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Tonight’s Gluten-Free Menu Item Choice: Is It Celiac SAFE; or Is It Simply Gluten?

Posted by nepeht on May 8, 2009

By William T. Beverly, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
This is the question that a typical person with Gluten intolerance is possibly asking her/his self from the time they know which restaurant they are going to be eating in tonight, to the time that they leave that establishment.

When a place has a “Gluten-Free Menu” or items that they advertise as “Gluten-Free”, a person with such a medical condition is still going to probably be a bit cautious. That is, until they know with whom they are dealing and just what they are getting.

With whom are you dealing?

Well, there are big chains that are beginning massive advertising campaigns claiming that they serve some “Gluten-Free items” and that is all well and good. At the same time, one can sometimes get a pretty scary feeling when entering such an establishment and asking a question about such an item, and the server is not at all versed on the terms “Gluten” or “Celiac”.

I guess in cases where the item is fully automated and totally hands off from the time it leaves the corporate big house to the time it is served to you, then perhaps it can be assumed to be truly “gluten-free”. But then who really wants to eat something that mechanized. I mean, even at the fastest, fast-food joints, the folks in the back at least bless your entree with a pickle or something prior to serving it.

And then there is the problem that one often encounters in massive chain operations where the consumer gets an item that is supposedly “Gluten-Free”, yet the item is served with a brand of ketchup or mayo or dressing that is known to contain gluten. Then one nudges up to the counter-server to ask about this and is met with an “I don’t know” or “If you cannot eat wheat, can you eat white bread instead?”

In fact I was at one of those “Have it your way” burger chains the other day and ordered a Double _____ “with everything except the bun”; and the counter guy, savvy as he was — and polite — whistled back, “One Double ______, Low Carb!” OK… so I didn’t say a word. I was delighted that at least he was trying…. but does “Low Carb” necessarily mean “Gluten-Free”… I don’t think soooooooooo.

Part II of With Whom are You Dealing?

OK, so then there are those wonderful mom-and-pop places that just seem to be perfect, and they are trying their best to serve their Gluten-Free-Needy customers a wonderful item and they do….. Except, they get a little touchy when one asks… nicely, “Hey, this steak is like…. mulllahhhh wonderful!!! But can you tell me…. is it marinated?” (yes)… “OK… and I love it tooo……. but how bout… , Does that marinate include any items that might contain gluten???”

Their first defense (and unfortunately it is often a defense — which it does not need to be) is. “Well that’s Jenny’s Secret Recipe and I cannot divulge…” So you explain to the waiter about the Gluten-Free thingee, while at the same time, he is wondering why his establishment actually cares about such “food preferences” and he goes back to consult with the Chef… Jenny…. or Jenny’s daughter or somebody close enough to know the secret.

Of course she gives him a list of the ingredients in the marinate because as the Chef, she is somewhat aware that the Gluten thing is in her face more and more every day now…

The Waiter returns to the table and says, “The ingredients are some herbs and spices, vinegar, mayo, beer (cannot tell you what kind), sugar, a (not-to-be-named) steak sauce, an anonymous fruit juice, and tomato paste.” “Nope, nothing in there could contain Gluten.. so, you are home free.”

“Now can you please cut into your steak and tell me if it is done to your liking?”

At this point, it is kind of hard to tell the guy……. the waiter about how almost every ingredient he mentioned could contain gluten, depending on which brand they use etc… (e.g., Gluten can be in some brands of vinegar, mayo, beer, confectioners sugar, some steak sauces, some fruit juices, and in tomato paste).

I’m Backing Off Now…

So with tons of years in food service under my belt, I say with some firmness that in every establishment, there should be at least one person who cares about this “Gluten issue”. Food service people are people too and they are typically underpaid, overworked and they have to deal constantly with social situations where they clothes smell more like their fryer grease than like the cologne that they splashed on this morning. This is a hard life. So some slack is warranted.

At the same time, as an over-educated person with years of Celiac Disease under my belt (literally un-der my-belt), I can say that this life too is difficult and unfair and some slack is definitely warranted.

So How can We Meet In the Middle?

I am not sure what the solution is going to be.

I am certain that there are two things that cannot be helpful:

  1. I do not think that half-hearted “Gluten-Free” menu and advertising overhauls in corporate America are going to do anything but aggravate the situation UNLESS… and I said, “UNLESS!!!”, those same corporate bosses are willing to also act consistently in terms of training ALL involved staff and also sincerely analyzing recipes and inventoried product brands to see that only “Gluten-Free” product makes its way to the consumer’s table. This is an expensive undertaking and I would be surprised if even the majority of those touting “Our New Gluten-Free Menu” are taking it as seriously as all this.
  2. and, at the same time: I am certain that nothing really gets solved when a person in need of a Gluten-Free meal gets visibly angry about what she/he is served and then takes out 100% of that anger on the extremely low-level staff-person who served it to them. Yes, I think ALL staff are or should be responsible in such cases, but if a person is a teenager making minimum wage and has not ever even been reasonably briefed on the “New Gluten-Free Items” thingee… then I think it is management who is in the wrong; not the line worker.

So this morning, I was going to write up a list of what kinds of dishes on restaurant menus that say they are “Gluten-Free” are likely to be safe, versus which ones are probably not. I could not write that yet because I think these types of problems — as listed above — are much grander and much more significant at this time.

Surely, I will put together a list of “probably safe” and “possibly not” Gluten-Free “safe” menu items soon. And I will publish it. But for now, I think the “Safe” thing to do would be for America’s Corporate Bosses to wax sincerely about the “Gluten-Free” issue or NOT wax at all. And I think that those of us who sometimes have emotional rants in our empty dining enjoyment quests that sometimes lead to “Gluten-Free” starvation — oh… and I have been there many times too.. — should also think next time before we blast an unsuspecting cashier the local “Minute Burger Joint”.

What do you think?

 

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