Gluten-Free Racism

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic


Food is food and people are people. Get over it.


In the 1870s the island of Manhattan experienced a boom of immigration from Italy. The bulk of the arrivals settled in the area now called Little Italy. A reputation for poverty led to organized crime nearly unparalleled in New York City.

In the time since, many other parts of the world have done essentially the same thing in various parts of New York, including a neighbouring population of Chinese immigrants and by the year 1999, when Michael was born, Chinatown had expanded so much that it began to displace their Italian neighbours.

Now, tourists enjoying the sights of Little Italy can walk into a restaurant marked with symbols they can’t read. Not to buy spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza, but rice and tofu covered in a viscous vinegary sauce.

Michael’s father is a chef, the proud descendant of ancient immigrants who bravely fared the seas to reside here for hundred of years. “Why does everyone go buy that asian food all the time?” His father would complain, “No one wants pasta anymore, they’d rather go eat some General Dao alley cat.”

Phoung has the same problem. Her father owns the restaurant across the street. He had no choice, he could barely afford to get this place and it was the only place they found at all. She’s glad to be in America but they’re constantly behind on paying the bills. It’s hard to feed four children along with your wife and parents.

Phoung’s father looks across at the pizzeria, with all their customers, and complains that, “People shouldn’t be eating meals like that, it’s not healthy. They should be eating our food, it’s exactly what your body wants.”

Michael sees Phoung in school sometimes. They never talk but right now he’s standing by his locker, staring down the crowded hallway and wondering if she’d like to do homework together sometime, since they’re 50 feet away from each other every day after school.

Michael’s friend is saying, “So my mom stopped making anything with gluten in it. No more pancakes. It fuckin’ sucks.” But he can tell Michael isn’t listening.

They walk to their next class, Literature. It’s their senior year of high school so they have to listen to their teacher talk about some random guy who wrote some stuff a long time ago. Apparently Romeo and Juliet is really good but Michael doesn’t get it. He’s not stupid he just finds it really boring.

He discreetly reaches into his bag and pulls out The Poverty of Philosophy. He puts it on top of the open play-script on his desk. The moment he reads the word antithesis for the first time in his life, his teacher gets his attention. “What’re you reading, Mike? Not the immortal bard.”

Michael sighs and says, “It’s Marx.”

His teacher laughs. She likes that he’s taking an interest in reading but he’s failing her class and several times she’s told him she’ll pass him if he just pays attention. “Go to the principal’s office.” She knows he won’t, he’ll just wander the halls then come back and listen for a while.

He takes his time going to the water fountain, then the bathroom. He stays far away from the principal’s office and that spot where the vice-principal is always lurking in wait.

He goes into the staircase to look blankly out the window for a minute and Phoung is walking upstairs. He smiles at her but she doesn’t even look at him, just keeps going. He gets desperate and deep down his instincts push air out of his throat. “Hey.”

She stops and turns to him with an awkward look. She doesn’t even know who he is and can’t imagine what he might want. She shyly says, “Hi.”

Half an hour later they’re still talking when the bell rings, school is over. Startled, they both run back to class without even thinking to say goodbye.

Phoung gets to her father’s restaurant and her mother is talking to one of their customers, a skinny white woman with high heels and a business suit including a skirt that doesn’t quite look professional.

The woman is saying, “And now, of course, I can’t even eat Italian food because it’s practically all gluten.”

Phoung goes straight into the kitchen and cleans dishes for an hour, then takes a shower and does homework.

At dinner that night Phoung’s little brother asked, “Dad, what’s gluten?”

Her mother answers, “Gluten comes from wheat.”

Phoung looks around at their delicious meal. There’s pho with vegetables, and shrimp spring rolls. All the nutrients a healthy body wants. Not a gram of gluten on the table.

Meanwhile, Michael’s parents are setting the table with pesto tortellini, asiago garlic bread and a chicken salad calzone. “It smells great Mom,” he says.

His father says, “So have you heard about this whole gluten frenzy people are getting into these days? It’s absurd, look at this amazing meal we’re about to eat. How can this be bad for you?” Both of Michael’s parents were raised on the recipes they now cooked, wheat has been the cornerstone of their diet all their lives.

