Wednesday, March 3, 2010

GF Ninja

The group around me ambles into the dimly-lit, richly-furnished room without a second thought—but I am immediately on guard.

I am ever vigilant, utilizing all senses to take in every detail:

busy, uniformed staff (whose smiles I meet with a steely glare),

savory smells (which I resist instinctively, habit honed by fatal experience),

seemingly immaculate tables (I check for crumb residue),

friendly voices and laughter (which will be silenced in a moment)…

I am a gluten-free ninja.

Walking into a restaurant with celiac disease is like traversing a mine field while riding an elephant. Hidden dangers beset the GF diner at every turn, and the menacing scene is made even more dangerous by the ignorant deception perpetuated by inexperienced cooks, chefs, waiters and waitresses, hosts, bus boys and even fellow diners.

“How about this place? It looks good,” my blind date, dinner group, girl’s-night-out-posse, boss or extended family member asks naively.

HA! I squelch a shout of laughter and my instinctive “good if you like pain” reply.

Even the bland exterior screams danger:

Ø no GF logo on the front window (the UK's universal wheat-free signal),

Ø popular, neon-lit logo above the door (indicative of a malicious chain restaurant),

Ø music with an accordion (turn and run!),

Ø a name that has any word that reminds you of your piano classes (forte, piano, bravo, ---isimo)

Ø a waiting line (sure sign of harried waiters).

Unfortunately, even when I go to dinner with supposedly experienced buddies—life-long friends, family members, beloved boyfriend—I sometimes get stuck with a perilous restaurant choice. When dining out, I have to get creative, crafty, observant, diplomatic, and even sneaky. I’m on a mission to eat.

This (terrifying) trip, the oblivious (but adorable) boyfriend wanders off while I’m still marking a perimeter around our table, checking the salt shaker for crumbs and scrutinizing sauce labels.

He returns with 'secret intelligences',

"Dia? Oh, there you are, under the tablecloth. Hey, guess what, I already asked them what foods have flour. They said you can have pretty much the whole menu and the whole buffet! Isn't that great?"

I lose my ninja cool for just a moment, smacking my head with my hand (not his head—I resisted) as I rolled my eyes (these actions not recommended simultaneously if a ninja wishes to retain single vision acuity).

Well, even Jackie Chan gets stuck with the dumb blond sometimes.

"Ssssssshhhhh!" I hiss. "Get low, and be quiet.”

It’s too late—he’s already blown my cover.

Our waitress bustles over, offering menus and appetizers all around. She’s either brave, masochistic or cruel to agree to come to our table, as she’s been pre-warned (and dealing with the cross-examination of a gluten-free ninja is hardly for the faint-hearted). I resist the depression urges which are served alongside the fluffy white dinner rolls (and the sneaking desire to start flinging them, shuriken style, at our fellow diners enjoying seven-layer lasagna or garlic bread), and look for the least dangerous thing on the menu as I try to convert the waitress to my side.

“Gluten. No, not glucose. No, not just in bread—it’s in white bread too, yes.”

The menu is a breeding ground of malevolent meal choices. Obvious traps, of course, include the sandwiches, rolls, wraps and croutons and cake, cookies and brownie options, but more subtle evils lurk quietly between the lines. Breading, seasonings and sauces strike without warning, and cross-contamination while cooking is a constant threat (only truly avoided when the waitress is also your significant other or mother).

After I’ve begged, bullied, bribed and beseeched our waitress for gluten-free options, she goes to “ask the chef” (coffee/smoke/look-up-glucose-on-Wikipedia break). As soon as she leaves, I commence cross-examination with every staff member in the area, take a mental survey of other diners’ plates and their possible gluten-free options, and undertake part four of the “Dessert Storm” plan beta. I check for nutritional information behind the front desk and then on my laptop online. I write a detailed list of menu items in order of increasing risk and potential hidden hazards. I remind myself that a gluten-free ninja is always prepared with travel snacks in her purse, so I will not starve.

Finally I get to order, off the (surprise!!) gluten-free menu! I can’t complain: when my grilled, stuffed chicken breast (“ask for no stuffing, dressing, breading, sauce, rice, beans, vegetables, chips or seasoning”) and loaded baked potato (“ask for no topping”) finally come, I chew through them with all the gusto of a soldier downing his hundredth M.R.E.. A ninja never complains, however, and I am honestly just relieved to be eating something that seems safe—although CONSTANT VIGILANCE is, of course, still necessary (as is evident when she hands me a packet of oyster crackers… Thanks, lady, that puts me at ease).

At the end of the meal, I order a delectable dessert (“ask for no brownie, no sauce, no cookie-dough, no happiness, no enjoyment and no hope”) consisting of a single mint leaf on a plate and sit back to watch my date finish his dinner, having escaped successfully from mortal danger (until the after dinner mint at the front desk on our way out).

When he finishes, he sits back too, and looks at me contentedly—offering a truly perfect conclusion to the meal:

“Wasn’t that relaxing? I love a meal away from the kitchen. Check please!”

Reality Check:

To make sure you have a fun (if not calm) experience as a GF ninja at restaurants, eat before, know your allergens, bring a good attitude and your own condiments and have the diplomacy skills of a UN delegate.

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