Food is one of the central tenets in the formation of any culture. Culinary traditions are passed down through the generations perhaps more readily than any other. Nerd culture is no different. From pizza with D20s to popcorn at the latest Marvel flick to having someone sudo make you a sandwich, food and nerd culture are inextricably intertwined. And, as with anything that has some sort of cultural significance, it is very, very difficult to fit in when you cannot partake of the experience.
I was once a Pastamancer of the highest order - it didn't matter what sort of offerings were available at a gathering, I would happily enjoy the bounty. Book club meetings and game nights were full of pizza and Doritos, and the Mountain Dew was always, always in the fridge. It wasn't so much that I was a junk food addict (I have always been one to enjoy a good salad), but more that I was never picky about eating conventional foods in a social situation. I was fairly young, and exercised enough that I was in fairly decent shape. My body could handle it. Or so I thought.
Being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition as a young adult is a rather odd experience. No one really comes out and tells you it is an autoimmune condition. No one tells you your body is destroying itself from the inside out. What they do tell you is that you are lucky you didn't die from a heart attack. That a nice heaping dose of radiation will fix the problem. That a lifetime of medication can help you function normally. No one ever breaches the subject of why this is happening, or, more importantly, why this is happening to you. They don't bring up the question, because they don't know the answer. And, to be honest, they probably don't really care about the answer. It's too late. Your body is broken. Not really much point in figuring out why if symptom alleviation is the best a patient can hope for. If I hadn't been sleeping twenty hours a day, I would have totally been blasting some angry genetic rock opera. Well, if I hadn't been sleeping and if, you know, it had been written at the time.
I wouldn't say that I was obsessed with finding the cause of my condition. I certainly spent far more hours thinking over the nature of the True Source and pondering the possibility of teleportation than I did trying to figure out what was wrong with me. But, deep down, the curiosity and questions remained.
One of the truly wonderful things about graduate school is complete and unrestricted access to millions of scientific journal articles. Forget the $40 cover charge at the door - you could download like a college freshman who just learned the word torrent. Which meant that no one was going to notice if several articles from the New England Journal of Medicine joined the folder full of the latest news from The Journal of Chemical Physics. Suffice it to say, several years and many journal articles later, I found myself pondering whether gluten sensitivity could be the culprit.
Though there are several medical tests available to search for gluten sensitivity, most articles conclude that an elimination diet is the most effective means of diagnosis. Being a scientist, I figured an n=1 experiment wouldn't give any publishable results, but it would be intriguing to document any changes in my still declining health. The fact that I was displaying most of the symptoms related to celiac disease (a sever form of gluten intolerance that destroys the lining of the small intestine) didn't hinder my decision either. It would be something of a challenge to give up grain-based food products, but I figured that at best I would feel better, and at worst I wouldn't get to eat pizza for a month.
The first month of eliminating the gluten protein from my life was fantastic - it was as though finite incantatum had just hit the proponent of the crucio curse. I felt lively, energetic, and, for the first time in years, actually warm. I felt invincible. I felt like eating one slice of pizza at an all-out, all-night game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay wasn't going to kill me. But all adventurers have a weakness, and that slice of pizza hit my gut like an arrow to the knee. Ah, but what about the placebo effect, you ask? Let's just say several unexpected encounters with glutenated substances have resulted in similarly dire results. (Wait, you mean couscous is a type of wheat? And what the hell is wheat doing in the guacamole?)
One of the fun things about having an autoimmune disease is that your antibodies have a Dalek-level need to exterminate. If they can't find the antigen protein they're looking for, then they're going to try their darndest to find something similar. This is why, in the body of someone with an autoimmune disease, gluten cross-reactivity is a major problem. Which is why, despite avoiding gluten like the plague, over the course of a year most of my symptoms came back. Which, of course, being a scientist, lead me to do more research, plan more dietary experiments, and find even more foods that had to be banished to The Pits of Hathsin.
Searching for answers in this sort of situation is a lonely road. It is easy enough to patrol one's own diet when you are trapped behind a stack of midterms, a wall of code, and a mountain of fantasy novels. While adventures in the kitchen often leave me wishing for Wolverine as a sous chef (and having The Hulk as a line cook wouldn't be too bad either - I'm looking at you acorn squash), boning a fish and cooking a whole chicken aren't bad skills to have in one's arsenal. The real difficulty arises in those too rare instances where I have the pleasure of being able to interact with other nerds.
Any culture is highly sensitive when rejection of their food is on the line. It isn't just a rejection of a complex confection of carbs, proteins, and fats, it is a rejection of hospitality. Of identity. Of acceptance. Which is why it is no surprise that the nerds, who built an entire cultural identity around the idea that they were the rejects, are more prickly than most when offerings of food are seemingly shoved back in their face. The gentle cajoling and subtle prompts that "one bite won't hurt" are easy enough to fend off. It is the quiet hurt expressions, and awkwardly closed off mannerisms that are bit more difficult to deal with. It is trying to play down the fact that your stomach is rumbling because you are a weirdo who ate a dinner of collards and kale at 4pm before coming to a nine hour role-play session. It is trying to be polite and appreciative to friends who are trying their best to cater to your needs, but don't really understand that picking off the croutons isn't cutting it for you anymore. It is people tossing you sideways glances because you are the only one not getting drunk. It is the implied, if not outright asked, question about whether I am judging them, judging their culture, because of the foods they eat. It is about being stuck on the outside and knowing that you are never going to find a way in.
I don't expect the world to change to suit my needs. It is my body that is broken, and it is my responsibility to attend to it. I am more than happy to eat before I go to an event, or to pack my own lunch. I don't have a problem sharing a pile of gluten-free baked goodies, or, on occasion, dealing with the wheat-induced rash that comes with making conventional cookies for others. But I can't eat your pizza. And I won't drink your Mountain Dew. And it isn't out of some bizarre belief that my incredibly restrictive diet is somehow superior to your super-human ability to consume grains and nightshades covered by cheese. I just want to stop the exhaustion, the depression, and the pain. I would like to be a part of your midnight movie premieres, your geeked-out book club discussions, your all night role-play sessions. But I have to be my own hero in the kitchen. All I ask is that you let me.
- Dr. T, signing off