Monday, April 14, 2008

Surviving a non Celiac family reunion - it can be done!

There is a little joke amongst the gluten free set - many of us agree that there are three places we typically don't enjoy going, due to our diet restrictions. Those events are weddings (of non Celiac friends), funerals (OK, no one likes those for obvious reasons) and family reunions where there are no Celiacs in attendance but us. For all these events, we can't pick where the group will be dining or what food will be served and that's that. Therefore, we take our own food and try not to complain when there is nothing for us to eat - except what we brought ourselves, of course. Such is the life of a Celiac.

My husband's extended family likes to get together much more often than mine. Unfortunately, I'm the only one at these reunions who eats gluten free. My husband is about 99% gluten free but he's not going to get sick if he eats gluten - he's simply not going to sleep well that night. But I will get sick and therefore I've got to know that every bite of food I'm putting in my mouth is gluten free. I can't just assume that this or that dish 'should' be okay - that's simply not an option for me. We all know the saying 'when it doubt, leave it out' and that's what we have to do - a lot!

Now, this particular reunion came at a very bad time for us for many reasons including having to hire a professional squirrel removal service (a family took up residence in our attic) and our upcoming vacation to NYC, among other things. In the end I decided to go, instead of sending my husband alone. The latter idea came to me upon hearing that the weekend trip would be in Savannah, GA. This fair city won an informal poll as being the least gluten free friendly tourist city in the entire Southeast US. The land of Paula Deen - no, it's just not a good idea for people with Celiac to dine out in Savannah, unless they don't mind spending $100 or more, for two people for dinner. We'd have young kids at the reunion, and places that were good for me were not kid friendly, so from the get go, I felt we might not be able to eat out with the family, as we'd always done in the past.

For some reason, this reunion was much more unstructured than others we've attended. There were no formal plans made for dinner out Saturday night before the weekend started. Therefore, I had to make plans for just us since I couldn't just hope the family would pick a restaurant that had more than a salad to feed me. Luckily a quick Google search of 'gluten free' and 'Savannah, GA' led me to a link about a place in Savannah's historic district called Gallery Espresso that had gluten free cake! Wait a minute....gluten free cake in a coffee shop in Savannah? We don't even have such a treat in Atlanta! I contacted the place and sure enough, they still offer daily gluten free pound cake but now they have a gluten free cheese cake as well - complete with a gluten free crust!

Obviously our first stop on arrival to the lovely Southern city was this coffee house. An e-mail exchange with the owner prior to our trip, led me to bring my own dressing for the salads this place offered as safe lunch choices for me. And I'm thrilled to report that both the mixed berry pound cake with lemon glaze and the blueberry cheesecake were outstanding in taste and texture! The many glutenoids that enjoy these treats daily have no idea what gluten is - they just know the desserts totally rock! The pound cake recipe even made it into the new book 'Savannah Classic Desserts', now available at bookstores everywhere. How fabulous to have a piece of cake that I didn't make, or that wasn't being served at a support group meeting. Wow! We thought we were 'all that' in Atlanta, with our extensive gluten free restaurant list, but we don't have a place like Gallery Espresso here, so we'll have to work on changing that. Whether you're gluten free or a glutenoid, when visiting Savannah, you should stop into the Gallery Espresso for a treat! It actually reminded me of the set of the TV show 'Friends' which I was lucky enough to visit for a show taping years ago in LA. It's wonderfully charming! And what a treat to visit a 'unique' coffee shop for a change, instead of an impersonal chain.

For the family dinner at the beach house (where most of the group stayed) on Friday night, the ingredients in the low country boil couldn't be deemed safe for me by the people making it, so I took all my own food for dinner. I made Dijon mustard bacon wrapped scallops, homemade crab bisque and a key lime bar dessert with a fabulous ginger cookie gluten free crust (available at Pamela's site), and homemade whipped cream for the topping! My husband grilled my scallops to perfection and the bisque was one of the best batches I'd ever made - according to my husband anyway. The lemon bar mix I use from Krusteaz (throwing out their crust packet which contains wheat) is excellent, but the lime bar mix was lacking in some way....I think I was expecting it to taste like Key lime pie filling and of course it didn't. But added to my tasty pie crust, and topped with whipped cream, this dessert was outstanding! The crust and topping totally made up for the average tasting lime bar middle.

For Saturday night dinner, we'd made reservations at The Hunter House on Tybee Island, after speaking to the owner and finding out their Chef actually knew what gluten was, as they had a regular Celiac patron from Savannah. Saturday nights aren't the best night for people with food allergies to eat out but, I made 7 pm reservations and then we arrived early and were seated right away. Good - we beat the dinner rush, giving the Chef time to prepare my food safely. The Hunter House is an old house that's been converted to an Inn downstairs with a restaurant below it. The dining rooms are three separate spaces, all quaintly decorated with eclectic art adorning the walls. The service was very casual for a place with such a gourmet menu but we don't like 'stuffy' places so that was fine by us. The wine list was fairly impressive as well, considering Tybee Island is not that upscale of a vacation destination, in comparison to Savannah.

