Smaller than a breadbox

Some Day,

Some day, some blessed day, when we have a departmental staff meeting or a district staff-development event, I hope there is something to eat besides  doughnuts-bagels-pastries-muffins-cinnamon rolls-deli sandwiches-pizza-pretzels-cake-cookies-brownies or pie.  Oh sure, when the school had a holiday luncheon for the staff, the caterer also brought a green salad in addition to the lasagne, spaghetti, breadsticks and cake. But gluten-intolerant woman cannot live on iceberg lettuce and a bottle of flavored water.

If I’m lucky on the days of these communal-noshing events, I sit there and nom on a gluten-free energy bar I keep for such emergencies, or what might be leftover from my previous day’s sack lunch.

I hate to sound picky; I know that it’s hard to feed 50 or more people economically.  But staring down a long buffet table and seeing nothing but dishes like chicken noodle or French onion soup, mini quiches, spreads on crackers, soft tacos, fried fish or chicken with batter or breading, meatloaf, pasta salad, lasagne, macaroni & cheese, casseroles, onion rings, breadsticks, rolls, and of course, cake, cookies, brownies or pies, is dispiriting.  Do I want to stand in a slow line to end up with a meager plate bearing a couple slices of cheese, a few under-ripe strawberries and some overcooked green beans?  I sure as hell do if all I had to eat earlier was that lettuce, and maybe a packet of chips (crisps) or chocolate bar from the vending machine.

Sure, I’m just one person in a crowd, and sure, diabetics, vegetarians and people with allergies also have to carefully navigate the catering.  (Heck, I don’t technically have coeliac, I just get gassy and loose stools, so I try to avoid eating more than a couple bites of wheat, especially when stuck all day in long meetings or on trans-Atlantic flights.  We’re all much happier this way, trust me.)

But it’s really, really hard to find anything to eat that’s not based on wheat.  Frankly, just eating the cheese off a slice of pizza is not very satisfying, and I appear picky in the wrong way.  The one time when I tried the school cafeteria’s “chicken patty” sans bun, I later realised with distress that the protein in the processed poultry patty was probably boosted by gluten. Semolina (pasta flour) and couscous are just more words for wheat, as is bulghur salad.  Even innocent-sounding cornbread and buckwheat pancakes are still mostly made from wheat flour.

I’ve only been working here three years, but I would appreciate being able to share in the annual catered lunch, or enjoy a treat at the weekly meeting more often than the once-a-year happenstance when there is ice cream.

I guess that I should start bringing refreshments to meetings. It’s just that we now have more people in our department, anything nice or gluten-free is expensive, and I can barely pay my bills.

Curiously, at one of my previous jobs there were a lot more rice-based dishes at events.  That’s because we were a more international bunch of folks, who were incidentally, researching pest-resistant crop lines. I don’t eat wheat, but I was doing my part to protect it from attack!

Teh ironies.


  1. qw88nb88 said,

    1 March 2009 at 5:09

    No Andrea, you’re not mis-interpreting, I wasn’t being clear.

    We don’t always have treats at the weekly after-school staff meetings. And sometimes on the rare student-less work days, the department coördinator will ask ahead for orders from the local sandwich shop, which offers a few soups and hearty salads that I can handle.

    But as far as the bagels or pizza go … As usual, I somehow miss these “professional grapevine” messages that everyone else picks up on. I just have no radar for gossip and other forms of unofficial politics! So there we are crowding into the office for a staff meeting, and suddenly they’re opening up boxes, and everyone else just grabs plates and slices of pizza and pour cups of cola (cola, yuck), and then sit clumped together in the various random chairs crammed around the desks and files. It’s not as though we’re all lined up at tables, and I’m obviously sitting there with an empty plate.

    Sometimes I feel like *I* need an interpreter! With my Auditory Processing Disorder, I can’t do that “cocktail party” trick of following what just one person is saying when there are multiple lines of conversation. What I end up hearing is a tossed salad of random and mis-heard phrases, with a few words from one person joined onto the words from another and so on and so on. This long freight train of verbal nonsense is fatiguing and useless to try parsing, unless I’m engaged intently with just one or two people, leaning forwards with hands cupped behind my ears (to block off noise, rather than to amplify sound), and making occasional queries to check my understanding. I can do a little lip-reading, but of course lip-reading is over-rated and useless when you’ve missed the necessary details identifying the topic, and the people aren’t facing you all the time, and they are eating.

    No one chats with me, and even if I’m seated in the middle of the room, I’ve turned socially invisible as the non-dining, non-conversing chair-warmer. Not until the actual meeting begins with some semblance of order am I able to even attempt to add some thoughtful input to the agenda. It’s weird. But undoubtedly this sense of conversational inaccessibility and interpersonal loss is also an overly-familiar situation to every deaf person working with bunches of hearing people.

    With regards to the catered lasagne affair, I had somehow missed that it was going to be a sit-down lunch (instead of the potlucks we’d had in previous years, which usually yielded many more options). So I unexpectedly came upon the personally-useless feast that our new principal had so generously bestowed upon the staff. When there’s another pre-announced event, I shall make an official request to the official person.


