When I’m at home, I no longer worry about eating gluten-free. After all, nothing with gluten comes into my house. Ever. When I step through the door of my upstairs apartment, I breathe easy. Here, I just feel alive. Here, I’m just thinking about what’s in season. Should I make millet or quinoa? Seafood or chicken? Soup, spontaneously? Ah, these are the decisions I love.
But traveling gluten-free can be a bit of a trial. After all, every cafe serves muffins, scones, and cookies. Certain restaurants beckon with bread or pizza. And airports are simply a nightmare.
So if you have to eat gluten-free, and you’re planning a trip soon, here are a few lessons I’ve learned lately, to make life a little easier.
Before this year, whenever I went traveling, I always packed my suitcases the morning of my trip. I’m not kidding. Even when I was going to London for six months on a 6 am flight, I was packing at midnight. But those days are over now. These days, I have to bring all my own products.
If I forget to pack my own toothpaste (I use Tom’s cinnamon at the moment), I just can’t be sure that the friend I’ll be staying with will have gluten-free paste for my teeth. If I forget my prescription Ibuprofen for my broken foot, which took me forty-five minutes to obtain at the drugstore because they had to call the manufacturer to make sure it didn’t contain gluten, then I have to rummage through my friend’s medicine cabinet. And then find that I can’t take that brand, and have to be in pain instead.
Long before the day I leave, I also go online to some of the celiac forums, and put up a question about traveling. Hey, I’m coming to your town. Where do you eat? What restaurants would you trust? Are there farmers’ markets anywhere near? Anyplace I should definitely avoid? People are enormously helpful at the Delphi forums, the Celiac.com forums, and the Brain Talk forums. I’ve had dozens and dozens of questions answered there. My Los Angeles trip was sprung on me so spontaneously that I didn’t have a chance to ask there, but I will before I go to New York or San Francisco.
(And if anyone is coming to Seattle, let me know.)
Pack your lunch.
I can guarantee you this: if you are going through an airport, there will be nothing there for you to eat. And I do mean nothing. Airports are filled with bad food anyway: greasy, breaded, and overpriced. But you’ll find, fairly quickly, that everything in airport stores and restaurants seems to have gluten in it. There are a few possible exceptions. Smoothie shacks seem to be sprouting up these days, and they probably don’t have gluten. But you never know. And unfortunately, the awareness level about gluten in airport concession stands isn’t high. It probably isn’t worth the risk.
And airplane food? Well, since they seem to have cut down on their meal service in general, it’s nothing but the little bags of pretzels and the roasted peanuts. Pretzels, obviously not. But even the peanuts are suspect. Some roasting methods for nuts involve gluten. And the peanut package I saw this weekend included MSG on the list. So there goes that. [Update from a reader, much appreciated: it’s now increasingly clear that MSG in products produced in the US no longer contain gluten. Whew. But you can’t be sure about the food made outside the US. And besides, I always have that icky reaction to MSG anyway. Why ruin a trip with that?]
But really, you’re not missing much. When was the last time you actually enjoyed food at the airport or while hunched into a narrow airline seat? Instead, pack yourself a beautiful packed lunch for the trip. While everyone else is looking miserable and wishing those packages of peanuts had been bigger, you can pull out pieces of sashimi, a bowl of potato soup, or a smoked salmon salad with quinoa. Or at the least, a Bumble bar and some kiwi fruit.
This weekend, I also packed a bag of food for my time at Sharon’s house. Now, if I know anything, I know that there will always be food at Sharon’s house. However, there was no guarantee that she’d have anything gluten-free simply laying around. Sharon loves cereal, and so do I. But since I’ve only found about five cereals in the world that I can eat (including the humiliating-for-me, but extra-tasty Peanut Butter Panda Puffs), the chances that she’d have any of them on hand was pretty slim. And since I’m used to waking up at 6 am every morning, I was always up for Sharon or Matt. Before our big breakfasts out, at 11 am, I’d feel a little peckish. That apple, or a handful of cashews, or some dried apricots, came in handy for the early morning. I just felt better, knowing that I wouldn’t have to go hours and hours without eating. You’ll have a much better trip if you do the same.
Bring a cell phone.
