At the end of our honeymoon in the Italian countryside, my husband Danny and I were filled with contentment. The days had been languid and gorgeous, with our laughter echoing off surrounding hillsides. And the meals? In the land of pizza and pasta, I ate free of gluten without any trouble, day after day.
People in Italy regard food as one of the most important aspects of life, and those of us with food allergies and intolerances are treated with respect. In Italy, I felt embraced, safe – and well fed.
As our vacation came to a close, we returned to Rome. On the morning we were to bid goodbye to Italy, we rose early and stumbled for the bus to the airport. The line to check in snaked interminably, and we missed our flight. Thankfully, we made it onto the next plane. However, this is where our honeymoon really ended.
As we boarded to start the first leg of our trek home to Seattle, we felt hungry. For 11 days, my breakfast had been slices of prosciutto, sheep’s milk cheese, and a gluten-free chocolate croissant bought at the local drugstore, which stocked entire shelves of gluten-free baked goods. But in the dash to the airport this morning, we knew there would be no time for breakfast.
I had planned ahead, requesting a gluten-free meal for the flight home. But, of course, we had missed that flight. There was only a slim chance that it would have been available any way. On our flight to Rome, when I asked for the gluten-free meal I had reserved weeks before, I was told, “Sorry, we ran out of those.” Ran out? A contrite flight attendant later said, “the Muslim man in back turned down his meal. You could have his.” (I didn’t bother to explain that following Islam does not make you gluten-free.)
We landed in Atlanta, and during the six-hour layover my stomach gnawed to the point of making me cry. Danny and I walked past every food booth and bar in one concourse, then moved on to the next. Everything was breaded and fried, dusted in crumbs, or perched on a bun. Welcome back to the United States.
Finally we settled on a bar with pub food – a place so packed, the waiter seemed frazzled beyond the point of speech. I explained, in urgent tones, that not one speck of wheat could touch any part of my bunless burger, and he nodded and ran off. When the patty arrived, shrivelled and tepid, it still looked good to my hungry eyes. But after two bites, I put down my fork and burst into tears. This wasn’t an all-beef patty. It was fleshed out with filler, no doubt containing gluten.
By the time we boarded our flight to Seattle, I was doubled over in pain, almost unable to move. I spent the next three days in bed or running to the bathroom.
After I recovered, I realized this: I’m on a mission, one restaurant and food service employee at a time. With my writing, I’m talking to everyone who will listen. Anyone who is involved in food should be aware of allergies and intolerances and know how to take care of us.
Those of us with serious food issues are not freaks. We are not annoyances. We are hungry, and we want to be fed.
Shauna James Ahern’s and Daniel Ahern’s new cookbook is Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, published by John Wiley & Sons. Their blog is Glutenfreegirl.com