Editor's note: May is Celiac Awareness Month, and Cathy's going in another direction (temporarily), one she doesn't advise.
It started a few days before the New Orleans trip.
"I'm thinking," I say to my beloved, "about maybe having gluten while we're in New Orleans."
"You should try it at home first," he says, remembering — as did I — my dietitian's warning that after a few months living gluten-free, eating gluten might make me ill.
The thing was, I didn't particularly want gluten. What I wanted was beignets. And a real muffuletta. And a po' boy. In essence, I wanted to eat New Orleans.
A few nights later, at Jungle Prada Tavern, my friend Marlowe tries to convince me I don't want beignets.
"Really, Cathy," she says, "they're a variation on elephant ears. They're not that great."
By the time we boarded the plane, I had decided I didn't need to eat beignets. Why risk it? And then the flight attendant passes out peanuts, which doesn't happen on all flights because apparently peanuts on a plane are akin to cyanide. I rip open the tiny foil bag and popped a handful in my mouth.
Honey roasted. I grab my glasses and check the ingredients: wheat. I sigh and hand the bag to El Cap.
That day, we walk the Quarter, where I find — to my delight — muffulettas made with gluten-free bread at Albertos Cheese & Wine Bistro. No, they aren't exactly the same, but they're still pretty damn good. I can do this, I tell myself. It's going to be OK. That night, we go to Café du Monde, and we get café au lait and a plate of beignets.
"Are you going to eat any?" he asks.
Nope. Instead, I lick my finger and dip in it the mounds of powdered sugar, and I raise a beignet to my nose and inhale deeply. This is what I'm reduced to: huffing fried dough. I did the same thing with his biscuit at breakfast, a proper Southern affair that made my soul weep. But still, I'm doing alright.
Until the next night. We're at the Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar & Lounge having a drink, and we order a brisket appetizer. The bartender sets down a ramekin of nuts, and I pick through to find the plain ones. It's dark, and I bite into a mini breadstick and put it down immediately.
"You're a bigger man than I am," El Cap laughs. The Big Easy can be seductive; everything feels OK in the land of voodoo and booze, and while I wish I could say either of those two things influence my next set of actions, they don't. What the hell, I think. The peanut didn't make me sick yesterday. I eat the rest of the breadstick, and then a pretzel, and then the rest of the nuts. When the brisket arrives in slider form, I don't pick off the meat — I go whole hog.
We go to dinner, where I order a beer — a real beer, with gluten and everything — and when the bread comes, I peel off the top crusty part and eat it with gusto, savoring the doughy white parts bite by bite while waiting for the seafood. Since I'm not doubled over in the bathroom, I must be fine.
On the way back to the hotel, we stop at Café du Monde where, emboldened by my badass, gluten-eating self, I scarf down a plate of beignets. Life is good.
Somewhere on the walk back to the hotel, it hits me. No, not the gross, doubled-over, embarrassing "I need a bathroom and I need it now" feeling — but a stomach, um, discomfort so severe I remember instantly the last time I felt it. I was 22, and everything I ate made me sick, so much so that every time I ate, I threw up. Every. Time. This lasted about a year, and then it went away, and I mostly walked around feeling uncomfortable after I ate.
Doctors now say that was probably the onset of celiac, but that feeling became normal. And that's when I realize, somewhere on Royal Street, how good I've felt since January. Until this moment, and I'm 22 again and feeling like shit all over. Except my body isn't 22 anymore, and it feels worse than I remember.
It's been almost two weeks since I've eaten gluten, and I still don't feel right. I know eventually my stomach will feel right again, but I don't know how long it'll take. I can't believe I threw feeling good away for... bread? For beignets?
Hell, at least it was gluten and not unprotected sex. These bad side effects can't last 18 years, can they?
Email CL A&E Editor Cathy Salustri at [email protected].