  2. 28 February 2009 at 18:37

    My apologies if I’m mis-interpreting what you say, but it sounds like you’re raising these issues when the food is being served and then hoping that they remember for “next time.” (Or maybe you’re doing both the advance requests and the at-the-time reminders?)

    As a vegan, I try to put in these requests as soon as I know a catered event is scheduled. I try to track down whoever is responsible for coordinating the food, explain my needs clearly, and specifically ask that something vegan be arranged. Depending on their level of awareness, this may involve giving a specific list of examples of ingredients that I can and cannot eat, as well as specific examples of dishes I can and cannot eat. (For some reason, if I just say I don’t eat dairy, some people have a tendency to think that cheese or butter are not dairy products. If I specifically say no butter or egg, they will think the egg noodles or the pastry made with butter somehow do not count because they don’t actually SEE the egg or butter. I assume it’s the same annoyance when you’re trying to explain your wheat intolerance.)

    And most of the time, when confronted with a clear, specific, polite request, they try. And frequently (though definitely not always) they even get it right. It’s kind of like requesting disability related accommodations–some people seem to need a specific request for a specific accommodation even if you would think they would know by now after the last 20 times that, um, yes, I’m still deaf and still need that interpreter.

    But since you’ve apparently said things several times to the same people, I agree they should be doing better about remembering the fifth time they hear it than they do after the first. (Don’t they notice that you practically never eat anything at these events? As a vegan, that has in the past sometimes been a trigger for people actually doing something for me the next time. Except that the annoying thing is that some people think that iceberg lettuce actually counts as a real meal, so they don’t notice if that’s the only thing you’re eating.)

    Since these people seem to suffer from chronic amnesia, it does sound like an official letter should be the next step.

  3. qw88nb88 said,

    28 February 2009 at 17:16

    … But I HAVE mentioned, “I can’t eat the pizza; it’s made from wheat,” and “Is there anything besides bagels?” and “Next time could we have something besides pasta?” and so on. I suppose the next step would be to write an official letter requesting accommodation. :: sigh ::


  4. 28 February 2009 at 14:17

    I know what you mean about “looking picky in the wrong way.” Being vegan, as you clearly recognize, has its own set of challenges (it’s even harder than being vegetarian–in many cases, something vegetarian IS offered, but 95% of the time it has cheese or egg in it!).

    And if food is being arranged within an informal group (rather than a catering company whose job it is to find a way to accommodate a range of dietary restrictions) then sometimes I hesitate to even mention that I am vegan because I know that there are some people who will automatically take that in the wrong way, as some kind of commentary on their own dietary choices, or on their food preparation skills or whatever, when it’s NOT any of those things at all. Sometimes it seems easier to remain in the vegan closet than have to deal with some people’s hostility toward my dietary restrictions. But then if I don’t say that I’m vegan, then people may be confused afterwards why I didn’t just SAY something (because not everyone is as understanding as they might be) or else they accuse me of making a fuss and causing trouble for others. Sometimes you can’t win.

    But I agree … for catered events, it can be worth gently informing the people making the arrangements in advance about key dietary restrictions and asking whether something beyond iceberg lettuce could be provided. (I, too, have had meals, even whole weekends, where there was little more to eat except iceberg lettuce, some ridiculously overcooked vegetables, and maybe a little bit of totally bland, flavorless steamed rice that I could only stand to eat at all because I was so hungry by the time it was offered.) Professional caterers should be accustomed to hearing about dietary restrictions and, at least in theory, should have some experience in working around them in ways that don’t bust their budget. In practice there may be a bit of learning curve involved: with certain caterers, I have learned it pays to remind them each and every time that, no, vegans do not eat cream, dairy, butter, egg pasta (egg free pasta yes, but egg noodles no), or that soup that has “just a little bit” of chicken stock in it. So I imagine you would have to do something similar in reminding caterers that gluten free really and truly does mean totally GLUTEN FREE; otherwise they won’t even think of things like the breading on chicken (I can just picture them saying, “But, this is CHICKEN! What’s wrong with chicken? Oh? This breading? But it’s only a little bit of it! Can’t you brush it off.”)

    But with time and patience, caterers really CAN be taught these things.

    Oh, and: I, too, have found things to be a bit more accessible within international groups. You still don’t find a particularly high level of AWARENESS of vegan issues, but if it’s a crowd that considers things like hummus or beans and rice as ordinary home cooking, then you’re more likely to find things that just happen to be vegan without any planning necessarily having been done to make that happen.

  5. Clay said,

    28 February 2009 at 10:29

    And I don’t eat any pork. I Finally got the schedulers of yearly inservice events and Award dinners to separate the different choices of sandwiches or dinner entrees, and then I retired.

    When I started, all they offered for lunches was pizza with pepperoni. For the Awards dinner, they had one guy with one set of knife and fork offering to slice from trays of prime rib or pork loin. I would have thrown up on him if I had eaten anything before that!

    I was hungry, so I settled for mac and cheese and a salad.
    Later, I made my my displeasure known, and since both Jewish and Muslim people would be equally revulsed at the sight, they made the necessary changes. So it can be done.

  6. yanub said,

    28 February 2009 at 5:10

    Why don’t you call the planners when they send out their inquiry regarding how many are coming? I’ve gotten gluten-free meals as part of a reasonable accomodation for mandatory work lunches.

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