Living With A Gluten Allergy (AKA Passion of the Glutard)

photo by Ryan Cocca

photo by Ryan Cocca

“Is this gluten free? I swear I’m not a hipster, I actually can’t eat gluten. Well, technically I can, but it’d be a really bad time. I know this is super annoying right now. Sorry. I’m so sorry. Can we still be friends?”

Most allergies don’t require an explanation of your motivations and fears, but with gluten things are always more complicated. I spend most of my time in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, progressive towns where gluten-free living and posh hipsterdom often go hand and hand, so such qualifiers can feel necessary to make people understand that no, I don’t think I’m better than you, I just have this allergy thing I have to deal with.

The story of my diagnosis is pretty stupid: I felt dismally awful for two or three years, which I chalked up to the idea that I was just a shitty, defunct human being. Eventually I realized that having whooping cough and depression for 300 days a year was not normal, and maybe life could be better than this. The last six doctors had told me, “You’re stressed” or, “There’s a bug going around,” and pushed me back out the door, so I finally saw a specialist who would spend more time with me. They ran a few blood tests, and I finally learned the bitter truth a couple weeks later. A gluten allergy was the last thing I was expecting, but oh my goodness what a difference it made — after a month I was the happiest and healthiest I’d been since high school. In retrospect, my senior year is the only time in college I wasn’t a high-functioning idiot.

While my life has been immeasurably improved, there’s one nasty catch, which is the whole not eating gluten thing. Sure, I’ll take a gluten-free diet over a debilitating allergic reaction any day, but it’s a powerful sacrifice to make when gluten is apparently the secret ingredient in every delicious thing ever. Gluten is a sexy ex-girlfriend: I know better than to get back with her, but still, damn. It hurts, girl.

As you likely know, many people give up gluten for nutritional reasons, or as a way to one-up vegetarians on the stylish-sacrifice hierarchy. These people and I are different species. My diet before the diagnosis was characterized by aggressive consumption of all things gluten. I have eaten whole pizzas. I have gone to Cosmic Cantina three times in 24 hours. I have walked out of Rams Head dining hall with six cookies in my hand just because I could. This allergy is literally the only thing keeping me from eating a pound of pasta a day. Sadly, these are now fantasies, sepia-tinged memories that I look back on with gluten-free melancholy. No more Cosmic. No more Sunrise Biscuit. Goodbye beer; hello fruit and fake bread!

In due time I learned to live without — to adapt one expression, nothing tastes as good as not-having-an-allergic-reaction feels. But then a new perspective emerged. Now the thing I really miss about gluten isn’t the food itself, it’s the convenience; no food is cheaper and easier to prepare. I can still buy glutard allergen-free macaroni for four times the normal price if I feel like reliving a grimy, smelly version of an experience I used to take for granted, but somehow it’s just not the same. And dining out isn’t really an option unless I’m okay with inconveniencing my friends, who probably wanted to hold a conversation instead of watching me quiz the waiter on whether the chips and chicken strips have separate fryers. The sheer number of Chapel Hill restaurants named after bread (Noodles, Pita Pit, Sandwhich, Panera Bread) makes a mockery of my attempt to maintain a social life.

And again, gluten is a unique allergy in that it comes with the possibility of judgment. While the gluten-free movement has helped raise awareness and encourage restaurants to take gluten-sensitive measures, it has simultaneously cast gluten-free needs as a sort of superficial, elitist concern. Look no further than Rachel Ray’s“gluten-free” recipe where she paints gluten-free eaters as snobs then proceeds to fail at the whole gluten-free part (Corn flakes have malt flavoring. Nice research, Rachel!). Or you might read Kelly MacLean’s Surviving Whole Foods article that’s been making the rounds, in which MacLean skips the gluten-free aisle because she’s “not rich enough to have dietary restrictions,” and ruminates on the fact that “you don’t meet poor people with special diet needs.” Well, Namaste to you too.

It’s been over a year so I’ve gotten fairly used to things, and I look forward to becoming even more adjusted. Though I don’t really identify as a gluten-free person, it’s a part of my life and I’ve come to terms with it. But at the end of the day, if I have any advice for you, it’s this: eat gluten. Eat so much gluten. Eat gluten so that I may live vicariously through you, so that I may see the softness of a bagel and take solace in the fact that somebody will be enjoying it (it just won’t be me).

- originally published in Thrill City (Sept 25, 2013)
- republished in the Chapel Hill News (Oct 6, 2013)