When the airplane’s wheels left the land, I looked over to see Lu’s eyes wide. Danny and I both smiled. She has been on a lot of airplane trips, this kid, but not in awhile. This is the first time, it seems, she was able to take it in. Flying. We were actually flying in the air.
She didn’t say anything as we ascended. Higher, higher. The pressure built up in our ears but she didn’t cry. She looked out the window at the land receding behind us, the sky growing enormous. She watched, waiting. When we leveled off, starting our hours-long hum across the country, she looked at me and said, “Again!”
I still feel this way about flying, even after all these years. I love the anticipation, the time to read, the fact that I have to sit still while moving fast, and the destination in my mind. Flying I love.
Airports? Airports I hate.
It’s not just the fact that we’re herded with other exhausted and anxious travelers through lines, have to take off our shoes, endure the scolding looks of the TSA agent if we forgot to take the kids’ sunscreen out of our carry-on bag, or get patted down if we wear an underwire bra through the scanner and all the alarms go blatting. It’s not the fact that the gate where you will board your plane never seems to have enough seats for all the passengers so you always seem to be sitting on the floor with tired arms and bags spread around you. It’s not the fact that the air in airports smells like fatigue and too many farts in one place.
You know what I hate about airports? Generally, there is nothing for me to eat.
Danny, Lu, and I were in Washington D.C. last week for the Eat Write Retreat. I was honored to speak and meet with some of my favorite people in the world. (Carol Blymire, you are it.) Danny had never been to that city, so he was perpetually amazed. We visited Julia Childs’ kitchen at the Smithsonian, and as was to be expected, I cried. (Never, when I was a little kid watching Julia cut up chickens or introduce me to lobster, did I imagine I would be standing just outside her kitchen with my husband who is a chef and my cookbook editor. Never.) Lu rode her first merry-go-round and the joy on her face when the horse first started to move made me and Danny both break out in glee for our chance to know this kid. We walked and gawked and talked with friends and fell in love with that city, particularly when Bonnie and Tom drove us past all the gleaming monuments at night.
Plus, we ate well (and safely) in some of the better restaurants we have dined at in awhile: clean and deeply flavored Indian food at Rasika; steak and frites at Medium Rare; gluten-free flatbread pizza at Birch and Barley; and possibly one of the best meals our life together at Bibiana, an extraordinary modern Italian restaurant that should be receiving far more attention than it is. Wow. We ate with new and old friends, laughed, and lavished in food I knew was gluten-free. Also, we roasted sausages and marshmallows for s’mores with gluten-free graham crackers over the fire pit at Carol’s house. All night long I smelled of campfire smoke, roast pork, and dark chocolate. I could not have been happier.
Then it was time to leave.
We were sad to leave our friends and the fine frenzy of activity we had been living in for nearly a week. More than that, I dreaded the time at the airport.
Have you ever walked through an airport with an eye focused on the food you can eat? Sure, everyone knows airports have pretty lousy food, and overpriced at that. However, the next time you are in an airport, I challenge you to find something that is not in a sandwich, breaded, fried, or without any gluten at all. Most of the time, that means a salad with slightly rusty leaves and a tub of ranch dressing with 22 ingredients. Yogurt. Bananas. If you also try to find a meal that doesn’t contain xanthan gum or food dyes or artificial sweeteners — if you want real food — you’re pretty much left with that banana.
And it’s mushy and spotted, at that. But gosh, you’re grateful for that banana.
However, if your flight is delayed (because the airline forgot to check if the pilot was over his hours for the month until the plane had pulled away from the gate) and you are forced to spend hours in an airport, then a hotel that night, and then fly out the next day, with a four-hour layover in Atlanta when you live in Seattle? That banana is going to start looking kind of sad.
Being gluten-free in an airport really stinks.
Luckily, I’m fine. We had nearly a week of eating well and a couple of days of scrounging and going hungry (me, not Danny and Lu). For lack of any other choices, I had to take some chances: a cobb salad at an airport tavern (the waiter knew what gluten-free meant, but the chances for cross-contamination were rife); room service at the airport hotel (I grilled that poor kitchen guy over the phone to scare him into giving me something safe); snacks here and there. I came home feeling okay, but not great. I’m pretty sure I caught some cross-contamination somewhere.
I’m telling you this story not to complain but as part of a continuing series we are doing here in May. If you are new to gluten-free, how do you negotiate travel?
First of all, you have to admit this to yourself: it’s going to be hard.
Lately, I’ve been wondering why we have come to accept such a low standard of food in public places. Airports. Train stations. Hospitals. Schools. I firmly believe we are what we eat. And who we are in transition times tell us who we are too.
If that’s true, what does the airport tell us about our culture?
You’re not going to find much gluten-free food, or even anything healthy, in most airports.