As usual, when checking out the appetizer options on the menu, I thought I'd have to skip this course but I was happily surprised to learn that the Chef could make a cornmeal batter for his fried green tomatoes and cook them in a pan for me. There was some sort of chutney on top of the dish that we never figured out the ingredients of, but we both enjoyed this dish. My husband and I both ordered fish entrees and then argued about whose was the best! The Mediterranean Grouper my husband ordered was delicious to be sure, but my Halibut with apple wood smoked bacon and horseradish cream sauce, served over Boursin cheese mashed potatoes, accompanied by lime bean and tomato succotash was not to be believed. I tried to eat very slowly, to savor every was truly that fabulous! It was one of the best meals I've had outside Atlanta (in the US) since being gluten free. That's saying a whole lot, since it's sort of a hobby for me to seek out such meals these days.

Our dessert was unspectacular but still very good. We had milk chocolate creme brulee, for the first time I think. When you eat gluten free and like to have dessert out in the US, you eat a LOT of creme brulee so it was nice to have a different flavored one for a change. When we first found out we had to go to Savannah, all I could think of was how there was hardly a worst place for the family to choose for a reunion - for me anyway. However, after my delightful experiences at Gallery Espresso and The Hunter House, I'd go back in a flash...just not for a family!

It is possible to eat out safely gluten free - here's a way to get started.

Back when I was diagnosed with Celiac in early 2006, the food labelling laws had just changed, so wheat had to be listed if it was in any packaged food, in any form. This didn't take care of barley, rye or oats - but wheat is the largest problem I've run into, so the law made all our lives much easier, at least as far as deciphering food labels. But what to do when trying to eat out? That was by far the largest obstacle I had to overcome, once I was living gluten free. I don't remember how I found it, but something led me to Once there, I quickly ordered their gluten free dining guide and dining cards, and I'm so glad I did!

This book gave me hope that I really could find a way to eat out gluten free, at least in many places in the US. No, it would not be as easy as it was in many parts of Europe - and it may never be that easy here - but finding safe dining options was possible, thank goodness! This guide helped me tremendously in those early days of maneuvering through a world full of gluten, and I could not have gotten along without their gluten free dining cards. I had the 2006-07 edition but the new improved 2008-09 edition is even better! Even the dining cards have improved, with the addition of French, Greek and Italian options, which were not in the pack I ordered in 2006.

Of course everyone with Celiac knows that eating out is a risk. It's always going to be a risk, but your odds of eating safe meals go up sharply if you at least start by supporting restaurants that know what the word gluten means. That's where the Triumph Dining Guide comes in - it's divided by state, then cities and other ares within each state. It lists restaurants that offer gluten free menus and those that don't have such menus, but do have Chefs that know how to modify some of their dishes to be gluten free. The places listed have Chefs and employees that understand the term 'cross contamination', and that making the slightest mistake with the wrong cooking utensil might make someone sick for a week.

Like any such guide, the information printed was true at the time the book went to press, and could have changed since then. After all, restaurants get bought by new owners, Chefs quit (or get fired) and what's true today isn't always true tomorrow, regarding gluten free knowledge at each place listed in this guide. However, it will at least get you started, in looking for safe places to eat out at, in your corner of the country. For places that offer gluten free menus, the guide even has those printed in a special section in the back of the book! It lists websites when available, phone numbers and addresses. All you have to do is call to verify this info is still valid before showing up to eat there. And sure, you'll occasionally find places that might not should be listed in the book - like Johnny Carino's -who know nothing of gluten (at least in the Atlanta market). But much more often than not, the places listed in this guide are there for a reason. They deserved to be there because they are trying to safely accommodate gluten free diners. It makes good business sense to do so, since most places report their business increases from 5-10%, once they start offering gluten free meals.

If you don't already have this dining guide, and you are unsure of how to eat out safely, this might help you take that first step towards eating out gluten free. No matter how many times people tell you eating out safely is not possible, that is simply not true. It's hard to learn how to do it - just like it was hard to learn how to eat safely at home gluten free. However, it can be done - if you just put your mind to it, and use the tools available to you, which can point you in the right direction. Remember, the more of us going out asking for gluten free meals there are, the better off our entire community will be.

And please keep in mind that this dining guide can not possibly list every safe place in the US we can eat. That list changes daily, after all. Each month we are adding new places that we feel are safe to eat at in the Metro Atlanta market. I'm sure other cities are doing the same, more so when the gluten free community is rather large, as it is here. If you find a great place in your town that isn't in the Triumph Dining Guide - I'm sure they'd love to know about it!

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