Sherpa’s Colon: Celiac

Yeah, so that’s weird. Sherpa’s colon. Talking about the colon is probably not among the things you do on a daily basis. But in our house, we talk about Sherpa’s belly pretty much daily. And it usually goes like this:

Me: “How is your belly?”

Sherpa: “Bad.”

Me: “WHY?”

Sherpa: “I don’t know.”

For some reason I take personal offense to this sometimes. I know it sounds crazy. I think it has to do with how concerned I am for his health and how hard we both work to make sure he doesn’t get glutened. I am constantly reminding him to ask restaurant servers about the way they prepare their food. We even set up a system for using the toaster so that his gluten-free bread doesn’t touch the shelf where I toast english muffins. But I wish I could do more to make sure he isn’t miserable all the time.

You probably have noticed a lot of gluten-free menu items popping up at restaurants lately. You might think this is a good thing, but take this story into consideration:

Recently our favorite local restaurant started offering gluten-free pasta. Huzzah! we thought, and Sherpa ordered gluten-free spaghetti and ate it with gusto – that is, until his fork unearthed a piece of regular penne. We asked the restaurant manager if they boiled ALL of the pasta in the same water, and it turned out that they did – they just hadn’t thought that made a difference. And this happens all the time.

The fact that there are a lot  of people embracing a gluten-free diet just because they don’t WANT to eat gluten is a blessing and a curse to the Sherpa. Just the other day someone emailed me a coupon for a restaurant who was launching gluten-free pizzas. I sent it to Sherpa, and the first thing he did was call the restaurant to ask how they bake the pizza. Then he told me that their response was that they “brush off” the racks in the oven before putting the gluten-free pizzas in. They just don’t know that for people with serious Celiac disease, that won’t work.

Sherpa and I have talked about how to respectfully communicate with restaurants about offering truly gluten-free foods. He put together a letter that I want to share here in case it is ever helpful to anyone out there wanting to write to a restaurant with some information. Here is the email he wrote to that pizza joint:

I just spoke with one of your employees about your new gluten-free pizza offerings. Thank you for making the effort to offer gluten-free products. I do have a concern about the way in which they are prepared. I was told that your pizzas are cooked on the same surface as regular pizzas after the oven had been brushed off. For those of us who have serious allergies to gluten, this will still cause an adverse reaction. I realize that gluten-free preparation is a new concept for most restaurants as I run into issues with accidental mistakes quite a bit. Actually, I was just at a restaurant that offered gluten free pasta and they were cooking it in the same water as regular pasta simply because they didn’t realize that would cause a problem. There are a ton of little “gotchas” that most people would not even think to ask about preparation of gluten-free meals and I’m sure those issues are magnified in a commercial setting. There is a great online course for restaurants that teaches about gluten-free preparation in a commercial environment: http://www.celiaccentral.org/kitchens/
I do recommend that you advise people ordering the gluten-free pizza that it is prepared on the same surface as regular pizza. I have talked with a lot of restaurants about gluten-free preparation in an admittedly selfish attempt to be able to eat at more restaurants. If you have any questions, feel free to email or call me and I’d be happy to talk with you.

And while we’re at it, here’s a Google blog search result page for “gluten free.”

July Restaurant Tour: Parc, Half Moon, Sips Bistro & Bar

We ate dinner out a lot in July. I am definitely not a paid food critic, but I like to talk about good food that we find and here are a few places I recommend if you’re in the Philly area:

1. Parc: A french place by the famed Philadelphia restaurateur Steven Starr. I celebrated my birthday at this restaurant with wonderful friends. Parc is one of Starr’s first Philly restaurants but I’d never had dinner there before. It was a casual and fun place to eat great French food. It’s right next to Rittenhouse square, so you’re in the heart of everything Philadelphia, too.

We had an enormous shellfish platter and gazpacho and a cheese plate, and I had scallops for dinner. Sherpa was able to get gluten-free food with no trouble (he had duck). One thing I liked particularly were the interesting cocktails. The French 75 was a recommendation that did not disappoint! I ordered macarons for dessert, and then they also came out with a pot de creme with a sparkler in it for my birthday – fun times!

2. Half Moon: a restaurant in Kennett Square known for its wild game meats. This is a destination that Sherpa had talked about many times, and it’s off the beaten path for us so I planned a surprise day trip for Sherpa’s birthday that included wine tasting at Galer (Go there! Beautiful tasting room!), Flickerwood, and Paradocx and then dinner at Half Moon. Their food was excellent, and they had a gluten-free menu. We had a wild game sampler: kangaroo, alpaca, and rabbit sausage. I had buffalo soft tacos and also a buffalo burger, and Sherpa had an elk burger. We had a flourless chocolate lava cake for dessert, too, and then I didn’t need to eat for days. We were able to sit on the upstairs open air patio, which has its own bar and had beautiful hanging plants all over, and the weather was perfect. One tip: don’t go for the wine. I ended up choosing a BEER – egads! – after tasting the wine.