Michael says, “They say it can cause your immune system to damage your digestive system.”

His dad opens a beer. “Well, they’re wrong. I’ve never met anyone who had that problem.”

Michael quietly says, “It only happens to some people.”

The next day, when Michael helps his father open the store before school, he looks across the street. He’s thinking about Phoung, wondering if she stayed up all night thinking about him, the way he did for her. He hopes he’ll see her, sometimes he does at this time of day.

Instead he sees her father putting up a sign that proclaims in huge font: “ALL GLUTEN FREE”

 

A week later Michael gets home from school and turns on the television. His mom has been watching the news and it’s still tuned to that channel.

On the news, Phoung’s father is saying to a reporter, “Well, people are starting to realize that gluten is really very bad for you and it’s easy to have a good healthy meal without any gluten in it. Stop eating pizza, stop eating pasta. You’ll get healthier immediately.”

The reporter gives him a strange look, probably thinking, that’s not really true. I better move away from this guy. Gluten isn’t bad for everyone, she loves pie more than anything in the world. She steps to the right saying, “As you can see, people here are quite adamant that their cause is very important and they’re urging everyone to join the boycott.”

Michael can’t believe his ears. “Boycott?”

The news cuts back to the anchor woman with blonde hair and nice boobs, who says, “Thanks, we’ll check in soon for more updates. Once again, we are providing live coverage to a protest in Central Park aimed against gluten and more specifically: Italian food.”

Michael says, “What are they talking about? They can’t protest pizza!”

That night his father is furious. At the dinner table, he’s screaming, “That damn gook! Who the hell does he think he is, claiming our food is bad you! He’s just trying to make us look bad so he can fill more seats. He thinks he can just shut us down with a protest, he’s got another thing comin’!” He opens a beer and chugs almost all of it.

After Michael’s parents go to bed he sneaks out and goes to Phoung’s. He knows where she sleeps now, they’ve been doing homework together every day. He wakes her up and she climbs out the window to talk. “Is your dad trying to put mine out of business?”

Phoung shakes her head emphatically, “No he just thinks he’ll get more for himself if he stops people from eating wheat products.”

Michael doesn’t know what to say. “Well, my dad is pissed. He’s trying to cook up some kind of scheme to get people back on his side.”

“Oh by the way,” Phoung wants to change the subject, she doesn’t want them to get dragged into the argument their parents are starting. “Are you still eating with us tomorrow night?”

 

The next day is Friday and after school Michael walks with Phoung to the block where their parents’ restaurants are doomed to forever stare directly at each other. Instead of going in to help his parents, he helps Phoung clean the dishes in her kitchen. He’s only met her mother before and he wants to make a good impression for the rest of her family.

They stand in the kitchen for hours, chatting about everyday activities like the weird creations that ridiculous science teacher has his physics students working on this time.

Michael has to admit, the food Phoung’s family is making smells awesome and he can’t wait to try some tonight. He’s just worried her father might not like her being with the son of their family’s rival.

At dinner he’s passed a bowl of lemongrass beef to heap on top of his jasmine rice. If he was home right now, he’d be eating his mother’s four cheese and sausage pizza, like they do every Friday.

He wants to ask, ‘do you have any parmesan cheese?’ but he decides it’s better to avoid causing any problems. Still, he has to admit this whole meal would be even better with some kind of cheese to add on.

When her father sits down he says to Michael, “I suppose you’d like some spaghetti or something with your meal? I know you guineas like that kind of food.”

Phoung is appalled that he would say something like that. “Dad!”

Michael nods placatingly. “It’s ok, I’m not offended.” My dad says the same kinda stuff, he thinks. “If different cultures are going to integrate and become whole together, we need to stop worrying about silly words like that and try to find common ground we can all agree on.” Embrace differences, that’s his motto.

Phoung’s mother appreciates the sentiment. “I couldn’t agree more.” In the short time she’s known Michael, she’s learned that he’s a polite, thoughtful young man.