I can’t believe that I’m advocating cell phones. It took me years to buy one, and then only reluctantly. I dislike the way people talk about the most personal details of their life on a city bus, or shout in the middle of a store. We are becoming more boorishly behaved because of this new technology.
However, if you can’t eat gluten, and you are traveling, they are remarkably handy. How? Well, say you’d like to eat some scrumptious packaged dessert with your friend at the gourmet store. You look at the list of ingredients, and it looks fine. But how do you know? Well, every company seems to have a 1–800 number on the back of the package. Whip out your cell phone and call customer service. Tell them that you are on the verge of purchasing their fine product, but you need to know that you can eat it first. You’d be amazed at the alacrity with which they search for that information for you. If they are reluctant to tell you or ignorant of it, that’s good for you to know as well.
(And if you verify that a product is gluten-free, let me know. I’m starting a definitive list for this site.)
Choose your restaurants well.
You’re traveling. You’re going to be eating in restaurants. And that means a little bit of risk. Of course, you have to tell your waiter or waitress about your gluten allergy. If you’d like some tips on how to do this, check out the post I wrote on this during the summer. Hopefully, you’ll find a restaurant that already knows what gluten is, based on the recommendations of people online, or friends. And then hope for the best.
Or, you could make life even easier for yourself. I have found two categories of restaurants that deal with gluten-free diners far more easier than others.
1. Choose a small restaurant that truly cares about the quality of its food.
When I went to Angelina Osteria this past weekend, I knew I’d be fine when I saw the place. Warm, well-lit, and about twelve tables. With a small restaurant, renowned for its fresh, seasonal tastes, you’re also going to find chefs and waiters that truly know food, who care about food, deeply. They know what gluten is. They’ll direct you correctly. You may pay a little more than for a fast joint, but it’s worth it. First of all, you’ll have an intelligent waiter who will take time with you to make sure your dining experience is excellent. And secondly, the food will be far better. Don’t you want your eating experience to be memorable?
It helps if you go at a time of day that’s less busy than others. 5:30 for dinner, instead of 7. That way, they have the time to cater to you more carefully.
2. Choose cuisines that are naturally (more) gluten-free.
Don’t be a dummy. Don’t go to a pizza place and ask for anything gluten-free. Don’t go to a cheap pasta place and sulk because you can only eat a salad. Branch out. Try foods you wouldn’t normally eat, in cuisines that don’t use much gluten in the first place.
Indian food is your friend. Indians use lots of “alternative” flours, like chickpea, on a regular basis. And they have for hundreds of years. Avoid the naan, stick to the papadum (traditionally made with chickpea or lentil flour), ask if they use anything like asafoetida that could contain gluten, then dig in.
Thai food, with its constant use of rice and rice noodles, is one of the most illuminating foods in the world, dense with tastes and vibrant in the mouth. Just ask about their use of soy sauce and fish sauce, ask if they can use a clean wok, and then you can eat. [Further update, thanks to resourceful reader Tracy, much appreciated: be sure, as well, to ask if that restaurant uses Maggi sauce in their food. If so, tell them not to use it. For more explanation, check out the comments section on this post.]
Mexican food, especially the more authentic restaurants, use mostly corn tortillas. (Flour tortillas are mostly a gringo invention anyway.) Wheat flour doesn’t appear often. You still have to ask. You can’t assume. But you’re far more likely to find something scrumptious on the menu if you eat Mexican.
Seafood restaurants are likely to have something for us, pretty easily.
Vegetarian and vegan restaurants are much more urgently aware of food issues than traditional restuarants are. In my experience, waiters and chefs in vegetarian restaurants are fairly likely to be aware of what gluten is, and where it lurks. And they’re pretty universally friendly.
And then there’s Vietnamese food, which is one of my favorites. Just today, for lunch, I had an enormous bowl of pho soup with my new friend, Pete. (He’s just extraordinary. The only straight guy I have ever met who loves food, cooking, and kitchen implements as much as I do. We wave our hands in the air as we talk and laugh so hard we nearly choke. He’s an unexpected joy.) And I was struck anew, at how much I love this food, especially now that I’m gluten-free. Rice noodles floating in a beautiful broth, slender slivers of beef, crunchy sprouts, basil leaves, and peppers so hot they made Pete sweat out of his forehead. (Those are optional.) On a cold winter’s day, a bowl of Vietnamese pho is just glorious. There’s no suffering there.