3. Sips Bistro & Bar: a new French place in our own little Phoenixville! We ate here last night on their 6th day in business. Sherpa had gotten to know the owner, Fabien, and was helping a bit with getting the restaurant going. Sips opened in the building that used to be the Moon Saloon, which was apparently an unsavory yet very beloved bar. The building is beautiful and it has been unoccupied for a long time so it was amazing to see it occupied again and hear what kinds of improvements they made. We sat outside on the patio and had salade au fruit de mer and salade de chevre chaud. I chatted with Fabien en francais, which always makes me happy. Our server spoke French, too, and it turns out we have a lot in common because we were both English and French majors in college. I can see us spending a lot of time there. They are BYOB – for now – so go check it out and bring a bottle!

Braving Barcelona

I am inspired to write this story because I’ve been fondly remembering it and then Sherpa decided to make paella for dinner tonight. Most often, if you ask someone who has been to Barcelona tips about the traveling there, you’ll be warned to watch your wallet. Apparently Barcelona is known as the pickpocket capital of the world. I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories. And I just Googled “pickpocketing rates Barcelona” and got 1.5 million search results. So when Sherpa and I spent a few days there, we were hypervigilant of my purse and his wallet.

We had to be even more careful when we split up for a few hours. He wanted to try gambling at the casino, and I just didn’t feel like going back (yes, we’d tried to go together the day before and they wouldn’t let us in to the table games area without passports). So, after a long hike through Parc Guell, then wine tasting, then more Gaudi tourism at the Gaudi house, then a long hike to the Miro Foundation, we parted ways on the subway. We wouldn’t be able to communicate because we assumed he wouldn’t be able to get wi-fi in the casino. We agreed to meet across town at the restaurant where we planned to have dinner in a few hours, Tapeo (which was recommended to us by the woman working at the wine shop we went to, Clos Mont-Blanc).

As soon as he was gone from the car I was like a crazy drone spy, eyeing up everyone, yet trying to pretend I belonged. Do I look Spanish? Do I look like a student? I wondered. Of course I didn’t. I looked like a 31-year-old American tourist, trying not to freak out in the Barcelona subway. I had a death grip on my purse. I made it to my stop, Fontana. I got off and walked, crazy drone spy, back to our hotel. Leg 1, SUCCESS.

Not long after I got back to the hotel, my phone buzzed with an email notification. “At casino, bored, ready to head to dinner! :)” So, I got ready and headed back to the subway. CRAZY DRONE SPY! DEATH GRIP ON PURSE! NO ONE CAN ROB ME, I AM THE SMARTEST TOURIST ON THE PLANET.

Sherpa considers letting his guard down at El Xampanyet.

I got off at my stop, Jaume, which I was already familiar with because we’d walked around the neighborhood the day before to go to the Picasso museum. I started walking to the restaurant, amidst a sea of people, and about 4 blocks from the restaurant I see walking down the street a Sherpa, walking and staring up at the street signs, looking confused. It was just the funniest feeling to run into him in the street in Barcelona. Also it was pretty funny to be watching him while he had no clue I was there. I stepped in front of him so he had to stop and recognize me, and it was quite a reunion. LEG 2, SUCCESS.

We started our night with cava at El Xampanyet, which was a really fun cava joint full of locals having a drink before dinner, and then we had dinner at Tapeo right across the street, where we had amazing wine and tapas.  Here are some of the things we ate/drank: Toro (a local Spanish red wine), pork rib with honey mustard, sausage and beans, tomatoes and fresh cheese with olive oil and balsamic, lentils, chocolate mousse, vanilla creme brulee, and great Spanish coffee. The owner, Chris, was English and we had a great time chatting with him, too. We were also glad to have someone English-speaking to relieve some stress about gluten-free dining. He was very helpful.

So, that’s that. We spent several fun-packed days in BCN and did not get robbed. We were lucky, but I hope that our vigilance actually had something to do with it.

Gluten-Free Dining Disaster

I am fired up about something that happened last night. I am fired up, and I’m not even the one with Celiac Disease. I think last night’s experience tops every other gluten-free dining mishap I’ve seen in the last 2.5 years Sherpa and I have been together. Other mishaps Sherpa has had include ordering mashed potatoes that turn out to have wheat in them, ordering foods that have sauces with hidden wheat in them, ordering burgers with no bun and the bun comes anyway. His symptoms seem to be getting more severe lately, so he has even stopped ordering fries if he knows the restaurant is frying breaded foods in the same fryer. And if he knows bread has touched his food, he’s been asking for a completely new meal. Quick refresher, when someone with Celiac Disease eats wheat, it inflames/damages the cilia in the intestines, preventing them from absorbing nutrients and causing pain and bad GI symptoms — for about 2 weeks, or at least that’s about how long it takes for Sherpa to feel better.