You have to plan ahead. Pack your own food, if you can. (That’s easier when leaving from home than coming back.) Scout out locations in specific airports that might have a smoothie place, a menu that includes fresh vegetables, something other than packaged crap. Ask this on Twitter. It’s amazing the answers you’ll receive.
Eat where you can. Believe it or not, Wendy’s has a gluten-free menu. Listen, I’m no big fan of fast food. However, when you’re hungry and stuck in airport, a baked potato with broccoli and cheese and a salad with avocado ranch dressing sounds pretty good. Also, I’m not a big fan of packaged foods, but Frito-Lay has gone to good lengths to be aware of special dietary needs. And recently, they have been testing their snacks with an analytical test called R-Biopharm RIDASCREEN Gliaden/Gluten, the test recommended by the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program. Fritos, which are only made of corn, oil, and salt, are gluten-free. Believe me, they have come in handy for me before.
You know that airplanes don’t seem to serve food anymore, so there’s no point in expecting a gluten-free meal. However, some airlines are better than others. I’m thrilled that Alaska Airlines has started selling a gluten-free snack pack on its flights. They sent us one a couple of months ago to see what we thought. Olives, hummus, multi-grain crackers, almonds, a fruit leather, and dark chocolate? Yes, please. I wish we were flying on Alaska each time we travel this summer, just for that pack.
Also, the ease of your eating seems to depend on the airport you land in. When I was down in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I was astonished to see an organic cafe and a Napa farmers’ market stand in the middle of the airport. There, I’d have no problem. Even better, when we were in Atlanta on a four-hour layover, thanks to the recommendation of our friend Jenifer, we went to One Flew South. In a week of astonishing meals, this was one of the best. This restaurant, on the E concourse behind the security gates, serves regional food made with local ingredients, organic where possible. I had a fresh vegetable sushi roll with microgreens grown within 100 miles of the airport. We loved the Chinese five-spice fries, the Benton’s bacon and goat cheese salad with frisee, and the red wine and ginger poached pears with vanilla mascarpone.
I’m not kidding. I ate that in an airport.
Our server not only understood how to feed me safely, but he said, “You know, the last three years, since this place opened, we have seen more and more people coming in who are celiac and need to be fed gluten-free. Something has shifted. It’s clear this one is here to stay.”
Four years ago, when Danny and I returned from our honeymoon in Italy, we had a long layover in Atlanta. I searched for 2 hours to find anything I could eat. I still grew sick.
This week, I ate at One Flew South. Things are definitely improving.
We have to keep pushing to make sure they keep growing better.
I found everyone’s suggestions so helpful when we were stranded in Baltimore. Let’s help the new folks, or someone just traveling gluten-free. Leave your suggestions for food to pack, places to eat, ways to stave off the hunger and still be safe. What are the restaurants you hit in specific airports across this country or in other parts of the world? We would never have found One Flew South without our friend’s suggestion. Let’s help others the same way.
As much as I loved that meal at One Flew South, I don’t need complex meals in an airport to make me feel well fed. When we leave for Austin on Wednesday (I’m speaking twice at the IACP conference and honored to be doing so), I am taking a container of this potato salad with me for the plane.
One of the secrets to this potato salad is baking the potatoes instead of boiling them. I’ve never thought to do this before. However, when I read David Lebovitz’s accounting of his time in Atlanta for the Blogher Food conference, my eye stayed on this section: “…a simple, but excellent baked potato salad. I never thought of baking rather than boiling the potatoes, and I’m going to try that next time I whip up a batch of salade de pommes de terre.” Um, hello? I love David and if he thought it was good, we were trying it. Danny put potatoes into the oven that afternoon.
I’m never going back. The potatoes in this salad are soft without being too starchy. Using Yukon golds meant there was still a bit of a bite. And using dried dill gave the salad a certain depth, while the fresh dill made it taste like summer. This salad would make an unexpected layover at an airport taste like satisfaction.
12 medium Yukon gold potatoes
3 stalks celery, cut in half lengthwise and diced
2 spring onions, white bulbs cut in half lengthwise and diced
1 cup mayonnaise
2 heaping tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons dried dill (we don’t like most dried herbs, but we really do like this one from McCormick Gourmet)
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fine-chopped fresh dill
3 sour pickles, sliced (optional)
Baking the potatoes. Preheat the oven to 350°. Wrap the potatoes in tin foil. Bake them until they are soft to your squeezing touch, about 90 minutes to 2 hours. Unwrap the tin foil and allow the potatoes to cool completely.
Making the potato salad. Dice each potato into quarters. Put the potatoes into a large bowl. Add the celery and onions.
Combine the mayonnaise, mustard, and dried dill. Toss the potato mixture with this mayonnaise. (If you are using the pickle slices, add them here.)
Season with salt and pepper. Taste. Season again if necessary.
Add the fresh dill into the salad and toss. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving. It’s even better the second day.