I’ve seen my mother on the brink of death. It was my first and only visit to El Salvador. I was nine years old.
We’d gone out to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in fruits from the sea. My mother ate a stew of mariscos. Seafood medley in a bowl, essentially. She’d been told she was allergic to shellfish in the past, but one little rash and slightly laboured breathing wasn’t enough to stop her. Shrimp is just that good.
My last memories of that night involve myself and my two younger brothers, then five and three, dumped at the home of the next-door neighbours, watching as my parents hopped into a cab with my mother clutching at her throat, gasping, “No puedo respirar,” turning pale. My brothers were crying. I was the dutiful big sister, singing REM songs and reassuring them that everything was going to be alright.
I didn’t actually think everything was going to be alright.
For some reason, I think of this event as epitomizing the difference between white people and the rest of the world. At least, when it comes to food.
I suppose I should preface the rest of what I’m about to say by announcing that I am pretty much white. Phenotypically, yes, but also culturally. While I was raised on rice, black beans, tortillas, yet-to-be-hip avocados and ripe plantains, I grew up preferring blander offerings. Birthdays were reserved for mock chicken legs and mac ‘n’ cheese. And the same continues, in sheep’s clothing:
Yoga. Organic produce. Wheat substitutes. White rice, rarely.
Which tangentially makes me wonder: are food sensitivities, like so many alternative health quirks, a gringo thing?
My mother has denounced many Western occurrences as “gringo things.” My favourite of these designations is women calling out in pain during childbirth, which my mother (blessed to have had quick labours with tiny babies, my five-pound self included) insists is reserved for the gringo variety of humankind. While I enjoy calling her out on these, and which she usually accepts with good humour, my mother’s led me to question whether some experiences really are just inventions of the warped gringo mind. The most significant of these being the omnipresent avoidance of gluten.
From a cross-cultural standpoint, abstaining of wheat things is probably the most mind-boggling dietary decision one can possibly make. Vegetarianism is weird enough (and having witnessed one of my brothers venture in that direction for a few years, I can verify that Salvadoran family members found it pretty incomprehensible), but not eating bread? Seriously? No one is too good to eat bread.
Food insensitivities are sufficiently difficult to explain to people removed from certain generations (e.g., X and Y), but the lingo barrier is only compounded when you factor in immigrant sensibilities and non-Western viewpoints. What is a food sensitivity, anyway? It’s not an allergy; it won’t kill you. So, is it a reaction that makes you feel less than neutral? Well, shit. No more tres leches cake for me.
I know that celiac is a real thing, and something that gets under-diagnosed in modern medicine. But I also know that everyone I’ve ever met who has been diagnosed with this thing has been white and (at least) middle-class, with the same cultural predilections as myself. Does this mean that the disorder has an eye out for former humanities students with natural toothpaste? Or is there some kind of trend happening under my nose, here?
I don’t mean to offend. I know wheat makes some of you feel shitty, and I’m not aiming to downplay your bloatage. But, I do wonder whether bloat awareness is a thing of gringodom. All of us gals grow up to become our mothers, and Conchy’s voice is calling bullshit in my head. It also doesn’t help that I’ve had girlfriends make light of their brief flirtations with wheat “allergies,” which we agreed via Facebook was a coming-of-age requirement for white liberal arts grads.
But in all truth, I’m not making fun. My pantry’s stocked with jars full of quinoa and oats that I’ve ground up for flour. I’m drinking the same Kool-Aid as the rest of y’all. Except I’m just a poseur, because wheat makes me feel fine.
This post is a part of Ethnic Aisle, the coolest multicultural blog party in Toronto!