Sunday, 28 July 2013

Five phrases that changed their meaning when I went gluten-free

What a difference a few years and a whole load of gluten-free pizza makes. Your perspective is bound to change when you go gluten-free - these are just a few phrases that have acquired a completely different meaning.

Mmm, let me at that gluten-free breakfast buffet!
Image by Kai Hendry, CC BY 2.0

1. "Breakfast is included."

Sounds delicious. Or indigestible.

Being offered a free breakfast with a hotel reservation is always accompanied by a cynical whisper in my head. 'It's a trap, don't raise your hopes for their toast!' If it's a budget hotel, it'll be baskets of bread rolls flanked by one of those torture-chamber-like toasting machines. The only way to quell the demon doubt is by sending the hotel their least-favourite kind of guest query: nitpicking the free breakfast. Begging for yoghurt is so undignified.

2. "All-you-can-eat buffet."

All-I-can't-eat, more like.

My former student self whooped with glee at a glimpse of a banquet table loaded with (usually Chinese) food. I remember riding high on MSG as I gorged on lunch specials, and knowing I probably wouldn't need to eat again for another 24 hours. But today, those neon lunch buffet signs leave me cold. Wheaty won-tons, gluten-packed sesame toast and deadly noodles. I'd have to eat an awful lot of (tapioca-based) prawn crackers to get my money's worth. Nope.

3. "Birthday cake."

I'll just come for the singing...

It's not about the actual cake (goodness knows I eat my fair share of the gf stuff on my own time). But when the cry rings out across the office, to wish someone a happy birthday and share a slice of gateau, I know there's an awkward cake-avoidance dance on the cards. Like Cinderella at midnight, I flee back to my desk as soon as the singing is over.
This is what I think of your crappy cake. Uh, I mean, many happy returns.
Image by Daniel Oldfield, CC BY 2.0

4. "Dinner party."

Sounds delightful, I'll bring a bottle of red and some inconvenience.

This is a painful one for a food-lover like me. It's a fine art, politely pitching dietary restrictions with your RSVP, while giving your host a wide enough berth to back out of inviting you if they feel too daunted to cook without wheat. I personally am happy to cook for friends with diets from vegan to kosher and everything in between, but not everyone wants to do that. If someone's intention was a hands-off chuck-a-lasagne-in-the-oven dinner party, it's probably a bummer to find out you have a special dieter on your hands. Awkward all round.

5. "Lunch will be provided."

Crystal ball tells me it's a Pret sandwich platter.

It's a shame when a nice gesture from an employer, client or event generates an extra layer of admin, and it's worse still to feel like an inconvenience. There are two warring sides in my brain: I don't want to apologise for a health problem I can't control, or undermine my issue by joking that I am 'fussy' or 'causing trouble'. But I do understand that my requirements might mean extra work for someone, even if it's just a couple of emails to a caterer.

Stay with me, there's an upside...

Dodging cakes, missing out on free sandwiches and creating extra work for that nice chap in HR... there'd better be a silver lining.

Well, I believe there is. Being aware of the difficulties of navigating life with your own limitations makes you an awful lot nicer about other people's. My diagnosis as coeliac came utterly out of the blue, and ever since I had to change my own lifestyle, the penny dropped and I thought a lot more about the variety of human stories and individual struggles happening all around me (if I cared to notice).

It's all too easy to make glib assumptions, and we all do it. That person pushed in front of you to get the last seat on the train? Rude. The guy who never comes for a drink after work? Antisocial. Someone refusing to share your offer of birthday cake? Probably following one of those carb-free diet fads.

All of people blocking your way are unique and wonderful individuals with
problems of their own... Ah nuts, did I just miss the 159? F%$&ers!
Image by C. G. P. Grey (, CC BY 2.0
But you learn to question your own snap judgements when you have to tread a tightrope in your own life. Coeliacs and other navigators of special diets work hard at being true to their own health, while still being as sociable as possible and trying to cause minimal inconvenience to those around them. So maybe, just maybe that woman pushed in front of me to get the last seat because she's pregnant, or sick, or has vertigo. Maybe that guy never comes for drinks because he has money worries, or is teetotal, or gets nervous in crowds. Maybe that cake-refuser is a coeliac.

When life deals you an awkward hand, you tend to give other people the benefit of the doubt too.