Michael decides now might be a good time to gently suggest something. “You know, I’ve been thinking, the food you guys make here is excellent but there’s one thing it could really use: there’s never any cheese.” He gratefully eats a bite of the beef and takes a drink of water. “This stuff would be great with a little parmesan.”

 

The next day is Saturday so Michael sleeps in late. He wakes up just in time to get down to his father’s restaurant and when he arrives there’s a picket line covering the entire side of the block. Instead of the time honoured, Dante inspired chat of ‘no justice no peace,’ angry people are screaming, “No gluten, no wheat!”

He wrestles his way through the crowd and into the empty restaurant, where his father is standing by the window looking out at the mob. “This is absurd,” he says, “how can so many people suddenly think bread is bad for you?”

Michael sits down wondering what he’ll be doing all day if all their customers are being scared off by a protest. “I can’t believe New York is starting to reject pizza.” It defies all logic.

He wonders how many of the people out there are even celiacs. A lot of them are faces he’s seen working for asian restaurants on the other side of the street. The rest all look like typical unhealthy Americans who are going with the trend of the times and decided to cut out all wheat products, at least for the next few months until the new craze-fad distracts 90% of them.

His father says, “It’s insanity. The plague of madness has finally come.”

After a few hours of being so bored he’d rather do homework, Michael pushes his way across the street to visit Phoung. He knows his father won’t even be able to see him enter through the crowd, most of whom threaten or insult him as he crosses.

He hears things like ‘dego,’ ‘wop,’ ‘die idiot.’ A woman is complaining, “What about the children who ...” and as he passes, her voice is drowned out by the next saying, “you’re cooking poison.” He sees a crudely drawn sign that shows a dog being sprinkled with DDT above a human eating pizza.

On the way into the restaurant he sees Phoung’s father stepping out to join the crowd. They make an awkward attempt to smile at each other but they’re both wondering if they’re about to become enemies.

 

The next day Michael is up early to attend the Sunday mass in the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral. The priest read from the Book of Ezekiel, about a time when Jerusalem was under siege from one of the many nations the Israelites could never get along with.

Food was becoming scarce in the city. God sent them a message, telling them how to prepare a recipe now called Ezekiel bread, which is a modification of the kosher-style unleavened bread.

After the gospel reading, when they prayed the Our Father as always, Michael could hear his father putting extra emphasis into the words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” moving his head around so the people nearby would hear the words just a little bit better than usual.

During the sermon, the priest made sure to stress the part about Ezekiel bread. He explained that the extra ingredients gave the Israelites all the kinds of amino acids which the human body cannot produce on it’s own. It was another miracle he delivered just on time, a recipe with the few things available, which was exactly what they needed to survive.

The priest understood that many of his parishioners were from the Italian community. He wanted to put in a show of support for them. He explained that God in the Old Testament, and also Jesus in the new, often involved bread and wheat in their messages to humanity.

At the end of mass, the priest said that a local business owner had a speech prepared for the congregation. Michael’s father stood up and, to Michael’s dismayed embarrassment, walked straight to the altar.

“The Italian community has been in this city for over one hundred thirty years. My family has been coming to this church for over a century. Now, because of the new fear of gluten products, an integral part of this city is being oppressed and treated as second class citizens. As many of you know, all of Little Italy is now covered in protesters demanding a state-wide boycott against Italian food.”

“And as I look around the area we call Little Italy,” he stresses that last word, “I see an increasing number of asians, immigrants spilling over into our neighbourhood. I can’t help but notice that many of the people displacing us are at the forefront of this assault against our community.” He’s starting to become noticeably upset and the priest pats his shoulder, whispering into his ear.

The father goes back to his seat and the priest speaks. “I think you all get the message. Please support our local economy and please don’t do anything that might compromise the public peace.” He’s mostly worried about riots or some sort of violent misbehaviour.

That night Michael prepared a special gift for his parents. Using a recipe from Phoung’s mother, Michael made made an orange-lemon-garlic sauce and added it to a sausage and mushroom pizza. He worked on it all day after getting home from church and he’d never tried cooking anything this complicated before, but he pulled it off perfectly and his mouth salivated as he brought it to the table.