Now, there is no avoiding this: every time you eat in a restaurant, you are taking your chances. This is why I don’t do it often. Gluten is hidden in almost everything, it seems. But if you choose your restaurants well, ask lots of questions, feel free to pester every employee in the place (because it’s your right, and you should), then you should be in pretty good shape.
Involve your friends in the process.
If my trip to Los Angeles hadn’t been a surprise for Sharon, I would have called her long in advance and asked if she could buy one of my gluten-free cereals for me. I would have asked if she could have some fruit or cheese or fresh vegetables already in the refrigerator. She would have been happy to oblige. (And those of you reading who can eat gluten? Remember this when you are the hostess as well.) We all want to feel welcomed. When someone buys me a gluten-free product, or bakes me gluten-free brownies, or even just says, “Hey, I noticed that PCC has quinoa pasta. Have you tried that yet?”, well, I just feel loved. And your friends should make you want to feel loved.
When Sharon and I went out to eat, I never demanded that she order something without gluten. That would have been rude. But because she loves to order two dishes and share (that way, we each have twice as many options), she simply decided to order dishes that would be gluten-free. Because of this, at every place we ate, I experienced a wealth of pleasure.
Accept your sorrow.
Here’s the deal. I have an amazingly cheerful attitude about this. So many of you mentioned this in your comments and emails, and you seem to be amazed. I can promise you, I’m not faking it. Discovering that I have celiac disease and that I can no longer eat gluten has bloomed into one of the biggest blessings of my life. I’ve never felt healthier. I’ve never eaten better. And I have this beautiful website, and all of you reading, because of it.
But you know what? Sometimes, the fact that I can’t eat gluten? It just sucks.
When Sharon and I walked into tiny bakeries or little cafes, I breathed in the smell of the fresh-baked bread, and I felt a catch in my throat. Silly as it may sound, I felt genuine grieving. Sometimes, it strikes me: my god, I’ll never eat bread again. And a little depression settles in my chest. Or horror. Or disbelief.
I’m never tempted to “cheat,” however, as some of you asked me. Who am I cheating but myself? I know exactly what gluten does to me, and it’s no good. And why would I want to spend my vacation feeling exhausted, cranky, wracked with headaches, and suffering from diarrhea for days? No thanks.
Instead, I simply accepted my sorrow. Instead of berating myself that I was being silly, I simply felt it. There’s a quote from Camus I love, one that informs me every single day: “The only way out is through.” If you truly just allow this sadness to arise, and don’t push it away, it dissipates immediately.
On Friday morning, Sharon and I were crossing the street on Sunset Boulevard. We had just ducked into a little bakery, filled with delicate pastries and beautiful breads. Sharon wanted a little sweet after lunch. I knew I couldn’t partake, but I was happy to go along. She bought two little lemon sugar cookies, crisp and slightly browned. So there we were, on the street, walking slowly to the sidewalk on the other side. And she bit into one of the cookies, and she exulted, “Oh my god, this cookie is so good.” She wasn’t trying to make me feel bad. She just couldn’t help it. Our entire lives of knowing each other, we’ve talked about our food, and how good it is. She just couldn’t stop. I know her voice well. I could tell from her tone just how good those cookies probably were. And for a moment, I felt lonely. Apart from her. And sad. But by the time we reached the curb, I was fine. There was so much goodness in the day. And besides, there I was at Sharon’s side. What was I going to do——sulk the day away and waste the time with her? No thanks. Instead, I felt it, then moved on.
I suggest you do the same.
Give yourself a treat.
All that being said, you deserve a little treat when you’re traveling. I seek out gourmet stores and farmers’ market. And when in doubt, when the money allows, I bought myself tidbits of food I wouldn’t normally eat. A Vietnamese coffee in the middle of the day. And at the Casbah Cafe, a package of dried apricot paste from Syria. I’ve never had it before, but now I’m addicted. This morning, I tried a small square of it with a semi-soft goat cheese rolled in basil. Oh my goodness, that was great. And I have to say, I think that singular taste would probably be far more memorable than the one of those cookies.
Still, I’m working on a gluten-free recipe for lemon-sugar cookies. After all, a little discipline breeds creativity.
So there you go. Just a few tips for gluten-free traveling. Have a good trip! And don’t forget to write.