Gluten Envy

Some people have penis envy.

Other folks are jealous of the blond bombshell who gets all the boys’ attention. Still others are envious of the sibling that gets all the parents’ praise, or the colleague that got the big promotion.

I have a different sort of envy, a type of envy roughly 1 in 130 americans is particularly susceptible to. I’m talking, of course, about gluten envy - envy of those who can eat whatever they want without worrying about the immediate consequences.

Most people these days roll their eyes when they hear the phrase gluten-free - I can even see some of you doing exactly that right now, don’t think I don’t see you.

They think of it as the next fad diet that’s bound to come and go like countless others before it. But for some people, eating gluten free isn’t a seemingly arbitrary choice, it’s a medical necessity.

99% of you out there in the audience, if you were hungry after this show, you could head over to Ottos to grab a couple slices, and even wash it down with a beer without thinking much of it. No one with Celiac disease could ever do this without their immune system wreaking havoc on their digestive tract. In practice this would mean extreme stomach pain and having to spend a whole lot of time in the bathroom.

I was diagnosed with Celiac back in May of 2008. Since then, whenever I go out to a group dinner I have to sit patiently while everyone else spreads butter on their bread, and I have to interrogate waiters like I’m a member of the CIA. Sometimes the waiter will begin to drop a roll on my plate without even asking me - that’s when my ninja-like reflexes kick in, wha-chow! see this plate right here, it’s a gluten free zone, no bread for me!

The North End is pretty much off limits - my friends may be enjoying linguine, fettuccine or tortelini, but for me it’s boring salad-ini, and of course pizza is a no-go. And beer - it’s the beer that I’ve really missed. It’s funny, because it’s also the beer that provokes the most extreme sympathetic reactions from people when I describe my diet. People will act like they’re in physical pain, their empathy for my being deprived of beer is so great. And that kind of pity, that’s really the flip side of envy, isn’t it.

My friends felt for me back when I was diagnosed with Celiac at the age of 19, and the first thing they did was drive me to our local liquor store where we used a perfectly legitimate ID to buy a six-pack of gluten free beer. Most gluten-free beer is made from an obscure grain called sorghum, which unfortunately doesn’t lend itself as well to beermaking as wheat or barley, it’s got a brutal aftertaste, so I couldn’t even force myself to finish a full beer.

Then there’s traveling. Before leaving the country, in addition to my passport I have to make sure not to forget my printouts that remind me how to ask if something has gluten in it in hebrew for example - Ha’im ze mechil gluten? - or in french - est-ce qu’il y’a gluten dedans?

So there are a lot of reasons why it’s tough to eat gluten-free. A co-worker of mine, when I explained what I had to avoid, she said “oh my god, it’s like, you’re allergic to fun!” I’d disagree though, I think there are plenty of fun things about being gluten-free.

Had I been a kid back when I was diagnosed, I would have been able to go to Camp Celiac! That’s right, there’s an entire sleepaway camp just for kids with Celiac disease. I know what you’re thinking - a camp for kids with stomach problems? I would hate to be the janitor who has to clean the toilets at that kind of camp!

In all seriousness though, you’re probably thinking - is that really necessary? I could see why there would be a camp for kids that are going through a truly tough time, maybe a camp for kids with Tourettes syndrome, for example. Well that type of camp exists too, in fact that camp is down in Georgia, and its got quite the name - it’s called Camp Twitch and Shout! True story, look it up. In any case, it’s only natural to be wondering, what could kids with Celiac really get out of such a camp? Well I had to find out, so I decided to volunteer as a counselor right after graduating college.

As you know by now, in many ways, eating gluten free really makes you stand out - eating different food, at different times, having to ask all kinds of questions. When I got to Camp Celiac, I realized why this camp needed to exist - because as a kid, it’s really tough to be different. So the camp was really valuable in that it made kids feel like they were part of this special club rather than some kind of outcast.

It was a typical sleepaway camp in many ways, we had archery, a ropes course, and even camp romances. It is actually a great place to be a teenage guy because as with many autoimmune diseases, Celiac is more common in women than in men, which of course means... quality ratio!

One of my favorite memories was the last night, right when it was time for desert the counselors turned all the lights off, and the director took the stage and announced “we know that birthdays are sometimes tough for many of you because it’s hard to find gluten free cake, so tonight, here at camp celiac, it’s everyone’s birthday!” And with that, counselors came out of the woodwork with beautifully decorated cakes adorned by candles and frosting, and the kids at each table blew the candles out in unison.

Some people have pipe dreams of being able to quit their boring day jobs after getting rich playing the stock market or winning the lottery. My ticket to early retirement? I’m working on a recipe for a gluten-free beer, with no aftertaste. When my brewing company goes public, and I make millions from the IPO, the blond bombshell, the overachieving sibling, and the colleague who got the promotion, will all be envious of me.