His father took one bite and said, “What’s this? It tastes asian.” His mother looks disappointed by the reaction, she thinks they should add it to their menu. His father pushes his plate away and opens a beer. “Where’d you learn how to do this? Your little slant girlfriend?”

Even with just the three of them there, the mother is horribly embarrassed. “Honey! Don’t say things like that.” 

Michael nods, not sure why he’s getting in trouble for making dinner. “Her mom gave me a recipe for the sauce, she learned it from her grandmother.”

His mother takes a sip of wine. “I think it’s a good thing he’s learning about other cultures. You know not every pizza has to have marinara.”

His father says, “This is all that bastard’s fault.” He’s talking about Phoung’s father. “Tomorrow I’ll give that shifty little shit a piece of my mind.”

 

In class, Michael’s history teacher is talking about European Imperialism and comparing it to 20th century politics. “You see in the old days, the church used racist accusations to convince Europeans that they were superior through God, thus bolstering the Pope’s authority. That kind of thinking was so deeply embedded that it stuck around for centuries, allowing everyone in charge to make huge profit at the expense of every other culture.”

“Now look at the war on drugs from the 60’s, only 50 years ago. The government used their society’s inherent racism to help their cause, just like the church. They used the African-American community as a scape-goat by claiming that black people were responsible for the spread of marijuana, even as they demonized pot, hippies, and then harmless minority groups who were just trying to get by. That’s how they tried to accomplish the goal of suppressing both the civil rights movement and the world peace movement simultaneously, just to hold on to their own power. Just like what the church did hundreds of years ago.”

“And just like the church, we’re still living in the consequences of their avarice. The same with the war on terror; they chose a group that most Americans are fairly ignorant about and demonized that group so people would let the upper classes go steal natural resources from the Middle-East, all while increasing the price of gasoline and claiming that fuel stocks are running out. There is no fuel shortage. There will be, a few hundred years from now, but they clearly don’t care about that or they’d be doing something about it.”

The bell rings and the teacher yells over the noise of students rushing into the hallways, “Remember to finish Chapter 7, the British conscription of Hindus and the origin of the phrase ‘bite the bullet,’ then we move on to the birth of communism.”

Michael knew that Marx wrote the communist manifesto just a bit before the end of this chapter, which didn’t make too much sense, but he guessed the topic would make a good segway from the 19th the 20th century. It would end up becoming one of the most influential documents on the planet about 30 years after Marx died.

In the hallway Michael goes straight to Phoung’s locker. “Hey.”

She smiles, “Hi. I made your pesto recipe last night, it was really good with rice and veggies.” They used sliced carrots, broccoli and added just a little bit of horseradish. “And that marinara sauce was really good with our fried chicken.”

Michael is relieved. “Well at least some good came out of it. I made your mom’s sauce last night too. My mom said it was great but my dad freaked out.”

She nods sadly, “Yeah my dad was kinda upset too but he said it was good. You know I really think you could still make Italian food without wheat. Rice noodles are good.”

He shakes his head. “No my dad hates rice noodles, he says they don’t taste like real food. What does tofu taste like?”

She laughs, “Whatever you cook it with. See you later.” They hug and go to their next class.

In Literature, Michael tries his hardest to pay attention. They’re getting close to the end of Romeo and Juliet but he still knows practically nothing about it; he hasn’t been listening to much of it.

His teacher says, “So, who thinks these two shouldn’t be messing around with each other?” A few hands rise but most people support the star-crossed lovers. She continues, “Their families hate each other, they’re constantly quarrelling over whatever minor disagreement started all this, and now these two teens get between them. It’s cute of course but they’re playing with fire. In an ideal world they might be able to unite the families and bring peace but of course we know that’s not quite how it happens.”

Michael is already spacing out, thinking about Phoung. He has no idea who Tybalt was.

 

The next day, Michael is told he can’t go to school. He has to stay with his father and help keep the restaurant safe from the protestors. They’re getting rowdier and people are starting to worry that the scene might get violent.

