Sunday, 23 December 2012

"Just peel off the batter": party catering nightmares of gluten-free eaters

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a coeliac quite like canapes. 

These seemingly innocuous nuggets of food are the party caterer's dream: dainty finger food that can be slung into an oven and brought out en masse to line the stomachs of booze-drenched party-goers (no doubt saving more than one office party from a sorry drunken end). But for those who eat gluten-free, party catering is a pain. Canapes are almost always on a bed of wheat, encrusted in wheaty pastry or slathered onto bread. Mass-produced finger food is very coeliac unfriendly, so those vol-au-vents, mini-hamburgers and battery tempura make my heart sink. They make me yearn for the days of retro snacks like cheese and pineapple on sticks. 

Evil, evil things. Just give me the salmon and ham!
Image by sushiĆ¢™¥in, CC Attribution
So in the midst of Christmas party season, plenty of gluten-free eaters will be a little nervous about what awaits them. We can only pray for carrot sticks and hummus, the safe refuge of a cheese board, or bank on our cast-iron drinking skills to see us through the night.

Being a prepared sort of coeliac, I saw the canape storm coming, but forewarning the party organiser seemed to fall on deaf ears this time around. I'd sent an FYI about my special diet with the original RSVP weeks before, but I also followed up a few days before the night.

"None of the party food is gluten-free," the organiser told me. 

Naturally, I responded with dozens of links to food that would be fine for me and the other gluten-free guests: sushi, cheeses, hams, a mini-roast, veggies, cold meats, panna cottas... a mouth-watering line-up. But alas, there was mysteriously "no time" to acquire such goodies as these. 

Yep, this is all you'll be eating. If you're LUCKY.
Image by Jules MorganCC Attribution
It does mystify me somewhat when naturally gluten-free goodies that are readily available sudden acquire an aura of unattainability in the context of catering. While I could pop down to a supermarket and have an armful of gluten-free snacks in mere minutes, I've met a number of party organisers and caterers who tell me sorrowfully how unable they are to cater for gluten-free eaters. (Is it fear of being sued, is it reluctance to do a quick Google search on 'gluten' -- maybe someone in the industry can tell me in the comments.) But in this case, I sensed the reluctance and just asked for cheese. Even the most rushed and coeliac-unfriendly party-planner can hopefully add some cheddar to their to-do list.

But if only the conversation had ended at cheese.

"There'll be plenty of vegetable tempura, which is only covered in a thin layer of flour," she added helpfully. "You could peel off the layer of flour and eat those." 

I was amazed. Firstly, wouldn't it just be simpler to have some non-breaded veggies in the first place? (Carrot sticks aren't hard to come by, unless there's been a rush on them this Christmas!) And secondly, did she really want to see me (and the two other gluten-free party-goers) sorrowfully picking apart scraps from the buffet because there was nothing else for us to eat? Maybe I could even soap off the floury coating with some Fairy liquid, to make sure they were truly safe to eat! Genius!

Cupcakes make me happy.
Image by albastrica mititica, CC Attribution
My wonderful Wheaty Eater encapsulated this absurdity nicely when I vented my frustration:

Vegetarians should just not eat the meat of their steak and mushroom sauce.
Peanut allergy suffers should just scrape off the satay sauce from the chicken skewers.
Alcoholics should just boil the champagne, capture and cool the water vapour and redirect it to a jug, then pour themselves a new glass. 

So I did what any slighted coeliac would do: I headed straight to the Hummingbird Bakery for a mountain of made-without cupcakes -- creamy cheese frosted red velvet cakes, star-spangled vanilla buns -- and slammed them down at this party, sharing them with coeliacs and non-coeliacs alike (best treats on the buffet by far).

Now, I don't expect venues and restaurants to have gluten-free goodies up their sleeve at the drop of a hat. But with plenty of notice, and for a party catering to a group where THREE guests are coeliac, I do expect this to be taken into account. Carrot sticks, cheeses, meats and veggies aren't rocket science. Ultimately, if you are happy to sit back and watch three of your guests peeling tempura and praying it doesn't make them sick, you aren't much of a host.