Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Eating is a social thing.

It has been a long while since I posted about my food issues, but I was made painfully aware of them again during the last (long) weekend. As is traditional for me, I spent a few days hanging out with friends that I see once a year to share these days for our common hobby: doing bookbinding work.
What I did last weekend - repaired books and brand-new boxes and folders. And some gold embroidery :)

This was the first time I stayed at a youth hostel since developing (or, more correctly, since becoming aware of) my food intolerance issues. So, as a good guest does, I handed in the shortlist of things I cannot eat well beforehand... and hoped for the best. (There's a shortlist and a complete list of things. The shortlist is the really important stuff, the complete list also contains things I can eat occasionally, but try to avoid.)

It was not a very nice experience. First of all, some of the information seems to have gotten lost between admin and the kitchen, leading to an awkward situation admirably solved by the cook.  Secondly, the foods that were available to me often were the kind that I consider borderline acceptable: industrially made and thus laced with conserving agents, modified starches, glucose syrup and other things I try to avoid. Under normal circumstances, I will eat these occasionally, for example if there is no other choice or if I really want to, but not on a daily basis or several times a day. Thirdly, there was a lack of salads or vegetables in general, which was cutting down my options of avoiding the borderline foods.

I could feel all this in sinking energy levels, a dip in my general happiness, a craving for fresh foods and some other symptoms that clearly showed me I was not eathing things that are good for me. All that is not nice - but the worst thing, and what caused me most stress in retrospective, was having to ask for my food.

Now, in a youth hostel setting, there is usually a buffet style setup. You get your plate and cutlery and help yourself to whatever you would like, in whatever amounts. For vegetarians, or for those with intolerances or allergies, there's clearly labeled food on the buffet, and you are supposed to eat what you were booked for and not plunder the food of the special needs folks. Sometimes, when there is only a single person having a special serving and lots of other people, your serving might not be out on the buffet but brought out when you come, or when you ask for it, eliminating the danger of someone else consuming the special stuff.

That is all very understandable. However, when that means that
a) you do not know whether there is anything special for you or not, and you have to ask the serving people if the normal food is okay for you, and they look at you in a confused sort of way and have to go ask the head cook, and
b) you tell them you need to avoid wheat, but they consistently refer to you as needing gluten-free, or ask you if you have booked gluten-free diet (which I had not), and  get confused if you tell them that gluten-free will work for you but you have stated wheat-free and not gluten-free when booking, and
c) serving people are not always available and you may need to wait, or shout for them, to get an explanation of whether you can eat the stuff available or not, and then wait for your special-snowflake-food or get in line with all the others -
well. It made me feel difficult, and cranky, even though the kitchen people did try their best to help (but were stunningly under-informed). It also let me end up with meals that were not very satisfying, regarding taste, composition, and amount. I could probably have asked for more this or more that, but I did not want to go and wait (or holler) and ask again.

Worst of it all, though, having to state my special needs almost every single meal made me painfully aware of the intolerances instead of letting me handle them matter-of-factly, as I usually do. That will make anyone feel like the odd one out, and rather sick instead of healthy. It was not a nice experience. At all.

So in case you ever need to cater to someone with food intolerances? Try to make things easy for us.
Sharing food is a very social thing, so getting special servings sets you apart from the group. This may be necessary due to the dietary restrictions, and we do very much appreciate getting food that we know will be safe to eat, but getting different things all the time will, over time, do things to your soul. If the special serving is handled efficiently and matter-of-factly, it is not so bad, but every little issue on top of getting something different from the others - having to ask, having to explain, having to wait, even having different plates - will add up to emphasise that we are not part of the group in this respect. Eating is a social thing, and sharing food is a powerful symbol of belonging together. So being set apart continuously is also a powerful sign - of not really belonging.

We're feeling the odd one out or left out often enough - there are so many foods and snacks and things you cannot eat if you cannot eat wheat, for example. In a setting where a group is catered for, anything that makes us feel like our requirements are easy to meet will help. We approach foods prepared by others with a good dash of insecurity about what is in them and whether we will be able to have them or not, so labeling foods to indicate they are clear for us to eat will be a huge relief. Kitchen staff who know about our needs and do not have to run and enquire first help, too (though it's preferable that they run and enquire to serving food they don't know about). The more normal you make us feel, the easier things are for us, and the more pleasure we will have from eating in the group. The optimum would be, of course, to have foods for everybody that we can eat, and to communicate clearly that this is the case (without us having to ask). Reassure us that we can have more (if we can have more). Tell us how you have booked our needs if you decide to let wheat-free run as gluten-free (perfectly okay with me if that is easier for the kitchen, but I need to know what to ask for). Don't make us ask every time for every single thing... because that makes us aware, again, of how much we are the odd person out.

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