My second career, after I retired from the military, was as managing partner of a kitchen store in which we taught cooking classes. I became somewhat of an expert on all-things-kitchen because I was passionate about cooking and up on the latest trends, which I coupled with my own kitchen experience to carve a niche in the community. I learned a lot and shared it with others. I used to write a food blog presenting recipes and techniques for making delicious whole food. Sometimes I reviewed food stores or restaurants. I talked about gadgets and the how-to of cooking. Once, I even made a video for my blog of how to make pasta, kneading the pasta dough with one hand while recording with my iPhone in the other, because I was just that kind of crazy about making real food. I introduced folks to local farmers and suppliers and tried to make eating well at home easy by sharing tips and techniques. I bonded with restaurant chefs over exotic spices and artisan oils. Food was my passion.
Then, in 2012, I got sick and had to eliminate a bunch of foods from my diet in order to minimize my pain and be well, and my decades-long love affair with food seemed to come to a screeching halt. I could no longer eat at restaurants because it was ridiculously complicated and made both me and the restaurant staff uncomfortable. While my illness pushed me further into the local food movement as I sought clean food to prepare at home and natural remedies for my ailments, it also pushed me out of my very mainstream role as a professional kitchen geek. I couldn’t even taste the food I prepared in cooking classes to check the seasoning because it would cause me pain later. Even though I had always encouraged eating locally grown food, my health struggles took my situation to an entirely new level. Eating clean and knowing how my food was grown or made wasn’t just a nice option, it was mandatory, and it was only a starting point.
As I dove deeper into the food-as-medicine rabbit hole to save myself, an ever-widening chasm grew between my personal reality and my mainstream foodie life. At some point, I just couldn’t straddle the gap anymore. It was one thing to keep my private health concerns private, but quite another to pretend. I pretended I didn’t have health issues. Then, when I couldn’t hide it anymore, I pretended that my dietary changes were simply a choice, because that’s how my customers framed their own experiences and I needed not to chase them away with the harsh realities of my situation. I pretended not to have valuable information that I thought people should know when they told me about their own health concerns and dietary struggles; my information is not mainstream despite the science to support it, and I didn’t want to alienate folks by saying things that might contradict their doctors. I smiled and nodded, remaining silent when others told me how they are gluten-free (or paleo or vegan or pescatarian), as if we had something in common. I eventually left my beloved career because I found it impossible to continue. I tried for a while, but the internal conflict seeped out of me, and I was rude to employees, vendors, and others. It was crazy-making. Eventually, I quit fighting it. A door had slammed shut, locking me out of what had been my entire world.
If you are choosing to eat a certain way for any reason other than avoiding pain and inflammation and nausea and diarrhea and misery, then we have nothing in common. For me, the way that I eat is not a choice. The alternative is pain and agony and incapacitation for hours or days. Or weeks. Over these last five-plus years, I have occasionally tried to talk with folks about my situation because I think there are many more people with milder symptoms than mine who could benefit from knowing what I know before they get as sick as I got. I don’t go around blabbing about it, but when my companions seem receptive, I might dip my toe into the food-as-medicine or clean-eating pools to see how they respond. I might mention that prescription drugs have affected my health negatively and see if they nibble and ask me how so. I have also ranted online about it occasionally when frustrated, usually deleting my comments later when recovering from my melt down and recognizing the futility. No one really wants to hear about stuff that might force them to more closely examine their own lives. It is not fun to scrutinize everything you put in your mouth; it’s a lot of work.
I have found a few online groups in which to discuss certain aspects of my struggles with others and to glean tips from their experiences, sometimes offering some of my own. But even online, I find that most folks take a very narrow view of their own situation. Even people who struggle with food-related issues themselves can be resistant to a broader perspective. They accept that they have a problem, but they don’t see their connection to people with different food-related issues. This is very much the same way that people who are able to eat most anything often assume that those of us who cannot are simply eating differently because it is trendy. There are people who eat based on trends, and trends are not necessarily invalid just because they are popular. They just tend to be one-dimensional, failing to take the bigger picture into account. There is nothing trendy about my situation. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Folks who work in restaurants can be the worst. I get it. They deal with special requests all day long, some of which are really ridiculous. Many of those requests are indeed just personal preferences, not health-related necessities. It is impossible for restaurant staff to tell the difference, nor should they have to. I know that the chefs and cooks work hard to develop flavors that they believe people will enjoy. They want you to taste their creation as intended. Food is art in many restaurants these days. You don’t go to a gallery and look at a painting and ask the artist to remove the red paint for you. Many chefs regard their food similarly and consider it an insult to be asked to deconstruct a dish. As a former foodie, I want nothing more than to enjoy the food the way the chef intended it. I want to taste her message and experience her culinary creations. Unfortunately, I just can’t.