Michael doesn’t think those people actually care enough to start a real riot. He sits there all day, watching through the window as his parents work in the kitchen, trying to find a recipe that can replace pizza dough and spaghetti.  They try tortilla-style corn bread and all sorts of potato mixtures but they can’t get something with the right consistency to make a real pizza.

After school, Phoung comes over to check on him. Even she is harassed by protestors as she comes in. She hears things like, ‘why are you supporting them?’ and ‘stay here with your own people.’

Michael’s mother is glad to see her. “Oh hello, dear. I’m glad you came, I didn’t want Michael to have to bring your gift through crazy-central.” She brings out a bottle of fine red wine, aged 80 years, and gives it to Phoung saying, “Tell your mother the sauce was delicious.”

The protests are so wide-spread by now that even the asian district is getting congested and business is getting worse for everyone, not just the pizzerias.

His father is still fuming and he’s been muttering about Phoung’s father all day. They yelled at each other for half and hour, early in the morning. Neither really got any message across, just a lot of noise. Ever since then, they’ve both been pacing their restaurants, ignoring the few customers either has gotten. 

Michael takes Phoung to the kitchen and shows her the stove, where something is frying. “Do you think that looks ready yet?”

Phoung has to get closer to recognize it, then she’s astonished. “Is that a tofu calzone?”

Many pizza chefs include flavouring like garlic inside their dough when it’s made. Instead, Michael mixed all the extra spices in with his father’s sauce, then blended the cheese into it along with some peppers, pineapple and green olives. With it all mixed evenly, every flavour was able to seep into the tofu.

They take it off the stove and cut it up into small sections held together with toothpicks, like at fancy philanthropist parties. He puts it all on a big platter and after taking a few bites themselves and giving his mother a sample, then they take it outside.

Michael gets closer to the crowd and says, “Look, we made a gluten-free pizza calzone, everyone come try some.”

Phoung steps out from behind him, still shy in front of crowds, especially angry protestors. She gathers up her courage and takes another step, head held high with a beaming smile. Michael takes one half of the platter and as soon as they hold it out together, someone knocks it out of their hands and the whole creation is spilled on the nasty ground beneath them.

Michael tries to stay calm as the jackass who knocked it over shouts something at him, which he can only assume is obscene although he can’t hear it.

Phoung gets upset and slaps the man hard, screaming, “What’s your problem?” It’s completely unlike her. She’s kind and calm, thoughtful and shy. But when you put someone in difficult situations they just might surprise you.

Michael takes her elbow and guides her back inside as the protestors hoot and holler, throwing pieces of garbage at them.

 

Marx was one of the many authors of his time who theorized about the pattern of the thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

The thesis is the establishment as it stands. The one constant in the universe is that change is inevitable. The antithesis is the change that eventually comes as people with fresh perspectives offer alternatives.

Eventually the two must clash as the new displaces the old. This can often lead to turmoil and even war, but eventually the two reach an equilibrium position: this is the synthesis. The old and new have merged, both exist together.

 

The next day, Michael has to stay home from school again. The protestors seem different today, more aggressive. It’s not even ten o’clock yet and they’re already much louder than they were yesterday.

He wishes he could cook something to pass the time but his father won’t let him in the kitchen after what happened to the tofu-calzone.

Around noon, Phoung’s father comes in and walks right up to Michael’s father saying, “We don’t want you here anymore with your poison food. We demand that you leave.”

His father laughs, “This is America, I’ll do business anywhere I choose to. Get off my property before I beat the holy hell out of you.”

They stare at each other for a moment, then her father walks out but before he leaves he says, “I warned you.”

Michael’s father practically steams out the ears like those cartoons. His rival leaves but he still runs to the door and yells out, “Stay out you slimy little shit or I swear I’ll kill you!”

The crowd jeers and a second after the door has closed, an egg hits it. He doesn’t even notice, he’s going to the basement where a 60 year old shotgun is collecting dust on top of a shelf by the stairs.

