I'm Gluten Intolerant... Intolerant

It seems to be a big buzzword these days. The "G.I." abbreviation has taken on an entirely new meaning.
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"I'd like to make a reservation, but could you please leave a note for the chef that we have a gluten intolerance?"

"Sure. No problem at all."

"Are you sure that you'll have things for us to eat?"

"It will be no problem. We deal with allergies every day."

This is a phone call we deal with more often these days. Nowadays everyone is seemingly allergic to something. In a restaurant such as ours where we have a tasting menu, it's not really an issue. Yes, our menu is designed to showcase what the season dictates, highlight the bounty of our terrain and focus on simple, great ingredients, but we don't just have one menu, and we're certainly not as rigid as people might think. If you don't want to eat goat, or you're simply allergic to mushrooms, just tell us. It's really no problem; we'll make you something else. At the end of the day, we just want to make you happy. We are in the hospitality business after all.

When someone has a shrimp allergy, I don't make them something that looks and tastes like shrimp, but isn't. I make them a great meal based on foods and flavors they can actually eat. Why would they want something "shrimpy" if they don't eat it? So, when someone doesn't eat gluten, I assume they don't want something "wheaty." With so many other choices available from our kitchen, why would they want faux pasta anyway? With Italian cuisine I can make anything they want to eat. Making them a gluten-free pasta--one that's most likely going to be crumbly at best, or chewy, but bound with some sort of chemical that mimics what gluten does to pasta--is the very last thing on my mind.

All of this makes me think of a bigger question: when did we start using the term "gluten intolerance?" Why not just say, "I can't eat wheat," or, "I'm allergic to wheat." I'm guessing it's because many people aren't necessarily allergic to wheat--they just think they are. It seems to be a big buzzword these days. The "G.I." abbreviation has taken on an entirely new meaning. Is it "gluten intolerance," "glycemic index" or "gastro-intestinal?" Nowadays, people are talking glycemic indexes at coffee shops like they used to talk about the price of gas.

"Do you want a croissant with your coffee?"

"No way dude, you know the G.I. in that thing? I wanna live past 45...hahaha!"

"Yeah man, serious stuff."

Truthfully, unless you have celiac disease, which is a major issue in 1 percent of the population, you probably don't know what gluten is, let alone what glycemic index is. You're most likely listening to some half-truths written in a book by some doctor who is more concerned with the width of his wallet rather than the width of your waistline.

I'll put it this way: I'm a stutterer, and we also comprise 1 percent of the population. I bet you probably know many people who claim they're celiac, but how many stutterers do you know?

Every dish we served the gluten-intolerant woman who had called ahead was a home run. We were simply killing it. She was loving everything...until the risotto.

"Um, excuse me, I don't eat pasta."

The server cheerfully replied, "I'm sorry miss, this is actually risotto."

"Yes, I understand, but I told you I don't eat gluten."

Confused, the server replied, "But, it's rice. There is no gluten in rice."

Already annoyed the woman asked us to take the dish away. The meal almost went downhill from there. She didn't want to hear anything. Even if she believed rice had no gluten, she wasn't going back on it now. As she flagged me down, I knew what was coming.

"Why don't you serve a gluten-free pasta?"

"I would, but I don't really like gluten-free pasta, and there is so much to eat on the menu that has no wheat, I don't really see the need to make it."

She named a couple other local restaurants that accommodate her.

"Those are great restaurants," I said. "I'm sure their gluten-free pasta is really tasty. Maybe I will serve it one day."

I had to force the words out of my mouth. I tried to show empathy instead of sympathy, something my wife tells me I should probably do more!

"Gluten intolerance is a pretty serious issue," I added. Now, that one was harder for me to choke out.

"Indeed it is," she said with a smile and thanked me for stopping by to talk.

I was about to walk away from the table when I got the urge to say, "Well, you know risotto is..." Oh, never mind. I stopped myself in my tracks. I knew it was a losing battle, and I would undo what I had just fixed.

I still couldn't get over the fact she really believed there was gluten in risotto. Or for that matter, that people consider wheat to be so bad for us. To me it's simply a lack of understanding about what wheat is, and what it is processed into. This diner most likely wasn't gluten intolerant at all. She's simply mesmerized by the latest fad that is consuming the nation--but it's a fad based on misrepresentation.

I would like to offer another meaning for G.I: Grossly Ill-informed.

Wheat is nutritious. In its truest form, the wheat berry has so many nutrients. It has protein, fiber and minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium and potassium. How can a grain that is a basis of human civilization be bad for us? Wheat itself is not bad for us, but how it's used is a big part of the problem. Wheat nutrition depends entirely on the form in which you eat it, and weight gain is actually inversely associated with the intake of high-fiber whole grains.

Commercial milling has led to nutrient-starved flour. When we start to break something down and use its parts individually, we make it less functional. When we finally realized our big mistake, we decided to fix it by "enriching" it with powdered vitamins. That's like trying to put out a fire by dousing it with a tub of gasoline. Poor decision after poor decision led us to where we are now, a country that is looking for a quick fix to all of our health issues. Instead of looking at the real issue, which is the massive amounts of refined grain and sugar in our diet and our lack of connection with food, we've decided to completely cut a whole grain out of our diet. As a substitute, we'll eat a piece of rice-milled bread held together with xanthum gum, a product of fermentation that has been known to create digestive issues of its own. Or we'll eat a sprouted bread because the label tells us it's healthy, yet it's loaded with raw vital wheat gluten, which can also difficult to digest. (It's like eating a stick of bubble gum every day.)

Perhaps it's time to make a loaf of bread the old-fashioned way. Get your grain milled locally, or buy a hand-crank mill of your own. Sift the flour and make a long-fermented dough overnight. Fermentation makes bread and gluten more digestible. It breaks down the gluten and makes it much easier for our bodies to process.

The bottom line is we need to eat a balanced diet based on vegetables, fruits, dairy, protein, and yes, grains. Whole grains that nourish our bodies in ways that there is no substitute.

As I went to say good night to the gluten-intolerant woman that evening, I worked my way around the room cautiously. I watched as she and her dining companion finished their gluten-free dessert. They savored every last morsel of their sorbet before I walked over to see how everything was. I noticed a little bit of an amber-colored liquid in their glass, maybe a sweet dessert wine that is rich, sticky and delicious to end a meal on. Completely thrilled with the remainder of the meal, they were overjoyed to tell me how they just experienced one of the best meals of their lives, notwithstanding the risotto. I apologized again, and offered one last time if there was anything else I could get for them. They smiled and said, "We'll just hang out and let the food digest a bit while we finish our beers."

"Sometimes," I thought to myself, "the jokes are just for me!"

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