Most of the time, I don’t go to restaurants. If I do, I try to make it breakfast or brunch, where I often find simpler preparations that are safe for me to eat. Or I go to someplace where they typically don’t season their foods in complex ways and I can easily request that something be left off the plate. My days of eating crafted local cuisine and enjoying fine dining are pretty much behind me because of my limitations.
Occasionally, I choose to meet a friend for a meal out. I used to ask chefs to modify dishes for me; this was always awkward and sometimes a Big Deal, so I stopped doing it. Then I started simply choosing the least embellished thing on the menu and asking that ingredients be left out or that seasoning be limited. I still do this sometimes, but paying $20+ for a bland entree is a huge disappointment. Mostly, I avoid meeting folks at restaurants or I eat before I go, providing a running dialogue while my companions eat, or nibbling on some quasi-forbidden thing like french fries from the fryer that also fried the not-gluten-free chicken (for which I will pay later in inflammation and abdominal pain, but consider it worth the pain to spend time with my friends). Obviously, I don’t do that often, perhaps once every two months or so. If gluten were my only restriction, my problems would be solved. Unfortunately, there is a huge list of problem foods and I’m too tired to tell you about it.
I know that I am not really welcome at most restaurants, and I know that it’s not personal. The staff sees me as a a problem to be managed, or perhaps thinks my food sensitivities are made up. Best case, they simply don’t have time to accommodate me because they are so busy, which is a good problem for a restaurant to have. I only need to eat there one time to know if this is the prevailing attitude because the food tells the story; sometimes the waitstaff squirms and you just know before you even order the food. It’s cool; I get it. Even some casual restaurants that claim to be all about having it your way with build-your-own menus still marinate their proteins, making it impossible to skip the garlic, for instance. Honestly, on the rare occasion I go out, I assume there will be nothing for me to eat; It’s just easier to approach it that way. So when a server occasionally inquires into my limitations and a kitchen makes an effort to prepare a safe and flavorful dish for me, I am deeply grateful and eat every bite even if it’s not great. Such efforts mean so very much to me. There is no tip or token that can adequately express my thanks for their kindness. They have allowed me to enjoy my time with friends and feel welcome.
Eating together is what people do. Restaurants rely upon these gatherings in their establishments; they would not keep their doors open if this were not a primary mode of socialization. If it were not, take-out would be more popular than dining in. Food is a gathering point for people, period. It is difficult to find other activities upon which a group of people can agree, or that provide the same opportunity for relaxation and conversation while partaking of them. I don’t want to be that pain in the ass that the staff is laughing at or complaining about in the kitchen, and I don’t want to pay big money for plain food. But once in a while I do.
I lost my social network when I became ill and that gap formed; it makes my friends uncomfortable to socialize with me, as they seem to worry more about me eating than I do. Maybe they can’t reconcile who they know me to be with my not eating the delicious food on the amazing menus at the places they frequent. The Susan they know would have been waxing poetic about it. I am also a non-drinker, but that was a much easier transition all those years ago; I make a good designated driver. People are uncomfortable with me sitting there not eating while they eat. It used to feel awkward to me, too, so I understand. The fastest way to find yourself eating at home alone is to develop a bunch of food sensitivities.
Since my whole world has been about food for a couple of decades on the personal front, and for over a decade professionally, this has been a very sad and difficult transition for me. As you can probably tell by the tone of this post, it still stings nearly two years since leaving the industry. I have been trying to take my life in other directions, relegating food to a mere necessity rather than the center of my life like it was for so many years. This continues to be a challenge; my efforts to go in other directions have been thwarted by circumstance. Yet I persist, trying to find my new niche. All roads continue to lead me back to food, which I find both frustrating and intriguing. I simply don’t know how I can be helpful to others in this realm given my own limitations. Yet. But I am exploring the possibilities.
Later this month, I am moving back to the town in which I spent a dozen years immersed in food culture. I hope to find my new niche there while writing, cooking, and sharing information about clean, locally grown food. I hope to find ways to translate my experiences into something helpful and encouraging for others. I don’t know exactly what that might look like, and I’ll probably have to do some unrelated stuff to pay bills. But I do want to be able to gather with others over a meal and have everyone be nourished – myself included. So maybe that’s a place to start.