Despite the host of dietary ailments visiting him, Hsueh is a passionate lover of food. Though some might find his choice of food limited, his gastronomic range falls well beyond that of the average American’s diet of processed carbohydrates and high-fructose corn syrup. His appetite is voracious and he is a true culinary traveler, seeking out restaurants and eateries wherever he happens to be wandering the streets. Over years of trial and error, Hsueh has come up with a reliable system for locating and choosing new restaurants where he has a favorable chance of enjoying a meal.

“Since most restaurants don’t advertise themselves as exclusively gluten-free or allergy-friendly, I don’t target my search based on those criteria,” he says. “First and foremost, I try to find restaurants that are already vegan or vegan-friendly (usually on Yelp) because these types of restaurants are generally very accommodating to other dietary restrictions besides being vegan.” Hsueh then searches the menu to find dishes that he can safely eat and that he can, as he says, “probably customize to fit my needs without totally ruining the concept of the dish.”

When at a restaurant, Hsueh has learned to not be shy about asking the server detailed questions regarding ingredients and dishes. “An interesting thing that I’ve found is that a lot more vegan appetizers, instead of entrees, fit my criteria when I’m researching menus at vegan restaurants, which is partly why I love vegan dim sum so much.”

As a second-generation Chinese-American, Hsueh tends to gravitate toward Asian cuisines, in part for reasons of taste and partly because it’s easier for him to find foods that fit into his diet. “This may just be an Asian bias, but I’ve also found Chinese and Thai restaurants to be a bit more accommodating to dietary restrictions, especially if the restaurant itself or the owners have some sort of link to Buddhism. It’s common for Buddhists to avoid meat/dairy, onions, garlic, leeks and other stimulating foods,” he says. “On a related note, I’ve noticed that restaurants are much more accommodating and respectful of dietary restrictions if they are under the impression that the restrictions are associated with religious beliefs, so if I felt like a server was perplexed by my odd requests to omit certain ingredients (like onions or garlic), I might explain that it’s a part of being Buddhist, and that will sometimes magically smooth out the situation.”

Hseuh takes his peculiar dietary needs in stride, preferring not to draw attention to himself. “Allergic Girl” Sloane Miller, author of a food allergies support blog entitled “Please Don’t Pass the Nuts” as well as a book entitled Allergic Girl, has a different approach. On her blog, Miller gives lifestyle advice and encouragement for those living and eating with food allergies. She also reports on medical news, speaks at conferences, and works with healthcare non-profits, with the overarching goal of informing, connecting, and strengthening a food allergic community.

Uniting a minority of food consumers with special needs might open up more options for the millions of Americans who have difficulty finding restaurants they can eat at. Andrea Brandt, a student at the University of North Dakota and gluten intolerant, admits that while she cooks for herself with few problems, eating out poses more of a challenge, “Restaurants I tend to avoid simply because there are very few places that I am completely comfortable eating at. When in doubt at a restaurant, I tend to just order a salad.”

A frequent traveler, Brandt is familiar with certain national brands that have gone out of their way to accommodate gluten-free eaters. “Jimmy Johns and Chipotle are the only two places that I go to for fast food when I’m on the go,” she says. “Both of the companies have made a huge effort to educate their staff on handling food for gluten-free orders and the companies have made the effort to keep their food pure and fresh.”

Celiac With a Smile (And a Wink)

Maria Paola, a researcher in phonetics from the island of Sardinia, is the author of a popular Italian blog for celiacs (soon to add an English section) called “The Adventures of Maria Paola: A Celiac in Jeopardy.” Maria Paola takes a cheekily humorous approach to the challenges of dining out. “Non-celiacs just go to eat where they feel like,” she says. “Celiacs instead might reason like this: ‘Shall I go to Fernando’s, which is not so great, but they know very well about celiac disease? Or to Romanelli’s, which I heard is so yummy, but where I will have to explain everything?’ ”

Maria Paola doesn’t let her condition dampen her appetite, however. “If you follow the diet and are healthy, celiac is no big deal. After a first period of getting used to it, it becomes the last of your daily problems,” she says. “The lives of non-celiacs must actually be very difficult. For instance, the burden of choosing a place to go for dinner: too many restaurants. Besides, the dreariness of going to a restaurant and just ordering, so roughly, without the pleasure of showing off your own diplomatic talents by entering into negotiations with the waiter. I don’t know if I would stand a life like this.”

Like Hsueh, when dining out, Maria Paola has learned the importance of communicating with the serving staff, comparing the nuanced negotiations involved to a fine art. “You have to consider your [server’s] previous knowledge of celiac, his character, his physical and mental state, the amount of work he has on that day…I have a lot of experience and I am now pretty good with that,” she says.

Moving and traveling extensively within Europe over the last 10 years for her work, Maria Paola at first had little help when navigating grocery aisles and restaurant menus. “I had to learn very quickly how to read labels. I gained especially a passive knowledge: if you ask me how to say in Czech ‘locust bean gum,’ I cannot answer, but if I see it written, I recognize it immediately. The only name I remember is ‘Kiselina Citronová,’ which sounds like a great tennis player, but it means citric acid,” she says. Having lived in Italy, Spain, Munich, Prague, and now Dresden, Maria Paola has observed the progress that these places have made in availability of gluten-free products and dining establishments — in many cases from “none” to “widely available.” Initially enduring terrible pizzerias and piddling grocery trips, over the last decade she has seen many allergy-friendly restaurants pop up, and even gluten-free draft beer (this in Prague).

Maria Paola remains unconvinced that gluten intolerance is increasing, preferring to think that the increase is due to better public awareness and more accurate diagnoses. “Years ago, we did not have the blood antibodies tests we have today…Of course, only the celiacs with evident gastrointestinal symptoms were diagnosed. Today we know that many celiacs show minor symptoms or no symptoms at all,” she says, citing a 2006 study in GUT, the international journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. “Without the modern blood test, I probably would not know that I am celiac, as many other people who were diagnosed by means of population screening.”

A Food Democracy

The greatest dream of legions of celiacs or allergy-sufferers is to have choice and variety in what they eat. “My wish is that every restaurant would offer celiacs the same options as non-celiacs: all the dishes should be prepared in gluten-free form. However, I appreciate any effort of the kitchen staff to offer me something gluten-free, for instance, letting me read the labels of packaged foods (like bouillon or spice mixes) or using only for me a separate pan instead of the common grill,” says Maria Paola.

While we are a far cry from extending allergen-free options to an entire menu or every eating establishment, progress is being made. Restaurants are recognizing the potential of attracting new patrons by developing allergy-friendly choices. And because diners with allergies tend to be faithful to restaurants they like, the restaurants garner additional benefit from the customers’ friends and family, as well as good publicity among allergic eater social circles.

Diners who once had to content themselves with a lackluster salad when out at a restaurant are taking heart and finding place in a community of diners, sharing counsel, grievances, and Yelp reviews. Rather than thinking within the limitations of their diets, they are permitted to think of the possibilities. Good food, after all, should be available for all to enjoy, with no reservations.

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