I am a foodie, but the good kind, you know, who hates the word “foodie.” And Chicago is a foodie-who-hates-the-word-foodie kind of town, from its wet Italian beefs and deep dish pizzas all the way to its ketchupless hot dogs. At the same time, I have celiac disease, that hideous inability to process any wheat or anything wheat products have brushed the hell up against, which by my estimation includes 99% of all processed foods and 100% of every restaurant’s kitchen utensils. This makes dining out something of a nightmare both for the kitchen staff and the patient friends who still enjoy my company. If you are toying with the idea of joining this “health fad” or if you have recently been diagnosed with celiac disease, I won’t bore you with medical information which you can easily read about elsewhere. (Seriously, get that information elsewhere because you will need it.) Instead, I’ll just give you a glimpse in to the culinary tribulations of a celiac foodie and a little preview of how your Chicago dining experience tends to go down.
Coming Out to Friends and Family
You can’t hide in your sterile kitchen forever. Someday you will have to attend a dinner party with friends or visit a restaurant with your aunts. You may be inclined to delay telling them until you are in that neutral restaurant space where they can’t turn on you with bitter inquiries that make for dull meal talk like:
“How can so many people be gluten sensitive all of a sudden?”
“What is gluten anyway?”
“Isn’t that just a big myth?”
“What were your symptoms?”
“How can you live without bread?”
“What should I make you when you come over?”
The best solution is to get it all out of the way long before you sit down to watch them break bread and then apologize to you about it. Bread guilt is a thing. Bread baskets should be outlawed. Maybe you should bring rice cakes to kill the time. But there are plenty of ways and better times to break the news — like pretending they already know and texting you’d prefer DeLucianos because they have gluten-free pasta that doesn’t taste like silly putty. Just get it done, because once that is over you will need all of your actual energy to choose a safe restaurant, tune out the sighs of your loved ones, and emotionally accept the limited menu options anywhere else in town.
Braving a Restaurant
Yelp lies sometimes. I mean any restaurant can have a gluten-free “GF” tag on it just because they have steamed vegetables, but that doesn’t make it a gluten-free restaurant any more than having a bread basket on the table makes the place a bakery. No chef wants to bill his place as GF because no glutenmunchers want to think for one second that they have accidentally ingested something that wasn’t dusted in flour. So you have your work cut out for you. If it’s Italian they want, check the menu for fish. If it’s any other type of food they want, check the menu for fish. For whatever reason, fish is seen as the healthy option, so restaurants may not always cover it in breading. If it’s Mexican or Thai they want, kiss them and tell them to enjoy their meal without you, because you’ll have few options. If its sushi, just bring your own GF soy sauce like some bad-ass gamer nerd showing up with his own controller.
Now You’re that Girl
You’re that lady who grills the waitress for 10 minutes on cooking techniques while your dining companions simply point at the scallopini and state their preferred salad dressing. You get to ignore their eye rolls when you are reduced to asking things like “Do they make the dressing in house? Would you mind asking the chef? Do you have a dedicated grill? Can you hold the croutons? You know what, I’ll just take oil and vinegar please.”
Food as Just Fuel
While you eat your fish and steamed vegetables and dream about the gourmet meal you made last night at home, try to console yourself that food is just a fuel, and at least you are feeding your soul in the company of bon vivants. True, those friends are eating any exotic object of their desire right in front of you while you are eating the one GF menu item, but don’t dwell on it. Don’t look sad or they will be all over you with consolation like a fruit fly. Instead, focus on how alive and pain free you feel. Dining is after all a social occurrence — one that is about conversation and communion, and the food is simply there as a prop. If you can convince yourself of this, go home afterward and bake yourself a Pavlova with mascarpone and fresh berry compote guilt-free.
Menus are designed to arouse your appetite, but you need to train your brain to cut through the bullshit. Take off your foodie goggles and look to the core ingredients. Is “Pan dredged balsamic infused macerated cremini baked in roux sauce” really just battered mushrooms in gravy? Don’t get it!
Partying with the Raw Vegans
In certain restaurants in Logan Square and Wicker Park, you may come across dishes or even restaurants labelled as raw or vegan. Many of the things they eat happen to be GF too, if only by process of elimination. If you can convince your buddies to go there via bike to avoid parking woes, then you are already hipster enough to enter and there may be a few items for you to choose from. Also, if you suffer from celiac shame (the fervid desire not to have to explain to people what gluten is “in” and apologize for half of your life to the waitstaff) you could always just pose as a raw foodie vegan when RSVPing for a dinner party or wedding.
Unlike a lot of other food lifestyles (juicing, vegetarianism, low-fat, low-carb, Paleo) no one has ever been able to convince anyone to go gluten-free with them just for support, or even for health. If they have, those people are liars. They will look you in the eyes and tell you they are gluten-free as they are picking up a slice of pizza. They think of gluten-free as a lifestyle choice they are experimenting with to see if it alters their energy levels or emotions. This is the same exact way I am cutting out sugar… and still kind of opting for honey. Generally, a person with celiac disease would not wish a gluten-free lifestyle on anyone. Unlike vegetarians, we can’t claim to be humane for not eating wheat. All we have to sway people with is a vague promise of having more energy since we now can absorb nutrients through our big intestine like the rest of humanity.
Those with celiac disease generally will cheat only once — just to assure ourselves that we would be very ill. We then eschew stretchy pizza dough for all eternity. So don’t roll your eyes, but don’t pity us either. You weren’t really hoping for first-person accounts on what to pack for lunch and how to not punch your co-workers for bringing in cupcakes every week, were you? You wanted to know what it’s like being a gourmand stripped of all but the barest of dining conventions. Like a drag queen at a nudist colony, GF foodies just have to work a teeny bit harder to feel fulfilled.
GF and GF-friendly resources for Chicago: