The Chaff is Ruining It for the Wheat

Alex Gallo-Brown wrote a piece in Salon called “Why do you care whether I’m really gluten intolerant?” It is a fair enough question to ask the public in general. There are bits like from Jimmy Kimmel, asking people on te street if they follow a gluten-free diet, and following up with the question, “What is gluten?” Of course, we aren’t shown the ones who got the answer right, and people not understanding a basic part of a diet they say they follow is where the humor lies.
At the end of the day, what difference does it make for the people in the Kimmel audience or at home? It is somewhat the same thing as mocking someone for being a huge Nickelback fan, or even for who they are dating. The difference is, people do put a lot of judgment over someone based on it, though they have no dog in the fight. It is people making decisions they feel affect their health, and while that argument is also made by people who are anti-vaccers, this has no consequence on the health of those that are doing the judging.
But I do have some concern about it. Because as a chef, this is my job, feeding people in a way that they have a good time and not make them sick. And the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of people out there screaming “No Gluten!” that are ruining it for those who have a serious health concern.
To begin with, the very real “Gluten Allergy” is called Celiac Disease. It affect less than 1% of the population. And what it does is not pretty, and I’m glad I’ve not experienced it or even seen someone else experience. In simplest terms, it shut down the small intenstine, so one cannot absorb nutrients. Not a pleasant thing on a system or cellular level.
Now, as a chef, when someone says they have Celiac, it is Red Alert time. Just as when someone says they have a shellfish allergy or the like, every aspect of the dish get scrutinized. What they are actually ordering, is there any chance it was next to shellfish? If so, grab new ingredient to be safe. Use cleaned and sanitized utensils and equipment on that dish, which can be a lot more work for a cook who is working a half-dozen dishes along with the Celiac patient’s dish. Want French Fries? We’ll fire up a pot of fresh oil since we fry chicken wings that have some flour on it in our main fryer. The chance of cross contamination is minimal, but why risk it?
And even if it is just the question of ‘is this item safe’, I am grabbing the recipe book of recipes I created (and use flour products rarely if there is a non-gluten equivalent) just to confirm – and specifically asking the cook whose initials are on the container to be sure they didn’t vary it at all.
In short, it takes a lot of work to make sure we’re 100% certain the dish we make is safe. Because one big reason I am in this business is to make sure people are having a great time. Sick in bed or even having to see a doctor, that is a huge no-no, the sort of mistake that I personally would not want to live with. And that’s not counting the possible legal liability of making someone sick in the restaurant or banquet hall.
But then we get into people with gluten intolerance, which, as Gallo-Brown acknowledges, may not even be a disease. It may be another item in the food causing it, so that we can make a gluten-free dish that still has the same effect on our guest.
And then you have the people who are simply on a ‘gluten free’ diet because an article somewhere said it would be healthier. I am fairly well convinced that the term “gluten free” has replaced “low carb” in people’s diet requests, with them seeming the same thing in people’s minds. Gluten? That’s like bread and pasta? That’s the same as Atkins, I guess.
So, professionally, we get requests for gluten-free, which you later realize wasn’t a real issue. After a while, it does wear on one’s perception.
I’m sorry, we can’t do the crab cakes gluten-free, there is some breading as a binder. “Oh, that’s fine, a little won’t hurt me.”
The fish has been marinating with soy sauce. “I’ve never had any problem with soy sauce before, I eat sushi twice a week.”
And so on, and so on.
I have no issue with Mr. Gallo-Brown or anyone else who need a gluten-free diet not because of serious health risks, but because it makes them feel better physically. The issue is the people for whom it makes them feel better mentally, because they’re smart enough to self-diagnose, or be on the latest trend. The people who have no idea that saying “gluten-free” is like crying out “Fire!” in a crowded theater… when the fire brigade comes, they better see some flames, otherwise, not only are they going to be upset, they may not be giving others the attention they need.
We cannot, for lack of a better term to describe this gluten situation, the wheat from the chaff. The chaff ends up making the whole group look bad, makes every claim seem suspicious. I would never stop taking all the steps I need to in order to ensure safe food is served, but it does make me grumble about it a bit. Until the fad of the diet passes, and we’re left with the people who truly need to limit their gluten intake, someone asking for “gluten-free” will naturally get a suspicious eye. And a gluten-free plate.

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