Michael walks out the back of the kitchen into their garbage spot, which is so dirty even the protestors won’t come near it. When he joins the crowd everyone just assumes he’s with them, instead of just another one of the ‘guineas,’ as they keep shouting.

He walks a mile or two, lost in thought, until he get hungry and buys himself a chicken caesar salad. His mother makes salads like this with radish and cranberries sometimes but this is just from some incorporated franchise that uses too many machines to make real food.

When he’s done he goes back, dragging his heels and trying to make time pass before he got there. He’s dreading the idea of staying in that place all day with those strangers yelling obscenities inspired purely by ignorance-induced-hatred.

When he finally gets within sight of the riot, he swears the crowd looks thicker, tighter like they’re all packing in together instead of standing around. He sees a flash and as he gets closer smoke rises, it seems to fill the street like at a concert where everyone is smoking reefer cigarettes. He thanks God it’s not his block they’re setting fire to. But it could be soon.

He knows now what he has to do. These misguided protestors won’t just forget about all this; they’ll go insane and soon his home will be gone. He has to leave now, while he still can.

He turns around to find the most direct route to Phoung’s place.

Meanwhile, a brick is being hurled through his restaurant’s window and Michael’s father bends over to untie a piece of paper wrapped around it. It’s torn by the glass but there are big red letters saying, ‘get out, dego.’

He makes sure there’s a round in his gun and steps outside. At the same time, a few more rocks come through the window. The crowd is surging up to the door but when they see the gun they’re all pushing against each other to get away. No one is willing to die over this.

Phoung sees the people clearing out and hopes they’re going back to their lives but then she sees Michael’s father coming right for the door. She yells, “Mom run!” and sprints for the kitchen to grab her little brother and sister, taking them upstairs to hide in their room.

Her father stands up proud as their visitor comes in. He looks not at the face but at the barrel pointed directly at him and says, “If you want to settle this, do it like a man.”

Michael’s father takes his finger off the trigger and lowers the shotgun, he holds it at the middle with one hand so it’s not immediately threatening. “Let’s talk this out, that’s what men do.”

They both know talking won’t help. Neither is in the right frame of mind to debate peacefully. They start with a low tone but it’s not long before their voices rise back into shouting.

Michael has been shoving his way down the block through the angry forms and voices who are running everywhere, both to and away from the sounds of breaking glass and the orange lights that occasionally find a path through the crowd. The fires are growing fast.

He climbs up the fire-escape to Phoung’s room. The few people who notice assume he’s there for mischief but rather than trying to stop him they only say, “The wops are on the other block, dude.”

The instant her window opens, he climbs in as quick as he can. The mob below them is so loud he seems to barely make noise. The smell of smoke pours in with him. He says, “Things are insane down there! I have to get out of here before the entire city falls apart.”

Phoung hears her father screaming from somewhere beyond the door, then clammer as the argument breaks out into a fight.

Michael asks what he’s been dreading to ask, “Will you come with me?” Above everything else that’s going on, he feels like he’d die if she said ‘no’ to this.

Downstairs a table breaks and dishes smash to the floor. She turns to the door like it might open, she’s worried about whatever is happening down there. Then she looks right into his eyes and she can’t help smiling. “Let me get packed.”

They hitch-hike halfway to Albany, avoiding any conversation related to food. When the driver pulls into a gas station he says that’s as far as he can take them without going out of his way. They thank him profusely for getting them that far away from the mess behind them.

Phoung thinks they’re outside of Catskill but they’re not sure. They’re walking towards what they hope can still be called civilization and they notice a diner has a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on the door. They walk in and Phoung says, “Hi, I see you’re hiring?”

Michael remembers how shy and timid she was just a while ago and realizes how much they’ve both matured.

The owner says, “I just need one person to carry food and clean dishes.”

Michael says, “We’re both experienced chefs. Have you ever considered marketing an Asian-Italian fusion cuisine? We could double your business by tomorrow.”

The owner looks hesitant, he’s barely making ends meet as it is and if their idea doesn’t work he definitely can’t afford to pay two employees.

Phoung grins reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry, it’s gluten-free.”


Submitted: October 29, 2017

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