“I’m the difficult one” is something I’ve said to countless waitstaff in countless restaurants across two continents. It’s a kind of mantra for those with chronic kidney disease intent on maintaining a low sodium diet.
And for the most part, it’s worked during the four years I’ve been battling the disease. My daily goal is 1500 mg. of sodium, slightly less than the content of a regular-sized order of french fries at Dairy Queen. Put another way, 1500 mg. of sodium equals about 0.75 teaspoons of salt.
I’ll usually wait until everyone else at the table has ordered before I launch into my sodium grilling. It can take a few minutes, but my fellow diners are invariably gracious about the process. Often times, I’ll have consulted with the restaurant’s chef or manager in advance to ensure the kitchen can be flexible.
I get enormous support from family, friends and others when it comes to maintaining my diet.
When the Red Tie Book Club meets at a restaurant each month, I get particular support from fellow-member Marilyn. “He can’t have salt. It’ll kill ‘em,” she sometimes tells the waitstaff in her distinctive East Texas voice.
Our longtime friends from the old neighborhood, Beth and Craig, have tailored their elegant Thanksgiving dinners to include low-sodium options. People are surprised that even celery has relatively high levels of sodium. Our new neighbors and friends, Judy and Bill, took a pork tenderloin recipe that would have provided me several days worth of sodium, and tinkered with the ingredients. The result was a marvelous — and healthy — dinner I could enjoy with impunity. And San Diego friends Jon and Peggy go out of their way to ensure that the 1500 mg. level is maintained. When Jon smoked ribs on our last trip to the coast — smoking chemically changes meats and fish to raise sodium levels — I had a juicy grilled steak and asparagus. Even the mashed potatoes had no salt.
When my wife, Monica, and I visited longtime friends Mark and Nancy at their log home in upstate New York, they, too, tailored meals with my limitations in mind. The grilled steak and salmon were perfect, as was the farm fresh corn with unsalted butter. Luckily, we didn’t have to worry about the superb red wine we had on the porch after one meal. It’s all but sodium-free.
My former co-worker from long ago in Houston, Olive, let’s me pick the restaurant even when she pays. Friends Danna and Jim prepared a marvelous chicken piccata dish at their new place, using unsalted chicken broth and serving the high-sodium capers on the side. Anne and Charles are mindful, too, of my sodium mantra when we go out to dinner. Sevan G & G on Greenville Ave., probably Anne and Charles’ favorite place, has a Mediterranean menu that seriously challenges my dietary restrictions. So the last time we dined together, it was at a new seafood restaurant across the river, AmberJax, where the fish are prepared to order. Easy pickings for a guy like me.
Friends from Santa Fe, Gary and Sherry, have sometimes turned over their home with its first-rate kitchen and incredible views when they go on vacation. Beau, whom we dogsit while they’re away, doesn’t seem bothered by my dietary requirements so long as he gets his regular food and treats, and reassurance when storms roll in over the mountains. Santa Fe can be a challenging place for me because many New Mexican dishes are enhanced with salt. But Gary and Sherry introduced me to one restaurant near them that was heaven to me. I cornered the chef to find out how she did the potatoes. I can still taste them.
My family has been very supportive on our trips to Canada. Sister Sheila is always asking if this food or that ingredient falls within the boundaries. Sister Patricia, who loves to cook and bake Croatian dishes, is the same. Both of them also have good stocks of Canadian beer. (Beer, like wine, is almost sodium-free.) And when my sisters’ kids got married, Hannah this year and Tim a couple of years back, special meals were prepared for me. Pretty good, eh? Tim, who loves to cook, has also done more than his share to accommodate me. Cousin Karen, a gourmet cook, made sure I could eat almost everything at a dinner she hosted for all the cousins and spouses.
On a river cruise in Europe this summer, the matre d’ came to me each morning at the breakfast table and went over the day’s menu, what I needed and how I wanted it prepared. The head chef even brought out my dinner on a couple of occasions.
But my biggest supporter has been Monica, without whom I would never have maintained such a strict diet. One part nag, one part suggester, she’s been with me from the start. She puts up with all the low-sodium dishes I’ve prepared at home. Luckily, she can get out with friends to feast on the delights I have to forego, like pizza, gourmet grilled sandwiches and Thai food. And while her watchful eye is sometimes a nuisance, I know she does it out of love. So thank you, Monica, for everything.
I’m not sure how long I’ll need to be vigilant about my diet. Even after a transplant, I doubt there will be pizza and pastrami in my future. So after years of explaining that as benign as some food items may seem — mustard, mayo and bread are off the table — I figure the inscription on the tiny condo door where my ashes are kept will read: “He was the difficult one.”