by Paul Graham
Food is a language. Anyone who has had gluten intolerance or celiac disease for a long time has likely come across this very fundamental situation: a friend, acquaintance, or even a complete stranger offers food; the subtext is that the food being presented is a gesture of trust and acceptance, or admiration, or welcome; and all the person with celiac disease (or any other serious food intolerance, for that matter) can think is, Can I eat this? Should I ask what’s in it? Or should I just down it anyway?
The answer is usually a mixture of Absolutely not and Well, maybe. Sometimes the situation goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, but the result is almost always a sense that you are slightly or even profoundly different, a little weird or even rude—all because you’re unable to partake.
For as long as humans have been roaming the world, in all places and in all times, the sharing of food has been one of the pillars of community-building and community-maintenance. There are other ways to build community, like sharing artwork and music, but unlike artwork and music, food is especially powerful because it allows people who might otherwise not be used to communicating with each other to establish a sense of trust and rapport. This is why we have lunch meetings for work, put on community potlucks, and take candidates for jobs—and for relationships—out to dinner.
Until I was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of 36, I had never been different from anyone else in my family or circle of friends—not even in the smallest, most inconsequential way. I had never once worried about what I ate, or didn’t eat, either. I’ve always been one of those annoying types with the metabolism of a chainsaw, and for the better part of three decades I never troubled over allergies or dietary restrictions of any kind. There weren’t even many foods I hated. This was only the result of pure luck, and it was a blissfully ignorant way to go through life.
All of that changed with my diagnosis, and among the many shocks, one of the biggest was that I had to relearn how to be a member of my community in certain situations. The bigger shock was that I had to teach them how to include me.
It was difficult and awkward at first. Out at a restaurant with friends, or even just my wife, I didn’t want to be that guy. At a friend’s house, I didn’t want to kill the mood. But if I’d never cheat and eat something that would make me feel awful in my own kitchen, then it didn’t make any sense to put myself in a position where someone might do that accidentally. Partly because it’s not in my personality to fuss, it took me a long time to get comfortable speaking up for myself. At first, my wife, knowing this, often spoke up for me. It can be helpful and reassuring to ask someone to have your back—someone who will inform the wait staff or caterer or hosts about your special dietary needs, once you get sick of thinking and talking about it.
Those little acts of speaking up in public can pave the way for bigger, better community re-constructors down the road. Inconvenient fact: Most of us are only thinking about what it’s like to go through the world as ourselves. So, to many people, eating wheat, rye, and barley—and, more specifically, the products they create, like pizza, bread, pasta, and beer—is a completely natural, everyday behavior, and understanding what it’s like to not be able to consume those things can be a difficult mental bridge for them to cross. The only solution to this is to teach them. And you have to do this patiently, piece by piece, over a long period of time.
It’s helpful to focus first on immediate family members, and then work outward to people who are more distant. You don’t exactly need to memorize an “anti-gluten stump speech,” but you’ll find the more you talk about the demands of gluten intolerance or celiac disease openly, the easier these conversations will go.
The talks with family members will build confidence for when you have to talk with friends, say, about their cutting boards (“I’d appreciate it if you’d give that a good scrub”) or their toasters (“I’m sorry, but even if you put gluten-free bread in there for me, there’s no freaking way”). A little bit of self-effacing humor (“I’m sorry my gut is such a pain in the rear; I hate it, too”) and politeness (“Thank you for keeping ice cream in your freezer for dessert; it’s my favorite”) go a long way here. I know people with celiac disease who are verbally aggressive and fearmongering when they tell friends and people in the community about their take on the disease, and nobody wants anything to do with them. It’s easy for me to see why. Honey, as the saying goes, works better.
And so does dropping a little science. I’ve noticed that people in my community who don’t know about celiac disease—even good friends—are often floored by a few basic facts. You don’t have to cite the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, but if you memorize their factoid that 1/48th of a piece of bread could do enough damage to show up on a biopsy, you’ll be pretty convincing. You don’t have to list every place where gluten lurks, but pointing out that the proteins shows up in some of the least-suspected places (“Like imitation crab meat, for crying out loud!”) will get them thinking. Nor do you have to describe what happens behind closed bathroom doors, but a quick description of the results of getting glutened (“I’ll lose a day of work at the best, and this is what you’d see under a microscope…”) tends to have the desired effect.
Once you’re teaching a little science and medicine to people in your community to get them to understand what you’re grappling with, then teaching them how to cook not for you but with you is the next step. The ideal situation is to learn to cook a few easy but fabulous gluten-free dishes yourself. It’s best if these dishes are inherently gluten-free. That is, the recipes don’t call for any “GF versions” of traditional wheat-based counterparts. By not exposing wheat-eaters to substitutions, you’re doing something important: you’re showing them they don’t have to make compromises with taste or texture to keep everyone they invite to their table happy. You could, in fact, be part of a dinner party for six and everything on the table could be completely satisfying for everyone. My wife and I have a very active social circle—we have friends to our house for dinner all the time, and we go to other peoples’ homes for dinner, as well—and we have never served a single noodle of gluten-free pasta. Nor have we served gluten-free pizza, bread, beer, or the like. We don’t even go there. We’ll eat it ourselves, from time to time, but we won’t be winning any converts this way.
Instead, we learned a few awesome dishes that are sure to please, like pad Thai, butternut squash risotto, and artichoke frittatas, and we either cooked them at home or brought them with us.
And when people asked for the recipes, we eagerly gave them away.
You know you’re making progress at rebuilding trust and inclusion in your community when friends are calling and texting to ask if this or that ingredient is gluten-free. It’s easy to tell who’s done their homework and who hasn’t. Mustard oil should be a no brainer (uh, yes, it is gluten-free), but treat them kindly. However, starch, depending upon the sourcing, isn’t a bad question. More to the point, though—these friends and family members who call and text are learning. They’re thinking about it—about you. And you’ll feel safer and safer in their kitchens.
Communities are not built overnight, and so they can’t be rebuilt overnight, either. It takes a long time to teach people who used to take for granted that you could and would eat just about anything that now, quite abruptly, you must eliminate the cornerstone of the entire northwestern hemisphere’s diet. With a little work, though, a person with a dietary restriction like celiac disease or gluten intolerance can be more than a special consideration—you can be an interesting, sympathetic dinner guest who’s also a great cook, ready to offer new recipes.
Paul Graham, an English professor at St. Lawrence University, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012.
He is the author of In Memory of Bread: A Memoir.