It's just past 7:00, the sky is still that grayish mauve, and I'm standing in the kitchen, rooting through our cupboards. A mug of milky tea, brewed by Ben for me while I still lay in bed, blinking away the fog of my final dream of the night, is on the counter next to me, steam twisting off of it like a gossamer scarf. I pluck a few dried figs from a plastic packet and chew them as I contemplate a can of oatmeal, a box of Grape-Nuts, a stale chocolate cookie meant for the trash. But none of them will do for my breakfast, you see, because today I'm going gluten-free. And I'm totally unprepared.
Never mind, I tell myself, and get ready for work. I pass a Whole Foods on the way to the office, and I'll just stop in there to collect my breakfast - after all, it's probably a mecca for someone who can't tolerate gluten because they suffer from celiac disease. I ride the train into the city, looking out at the passing neighborhoods, seeing the skyline grow closer. My stomach rumbles. Why am I doing this again?
Shauna, at Gluten-Free Girl, was diagnosed with celiac disease just a few years ago. After a lifetime of mysterious illness, she finally knew the culprit: gluten, those little strands of protein found in wheat and barley and rye and oats. All she'd have to do to feel better is cut out the gluten from her life entirely. No more bread, no more pasta, no soy sauce, no blue cheese. But instead of feeling deprived, like I'm sure I'd feel, Shauna was empowered by her diagnosis. She saw it as a new lease on life. With her first book now for sale, she's working tirelessly to make other celiac sufferers feel less alone, less deprived, less lost in this whole maze of labels and warnings and restrictions.
I can't really imagine life with a restriction like that. I have no food allergies and my pickiness is contained to a green herb or two. So I've decided to challenge myself, walk a day in someone else's shoes, and go gluten-free the whole day long. Easy-peasy, right? Well, I'm at Whole Foods, having walked past the display of fresh muffins and scones - all of them off-limits - and am standing in the cereal aisle, completely overwhelmed. Almost everything is off-limits. The things that seem like they might be okay don't explicitly say so. The one box that is gluten-free is Bob's Red Mill hot cereal, which I know Shauna's written about, but I can't fix hot cereal at the office. So I grab a yogurt (after staring at the label for what feels like ages) and a sweet bar of sesame seeds and quinoa and march off to work, feeling somewhat defeated.
My breakfast is odd - too sweet and too processed - and I can't help but feel a little resentful. Wasn't Whole Foods supposed to make this easy for me? Never mind - lunch will be different. I'm meeting a good friend at City Bakery, where the salad bar's panoply of fresh vegetables and interesting grains is certain to satisfy. Except once I get there and pace back and forth in front of the platters of food, I'm wracked with nerves. The chicken's off-limits due to the breadcrumb coating on one version and the soy sauce in the other. Ditto for the Chinese noodles, the quesadillas, the cornbread-crusted catfish. I ask about the King Ranch casserole, timidly volunteering that I'm gluten-free and feeling like an absolute fraud, but all I get is an apologetic shrug - no one knows if it's gluten-free and I'm not feeling brave enough to insist on an answer.
Eventually, I choose stewy red peppers, mushrooms with herbs, roasted Jerusalem artichokes and, after much deliberation, three rectangles of marinated tofu with chili sauce. I feel lost and ignorant and it frustrates me to no end. It's delicious, of course, but something else I hate to admit bubbles up inside me - it'd taste so much better with a piece of bread to mop it up. Two meals, and I'm already waving a white flag? Pathetic, I know. My admiration for Shauna's enthusiasm and gusto only grows.
Luckily, the afternoon is so busy with work that I entirely miss my usual four o'clock slump when I have to skulk to the vending machine for a packet of pretzels that get me through until dinner. After work, I walk over to Grand Central, where I've been invited to a private tasting event at Grand Central Market. (Which makes me wish I had my daily commute from there instead of Penn Station - Wild Edibles and Penzeys and Murray's Cheese and so many others under one roof? It's amazing.) I say no to caviar on blini, salmon on toast, delicate pastries, coconut-crusted chicken. A plate of antipasti rolls by and I snag a few sundried tomatoes, a mini ball of mozzarella and later on, a delectable slice of Constant Bliss. But I keep having to pipe up about the wheat and the gluten and no one seems to know - I get blank looks, apologetic shrugs, and well-meaning offers of "vegetarian meatballs, with breadcrumbs!". Eventually, it all gets to be too much, but before I leave, the kindly folks at Zaro press a plastic bag of fresh bread in my hands. I smile at the irony and say my goodbyes.
I call Ben from the station - he's at home with fresh fish that he bought for dinner. With me on the phone, he goes through our cupboards: two boxes of couscous (no and no), some pasta (no). I wonder, in irritation, if dinner tonight for me will be fish and nothing else. But then, Ben triumphantly announces the discovery of a few grains of wild rice mix - we're on. When I finally arrive home, the scent of fresh bread wafting tauntingly from my bag, I'm exhausted. We sit down to dinner - pan-roasted tilapia, more beet salad, and wild rice, nourishing and wholesome. But for some reason, I barely enjoy the meal.
It hasn't been so bad, my gluten-free day, if I'm honest, but the
constant vigilance is what gets to me. Every day you have to be on your
toes, aware, not afraid to ask or refuse or reorder. Your health and
well-being is on the line and no amount of eye-rolling or dogged
questioning can deter you. I will never forget Shauna's experience in the Atlanta airport after returning from Italy - and that's what's on my mind the most tonight as I chew. Because I take food for granted, I do. As well as my good health.
My eyes have been opened.