At the ballpark, and in life, I’ve always been the sort of person who will eat just about anything. This attitude has certainly been beneficial to my professional career, as the consumption of concessions is integral to the Minor League experience. My desire is to document the full range of what each ballpark has to offer, so why would I turn anything down?
Yes to everything!
Except, no. The days of unthinking acquiescence to each and every culinary option placed before me are now over. Call it poetic justice, or delicious irony, or merely a spot of bad luck within a life of immense privilege, but I, Ben Hill, steadfast chronicler of the Minor League culinary scene, have celiac disease. From now until whenever it may be that I shuffle off of this mortal coil, I must abide by a gluten-free diet.
What does this mean? Well, no more Stoney Dogs. That’s for damn sure.
For those (such as myself, circa two months ago) who are blissfully ignorant of what celiac disease is, here’s how it’s defined by the National Library of Health: a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats.
And with that, the majority of ballpark foods are rendered off limits. Virtually all buns and rolls contain wheat flour, so there go hot dogs, sausages and hamburgers. Pretzels are not allowed, nor are corn dogs, and nacho cheese is deeply suspect. And anything that is breaded and fried most likely contains gluten, so next time I’m in Memphis I’ll have to forgo the Chicken on a Stick:
And, oh yeah: no more beer.
Thanks for everything, Yuengling. It’s not you, it’s me.
As for how I received this particular diagnosis, like a lot of things in life it was a convoluted and roundabout process. I have long made it a point to donate blood on a consistent basis, but over the last year or so I was regularly rejected from giving due to low iron levels. At first I shrugged off this unexplained anemia, like, “Fine, whatever, maybe I just need some spinach and/or a steak dinner.” But after the third time it happened, the woman at the blood center expressed surprise and concern that an individual such as myself (male, 33) would have such a condition and said that I really should see a doctor.
I did, eventually, and an appointment with my general practitioner then led to visits with both a hematologist and a gastroenterologist. They both suspected celiac, and an endoscopy in the beginning of May (shortly after I returned from my Florida road trip) made it official. To paraphrase Billy Joel: “The doctor diagnosed me as a celiac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac/said you ought to know by now.”
So, to incorporate my personal experiences with the definition of celiac disease provided above, what was happening was this: gluten was damaging the linings of my small intestines, making me unable to absorb iron properly. Hence, the anemia. I can’t say that I was experiencing any symptoms that, in and of themselves, would have caused me to seek medical attention, and there’s a part of me that wishes I hadn’t attempted to give blood because ignorance is bliss. I’d still be living my life like it was 2011.
But that’s a faulty perspective, as in the grand scheme of things this diagnosis is nothing but a positive. Having celiac disease makes me much more aware of what is in the food I am eating, and a mindful approach to my diet is something that had previously been lacking. I will be a healthier person, and, among other things, this will lead to an increased ability to win mascot races. And the costumes don’t even need to be gluten-free!
The more diligent readers of this blog have surely already put two and two together: I knew of my celiac disease prior to my most recent “OK-AR-MO-TN” road trip, but I kept it under wraps and cheated like hell throughout the entire thing. This was a deliberate decision that I made going in, for two reasons:
One, I wanted the chance to say goodbye, as it were, and I certainly had some bittersweet moments throughout the entirety of the trip (that Yuengling in Jackson, TN, seen above, being a prime example). And, two, I thought that it would be beneficial to simply make a note of the challenges I’d be facing going forward without, you know, actually having to face them.
But truth be told, I’m not all that upset about my new ballpark limitations. As a writer I’m always looking for new angles, and having celiac disease while touring Minor League ballparks is a great one and something that I’d never have been creative enough to think of on my own. My condition will add another layer to the story, helping to spread awareness of the gluten-free lifestyle while giving teams the chance to promote the options that they do have available. At this point I’m a well-respected figure in this industry (or at least that’s what I tell myself), so I believe that I can play a role in having teams, when possible, re-assess their operations with an eye toward making “concessions” to, and for, those with dietary limitations.
But, that said, I want to reiterate the following as strongly as I possibly can: I WILL STILL WRITE ABOUT ANY AND ALL BALLPARK FOOD ITEMS! Even if I can’t eat it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in it. My job is to provide a full picture of the stadium experience, and this, obviously, means that nothing is off limits.
On my previous road trips, there have been some teams that wished to highlight the depth and breadth of their concession operations by giving me extensive food tours. I am still interested in doing this, where applicable, but before the game I may recruit a fan to join me as a designated eater. If I end up visiting a team near YOU, then get in touch. I may end up living vicariously through your enjoyment of the food, in much the same way that readers of this blog have told me that they have enjoyed living vicariously through mine. What goes around comes around.
I’ll close with a necessary, and hopefully obvious, observation: this is all a work in progress. Being diagnosed with celiac disease doesn’t make me any sort of an expert on it. I will learn as I go along, and I will certainly make mistakes. (And, make no mistake, there is much to learn: before the diagnosis, I thought a “dedicated fryer” was a priest that was really committed to his job, and that “cross contamination” might be the sort of thing he’d be prone to worrying about.)
As I have done throughout my career, I now defer to you. Be you team employee or fan, I’d be very interested in your gluten-free feedback. What, if anything, has your favorite team done to accommodate fans with this condition? And, among those who are currently gluten-free, what are your favorite ballpark foods?
In its own weird way, this is gonna be fun.