate my fajitas and grilled veggies and watched everyone else eat the chips.
    I was beginning to think I was crazy for wanting to cry over chips.

    How long have you been dealing with this, and do you have any tips?

    • Rhonda,

      No, you are not crazy, and you are not alone in thinking that way… I did too once.

      You made a key statement, right before you mentioned wanting to cry over the chips, “you watched everyone else eat the chips.”

      It took me a long time to fully internalize the fact that human beings are naturally social animals, and given the historically significant role of food (and its gathering) in our development, being “excluded” from a meal for any reason must trigger some sort of deep feeling of rejection in all of us. Until recently, having enough food was a BIG DEAL, and communities around the world still celebrate “record harvests,” now because of the economic windfall, but historically because it meant everyone could eat for the next 12 months. Social gatherings around food are, culturally speaking, an important event, and not being able to be part of it undoubtedly sets off the “survival instinct” in all of us.

      Your feelings are completely valid, emotionally justified, and the pain is real. All I can say is that with time, I learned to overcome it (through therapy, and I am not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that I needed someone to help me work through it) and make lemonade out of lemons. My health and my family’s health are much better because of it.

      One concrete thing you can do: go to the store the next time you have some spare cash. Find a BIG PURSE that makes you feel good and has a lot of extra pockets. When you go back to that Mexican restaurant, take your own GF tortilla chips that you have hidden in your purse (just make sure that your chips are so good that others at the table want some of yours! 😉 ).

      Ask the server to bring you your own separate bowl of salsa (or ask that everyone let you scoop some onto your plate before they dip), and enjoy. And NO DOUBLE DIPPING…tell the “glutenators” to keep their paws off your salsa!!! 😀

      Lastly (and this may be beyond corny), but there is a song that I listen to often and have even begun to play it for Sam, that I encourage you and anyone else who may be struggling to accept something that makes them feel “different” to listen to… it’s called “Freckles” by Natasha Bedingfield (it can be found on iTunes).


      • Thank you Heidi. This has been my first Gluten Free business trip, and it has been a challenge. But in about 4 hours I have to stand up and give a 2 hour sales presentation. If I can get through that without an emergency, it will have been worth it.

  7. Great piece! I ordered a burger from Ruby Tuesday GF menu in MCO Aiport a few weeks ago and it came sitting on a bun. Really? I guess the fact it took them 1/2hr to find their GF menu was a warning. I don’t have celiac but gluten somehow misfires signals in my brain causing bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, anxiety, hyperactivity…It’s the same with my Mum and it’s looking like Ella, my daughter, and possibly my sister, are also intolerant. TFS!

  8. I know exactly what you mean…and you are NOT a wackadoodle! I have only eaten out a few times since I was diagnosed. Thankfully, they have been very good experiences! I find myself being rather OCD about my food these days. I know you are extremely well informed, but I was wondering if you’ve heard of the gluten free camp for kids in Dallas. Here’s their website if you think Sam would be interested: Keep up the good work! I know we all appreciate your post and your blunt honesty!

  9. Thanks Suzanne!!

    I have heard of the camp, it looks AWESOME! Sam is not old enough this year (he is 6 and I believe 7 is the youngest they allow), but he will be next year!!

    It may take me another year anyway to accept the idea of “letting him go,” I’ve never been away from him that long, LOL! 🙂

  10. Thanks for your honest description of some of the risks of restaurant dining — so often my husband has asked me if I want to eat out, thinking he could save me some time and stress, but it’s pretty rare that I’d rather eat out than fix my own. Also, those are good suggestions about how to speak to the management, if needed.

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