I really don't like to complain about being on a gluten-free diet. There are things that I can't eat, but most of these things aren't very healthy, and I do my best to ignore them. A few weeks ago I had an experience that is worth sharing because it illustrates the type of frustrations people on a gluten-free diet face, and highlights the need for people on this diet to be knowledgeable about food and the importance of educating others about the gluten-free diet.
A few weeks ago I attended a dinner networking event at a highly regarded local hotel. I RSVP'd on line and was impressed when I saw a field labeled Special Dietary Requirements, and a field to type a brief description. So I wrote that I was on a gluten-free diet, no foods containing wheat, rye, barley and oats, nor any food that come into contact with them. I had never seen a special online form for dietary requirements before and thought it was a great way to easily communicate my special needs. Between this and the fact that this was a luxury hotel, whose sister hotel I had eaten at successfully several times, I was sufficiently assured that I was going to be able to have a good dinner.
After arriving at the event I registered and the hostess handed me a little table tent labeled "gluten-free" and told me to set it on the table next to my place setting. I was further assured that this hotel knew about special diets and had it all under control. I relaxed, had a glass of red wine and talked with the people around me. We were served salad and I submitted my normal request of "no croutons and oil and vinegar" no problem. The fresh bread was passed and I did my best (as always) to ignore it.
When the main course came out everyone was served a roasted leg and thigh quarter of chicken over stuffing, covered with gravy. This was served with a side of green beans. I waited in anticipation to see what I would be served. I thought perhaps they would serve me the same chicken over mashed potatoes with green beans. Then my plate came out and I was pleasantly surprised to see a great presentation of three large swiss chard leaves stuffed with something, but what? After seeing everyone enjoying the chicken I imagined some sort of pulled chicken or ground beef. I took my knife and fork and hungry cut in to the unknown. Little kernels spilled out onto my plate, was this ground beef? Wait, it looks like... But it couldn't be... barley!? The leaves were entirely stuffed with what looked like barley, which by the way, is laden with gluten.
I walked over to the manager and said"I have the gluten-free meal and it looks like I was served barley. I can't eat barley." She apologized and went back to the kitchen to check. She came back to the table a few minutes later and apologized again and said that they were making up a plate for me. In the meantime people were beginning to finish their plates and I was getting hungrier by the second. I couldn't get over the fact that they had served me barley. I imagined that somehow they confused me for a vegetarian. After five minutes a server came out with a replacement plate for me. At this point I was so hungry that I would have eaten just about anything they served me. But my excitement quickly waned when I saw what they had for me: a plate of sauteed mushrooms, green beans and spinach? I didn't want to make a scene, by now I had to explain to all of the people at my table about why I didn't have my dinner yet. So I ate the meal, feeling disappointed but trying not to dwell on it.
I met some good people and made some connections and after dinner coffee was served. I always enjoy a good cup of coffee so this put me in a better mood. Dessert was served. I watched as everyone was handed a near brick-sized piece of scrumptious piece of apple strudel. Then the server put one in front of me. I said "oh, I have the gluten-free meal." the server looked puzzled, and looked at the manager who was standing close by. I picked up the plate and brought it over to her and told her that I couldn't eat it. She said, "let me check whether it is gluten-free". I said "I'm looking at it and I'm telling you that it is most assuredly not gluten-free.", and put the plate in her hand. This was going from disappointing to down-right annoying.
Five minutes later, again as everyone finished their plates, I was given a cup of raspberry sorbet. The sorbet was rich and flavorful, but hard to compare to the mountainous piece of strudel that was in front of me minutes before. Normally I can deal with seeing delicious looking food that I can't eat, but there is something about holding a plate of that same delicious looking food in your hands and smelling it, that makes it much more difficult to bare.
After dinner I found the manager and pulled her aside. She apologized again for the dinner. I told her that because I eat gluten-free does not make me a vegetarian. I went on to tell her that I was served gluten twice tonight and if I didn't have sufficient knowledge of food I would have trusted in what I was served, eaten it and become ill. After all, how many people would recognize barley when they see it? And how many would question that their meal was gluten-free from such a prestigious hotel and after taking advance measures to make sure it was? I explained to her that it wasn't her fault, but that someone in the kitchen really needs to be educated as to what "gluten-free means, and how to accommodate the diet. Hopefully they did and the next time someone asks for a gluten-free meal they will give them a meal to remember, but for all the right reasons!