The other night at the Upper East Side restaurant David Burke & Donatella, my sister and I cozied up to the bar for a cocktail. "Try these, they're really good," said the bartender, pushing forward an intriguing glass of thin breadsticks in a well of amber liquid. "House pretzels in mustard oil."
"Thanks, but I can't," I answered, not without a bit of regret. "I'm not eating wheat right now."
A few seats down, a well-preserved bottle blonde put down her book. "Are you on a protein diet?"
"No," I frowned. "I'm just avoiding wheat."
I tried to hide whatever slight offense I had taken. I am not a dieter and never have been. Six years ago was the first time I stopped eating wheat, and the object wasn't to lose weight. Rather, though never formally diagnosed, I had reason to believe I was allergic. After six months of no muffins, breads, pasta, cookies or a host of other forbidden foods, I realized that weight loss was one of the perks.
But being back on the wagon in the post-Atkins era has made it difficult to convincingly differentiate myself from the bevy of protein dieters, South Beachers, and the rest of their carb-shunning ilk. For all of the scoffing I have done at their expense, I am now, for all intents and purposes, just like they are-a liability at restaurants and dinner parties, the exact opposite of the carefree eater that I once prided myself on being.
The unpleasant reality of my incarnation as food watchdog hit home the other night at Bellavitae, an excellent Italian restaurant in the West Village. I had plans with a date who had expressed excitement at sharing a meal with a food writer. But as we studied our menus, I became thoroughly dismayed by what I was about to do. Like a culinary grim reaper, with one swoop of my self-imposed restriction I had cut our options in half. The only thing worse than denying myself dishes I would normally have ordered in a heartbeat-chicken liver crostini, fritto misto-was wantonly dismissing them on the basis of a single ingredient. Not only had I done my profession a disservice by tarnishing the dining experience for what basically amounts to a diet, I was no longer fun to eat out with. I had become one of them.
Due to my reluctance to fall into this objectionable category (and to give up the foods that go along with it), I have resorted to less than graceful tactics. When the bread course arrived at David Burke & Donatella, I wistfully ogled the warm herbed brioche brimming over its tiny copper pan as it wafted past me to my sister's plate. (The roll that should have been mine remained unattended to at the other end of the bar.)
"Can I smell it?" I asked her, and deeply inhaled the scents of rosemary and butter before she tore off a fluffy piece and popped it into her mouth.
On separate occasions, other food items that I should have turned down out of hand were instead subject to thorough molestation. An innocent slice of layer cake was disemboweled for the purpose of getting to the cream, and a well-dressed slice of pizza was stripped down so that I could enjoy the smoked salmon and caviar on top. In those moments, I was sticking to my diet, but by a thread.
Only three weeks have passed since I've cut out wheat, but I am already fantasizing about what will break my resolve this time around. My first effort was cut short due to illogical reasoning: because I was devoid of the symptoms that made me go off the grain in the first place, I decided I was rid of the problem and lapsed back into my regular eating habits. This time, I wonder if it will be a slip in willpower, or maybe I'll fail to see results and reverse my diagnosis. In a more colorful scenario, I daydream that I am traveling to Paris, where it would be sacrilege, a missed life experience, if I were to avoid their wonderful pastry shops and boulangeries. I hear the brioche there is excellent.