So, Sherpa and I went to a show last night at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. Before the show, we met up with my brother and sister-in-law at the restaurant across the street, the Waterford Inn. Granted, this restaurant is very old school and the servers probably have never heard of Celiac. But our server treated us incredibly poorly on ALL levels, so I just had to tell the story. Sherpa and I both ordered a salad with grilled chicken – “no croutons!”, which we repeated twice and our waitress repeated back to us while apparently writing it down.

Half an hour later when we are starving and our salads finally arrive, I poke through mine to check for croutons. This was of course after I had moved the toothpick-speared green olive from my salad to his, ’cause I know he likes olives. Anyway, I check for croutons and my first forkful of lettuce yields a crouton.

“Aaah!” I yelp, and show him my fork. Defeated, he drops his fork into the salad.

“I can’t eat this!” We call the server over and remind her we asked for no croutons, and while it doesn’t matter for me, he can’t have them in the salad. She just swipes his salad and is off with it.

Not even a minute later, she comes back with a “new” salad and drops it on the table. Right away I see two green olives on toothpicks.

“Is this the same salad with the croutons taken out?” I ask.

“No, it’s a new salad,” she says. Oh, it’s on, bitch.

“Yes it is! The olive that I took off my salad is still in it!” Liar McLiarson is caught, and now she’s pissed.

“Well, what do you want, a whole new salad?!” she asks us, like we are the most inconvenient table she’s ever had.

“Yes – he has a food allergy to wheat,” (technically a lie, but she started it) “and bread can’t touch his food.” She swipes the salad away again in disgust.

She comes back again with a “new” salad, and I try to make sure to ask her if the restaurant has a salad mix with croutons already in it, but she has run off before I can. Sherpa tells us he feels bad making a scene like this and we assure him that it it NOT his fault. I am also still worried that she dressed up the same salad, because there are flecks of bread-looking substance on the black olives. I start combing over the olives and pecking off the crumbs to test them, and they taste bready to me, but by now Sherpa is ravenous and angry and cares less about knowing for sure than he does about getting some food in him. He eats the salad.

When we can finally flag her down again, I ask if the restaurant uses a salad mix that comes with croutons in it, and she says, “No, there are NO croutons in that salad!” Very helpful.

I ask Sherpa, “What would Laura do?” because our friend Laura is an amazingly diplomatic complainer. “She would have the manager over here right now!” Sherpa shakes his head; he doesn’t want to go that far. He and my brother go to the bar and he leaves me to do what I will with the bill. I give her a 10% tip and write on the tab, “Please don’t lie to customers with severe food allergies!”

Too far? Not far enough? Anyone else out there with Celiac who have dealt with this situation want to chime in?

(Image via.)

“Can I eat this?”

Dating someone with “special food needs” has been interesting. My Sherpa has celiac disease and cannot eat wheat, barley, or rye. I’m sure I learned it on our first date, if not when we first met, because it’s a big deal. I remember asking him many questions. Now when he tells people I notice they all ask the same questions: How long? What does it mean? How did you figure it out? What happens to you? Can you eat potatoes? Rice? Corn? Oats? He very patiently explains it every time.

I won’t get into all the details for his sake, but it affects his life pretty significantly and his gluten free needs have changed the way I eat, too. And when I cook for him I have to be really careful to read labels. And he’s forever asking, “Can I eat this?”

There are SO MANY things that have gluten in them that you would never think do. Tootsie rolls. Soy sauce. Wild rice. Corn bread. One little slip and he’s paying for it for days to weeks. And sometimes even when you’re careful you get screwed. We went out for Mexican food in Ohio and shared chips and salsa. “Are these corn chips?” “Yes,” they answered, although over the next couple of days we realized that they hadn’t been. Poor dude.

Even I mess it up for him, sometimes. I picked up dinner from Whole Foods not long ago, and as I was carefully building his plate I saw something that looked up his alley – it had kidney beans and tomatoes in it and said “Seitan” on the sign. I thought it was tofu. I was trying so hard!

Well. Tofu it was not. Only after a couple of bites did he ask, “Can I eat this?”

“Uh… actually… it’s called seitan but now that I think about it, I don’t know what that is.” No!

Out came the iPhones. “Seitan ingredients.”

Results? “Vegetarian wheat meat.”

Damn.