My little sister graduated this weekend. The same little sister who used to agreeably complete the activity books I made for her, who walked to school with me in elementary school and shared several of my high school teachers, is now a college graduate—cum laude—with a degree in neuroscience! She never would have made it there without my activity books.
Seriously, though, my sister is right up there among the smartest people I know, and I’m glad she’ll be using her own brain to learn more about the most complex structure in the universe (even if she does have to dissect a few songbirds to do it…poor songbirds). She’s going to be doing research related to the brain–gut axis, for the next couple of years at least, which I think is awesome. Why study one brain when you can study two?
Not only did little sis graduate with honors, but she also picked up some very nice compliments from some of her teachers who we met over the course of the weekend. “One of my best students ever”; “Personal impact on my own life”—yep, those things were said. Go Althea!
While my sister came out top of her class this weekend, I failed the main test before me, which was to navigate the weekend’s catered meals in a way that left me feeling safe and unstressed. Although I did call in advance to ask what the meals would be like, I called while walking to the subway on my way to work, rather than sitting down somewhere quiet with a list of questions to ask. My reception was spotty, the background noise was probably annoying, and I was in a rush. First mistake.
In response to my question about whether gluten-free (and vegetarian) options would be available, she said they would, but that there was no special ticket for gluten-free meals (unlike for vegetarian). She said I’d just need to speak up at the event and they’d be able to accommodate me. That should have been my cue to ask more about just how they’d accommodate me, but instead I thanked her and hung up. Second mistake.
In fact, it was a buffet (in a tent outside in the drizzly cold weather—thankfully the graduation was indoors, apparently for the first time since ’86, before Althea’s birth or mine). Everything was listed as gluten-free except for the rolls, cornbread, and desserts. Still, I was concerned that people were reaching over the buffet to grab the bread (and possibly spilling crumbs into the cole slaw on the way), and that the utensils being used to serve the entrees were brushing up against the bread on people’s plates and perhaps picking up gluten that way.
When I expressed these concerns—falteringly, apologetically, well on my way to tears—the head chef personally brought me a meal from the back. Everyone was accommodating and polite, even in the mob scene that was the tent full of several hundred starving graduates and their families, but I have absolutely no idea whether the food I wound up eating was really safe.
Because I didn’t ask. In advance or at the tent, where I shook the head chef’s hand. I didn’t ask, “What are the ingredients in the marinade?” or “Were the vegetables prepped on clean cutting boards that have not also been used for bread?” or “Was the cornbread made at the same time and in the same place as other components of the meal?” or “Did everyone change gloves between handling the rolls and touching the potatoes?”
Although this is the kind of question to which I routinely subject my family and friends, when faced with strangers, I didn’t ask. The time to do it was in advance, when I could have decided I felt uncomfortable and packed food instead. But I didn’t. And then when I had a second chance, I still didn’t.
My sister assured me the staff is good about cross-contamination concerns, but it’s hard to be good about cross-contamination when preparing food for a crowd in the thousands. There were packaged Udi’s cookies and bread at the desserts station, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else was done correctly.
As much as I’d studied up on the right way to eat out (by which I mean reading many, many fantastic blog posts on the subject), when it came time to put it into practice, I choked—like a college student who pulls an all-nighter to cram, then shows up at the test and blanks, or sleeps through it entirely. Not only do I not feel confident I didn’t accidentally eat gluten, but I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I could have, had I been better prepared.
Next time—which will not be for a long time because I am once again, dear readers, committing myself to eating only what is made in my very own home until I’m better—I’ll go about this the right way. Mindful of how miserable I was when I did it the wrong way, I’ll ask the appropriate questions in advance, and opt for the meal tickets if and only if I feel assured they’ll pull out all the celiac stops. I’ll show up with more than a KIND bar in my pocket in case the situation seems different on the ground and I decide not to chance it. I’ll have a nice time, I’ll be able to focus on the real reason I’m there, and I’ll eat food that I’m sure won’t eat me back.
Next time, like my sister, I’ll ace it.
Check out these posts for more on eating out gluten-free: Amanda’s set of posts advising restaurant pros, Jess’s “When ‘Gluten-Free’ Does Not Mean ‘Free of Gluten,'” and “Top 10 Questions to Ask When Dining Out Gluten-Free” at Thriving With Celiac.
For a happier sprue story, I’ll tell you all about the graduation party soon. Do you have any graduations to attend this season?