My mother really enjoys eating at restaurants. Keeping strictly kosher limits the options, which can be depressing, especially living in a ‘foodie paradise’ like Chicago, where there are a bazillion eating outlets of every type. Unlike New York, there are VERY limited kosher outlets in Chicago. It was a huge commitment for her to keep kosher and give up one of her pleasures.
It was also one of the family activities that I enjoyed with my mother, so we did the best to make do with the limited options we had left to us. Then I went gluten free…and complicated the dining out to the point of almost impossible.
There is only one kosher restaurant that I fully trust in regards to gluten issues in the entire Chicago area— Malibu Pizza in Skokie, IL. They have a designated oven and prep area for their gluten free options, and the owners have educated themselves about cross contamination issues. There’s been progress with a few others– Tein Li Chow, a Chinese Takeout restaurant in Evanston, IL [inside a Jewel grocery store] now offers rice noodles and gluten free tamari soy sauce for gluten-free options, in addition to using separate woks for cooking. Every place I go I give them a fact sheet about gluten-free dining. But I still feel there’s a long way to go.
Specifically, I’m talking about the sheer lack of education about gluten and cross-contamination. By now, I’m used to asking what’s in the food, how they cook it, and all those pesky issues that seem to irritate most waiters and chefs alike when I go to a restaurant, but it never fails to astonish me that most people have no idea how severe a reaction glutens can cause, or how even the most minute a gluten particle can trigger the reaction. Case in point:
My mother and I went out to a restaurant. She ordered salad and dips, without the accompanying bread, which I appreciated. We were able to order the sandwiches without bread, mentioning that I was gluten sensitive and couldn’t eat anything containing or in contact with glutens —and what a gluten is. I made sure there were no sauces or spices on the grill or the dish that might be a problem and off we went.
I wandered back to get a glass for my mother, and passed the salad display where you can watch them assemble your salad…and watched the servers plop down fresh, warm rolls for another order on the surface in front of the containers and proceed to smear the dips and load the salads on the bread [using the same spatulas and spoons in the containers several times on a single roll.] Every single salad was cross-contaminated! I promptly changed my order: no salads, no sides, please. I can’t eat those, please don’t even garnish my plate. I suspect that I still had some level of cross contamination, anyway, judging by the bloating and bathroom battle I had shortly afterward, but it took away from the whole experience to not be able to fully enjoy my meal.
Not long before I was in a different restaurant with my mother. It was a place she suggested, asking if I could eat from the salad bar. I told her probably not, due to cross-contamination. And after looking it over, cross-contamination was highly likely. What irked me was that there was no effort made to make simple changes that could lessen that possibility— even after it had been suggested to them several times.
I have gone out with family and friends to restaurants and not been able to have anything more than a soft drink. And there are times when I’m happy to just go out with them and not focus on the food. But it can be so frustrating to feel left out, or think that I need to be responsible for educating food providers on what they need to do to sell me a safe meal. Part of the pleasure of dining out is the convenience and relaxation of having someone else prepare your meal; that’s what you pay for. Not so easy if you’re kosher and gluten free, at least until someone opens a GF kosher restaurant .