“I just now realized how hard it is for you to order off the menu in most restaurants”.
This response from my close friend and teammate, April, caught me by surprise. This is the friend who inspired my change to a predominantly plant-based diet for 2 weeks, then 6 months, but which actually lasted almost 8 months. This is the friend who is primarily vegan and who has been there to support my journey all along the way. I thought she understood the challenges I face, but after a year of me trying to navigate the menu in a restaurant, it had finally hit her just how difficult it can be.
I have a gluten and dairy allergy and almost always mention them in my first interaction with the server or bartender for the evening. While I feel like I'm pretty well-versed on what my options are on the majority of menus, this best practice of leading with my dietary needs is something that I learned from her because there may be something in a sauce or garnish that won't be easily detected just by reading the description. (Traditional soy sauce, for example, contains gluten. Which means, sushi isn’t safe unless you double-check for gluten-free soy sauce or avoid it altogether.)
A number of chefs understand that there are people with severe allergies to gluten, and while I'm not one of those, I absolutely appreciate the care and thought they have gone to: indicating which menu-items contain gluten, providing suggestions on alterations that can be made to remove the gluten portion from a dish, drilling down to understand the extent of my allergy and providing clues when cross-contamination in a prep area or fryer might pose a problem.
The first thing that is listed in most online resources for those who have a newly discovered gluten sensitivity: NON-MARINATED MEATS. It shows up too when you go to the restaurant and they offer a gluten-free menu: beef, lamb and chicken dominate the options, as well as undressed salads (since a good number of dressings include some gluten-containing elements that act as a thickening agent). Those that don’t contain wheat almost always have dairy, leaving a vinaigrette or oil and vinegar as the only option.
How can it be this difficult to dine with friends and family? And WHY is this the case?
When I peruse the gluten-free portion of the menu and take out the items which contain dairy, I'm usually left with scant options that are appealing to me or that align with my plant-centered food choices. On my list of prohibited items: gluten, meat (by choice not biology), many sauces, all forms of dairy, eggs, and three kinds of beans (black, kidney, and navy).
This makes me both sad and angry simultaneously. I’m sad that honoring my dietary needs means there are many things in the typical American diet that are off-limits. I say “American diet” because I have far less trouble with Thai, Indian, and Ethiopian cuisine. And at the time of this publication, I have discovered that the delicious bread that I consumed in Spain offers no biological protest. (More to come on this in future content.) I’m angry that vegetables, the goodness from the ground that is universally favorable for people of all ethnicities and eating plans, free of allergens and full of benefits are limited in scope and availability on most menus.
I can’t change the way the world, or even my local and beloved Washington DC, eats and I’m discovering that the key to tackling this, like most things in life, comes down to mindset. Do I see a field full of hidden dangers or a landscape of adventures and combinations waiting to be uncovered?
Just last week, I sat down and was expecting one of my favorite local restaurants to have the same delectable brussel sprouts I enjoy at their DC and Northern VA locations, but the airport menu is scaled down for travelers concerned with speed of service and this yummy item has been left off. Instead, I investigated the salads and came up with a mélange that seemed to be the envy of the table, with two of my friends commenting multiple times that they wished they’d ordered it as well. When I shared my dish with them, they said it was as good as it looked and next time maybe I should order for them.
This was a major victory for me, the woman who is typically stewing about the lack of options available to her! For the record, I was also able to get some brussel sprouts that are typically served with an entree, prepared as a side. Not as good as the original appetizer version, but well-seasoned and desirable roughage just the same. Even though I am encouraged by that experience and a few others like it, this is honestly a challenge that I have yet to solve. I am toying with eating at home and dining out mostly for the company rather than the cookery.
What I am determined to change is how I feel about the menu...it’s not my adversary nor is it a grand conspiracy that stands between me and gastronomic happiness. It’s simply a piece of paper with a list of options that often times can be the starting place for crafting my own dining experience. Instead of being mad, I’m going to get creative and ask for what I want to see if the chef, staff and I can design something delicious that agrees with my unique digestive needs.
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