Lessons From the Road

I’m back from my book tour for THE DAMAGE DONE! The past couple of months have been a whirlwind. My debut novel came out on September 28th, and I had a party that night in New York City. Since then, I’ve attended two conferences (Bouchercon and Noircon), had bookstore and/or library events in a dozen cities (including Houston, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Pittsburgh and Toronto), and had six events in New York City alone. Also, I was writing my second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, which will be published by Forge in fall 2011 (I turned the manuscript in to my editor last Wednesday). There’s been a lot of work on the publicity front, too. This past weekend, I was honored to discover that the Los Angeles Times featured THE DAMAGE DONE as one the the books the paper is recommending for the holidays. Reviews of the book have been wonderful. There are also a number of interviews with me (many include coverage of the Gluten-Free Guidebook as well).

As tiring as it is to be on the road so much, there was a lot that was wonderful about it, too. I’ve had the chance to collect information about a lot of great restaurants, bakeries and shops, and I’ll be writing about those over the next few weeks. I also had the chance to meet some Gluten-Free Guidebook readers, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. Some observations from the last few weeks:

  • Phoenix/Scottsdale Is a Great Destination for Gluten-Free Foodies: I was expecting to find terrific Mexican cooking here (and I found it), but I didn’t realize just how diverse and sophisticated the dining scene is in Phoenix and Scottsdale. One tip-off: Phoenix Magazine, which had its “Best New Restaurants” issue on newsstands while I was in town; its list of hotspots included the Pomegranate Café ([address] 4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Suite 28, Phoenix [tel] 480-706-7472 [web] www.pomegranatecafe.com), which offers vegetarian, vegan, and raw dishes. Not everything there is gluten-free (there are spelt tortillas, for example), but most of it is, including a decadent cheesecake.
  • People Are Very Kind: I was surprised, over and over again, by how thoughtful people were. Just after I arrived in San Francisco, a writer friend (Joshua Corin, author of WHILE GALILEO PREYS) sent me a message about a gluten-free bakery he’d found in the Ferry Building (the wonderful Mariposa Baking Co., which I’ll have more to say about later). Before I went to Los Angeles, another writer friend (Rebecca Cantrell, author of A NIGHT OF LONG KNIVES) recommended a restaurant across the street from The Mystery Bookstore, where I was reading. A friend of a friend passed along recommendations for Houston. In Pittsburgh, the lovely couple that owns Mystery Lovers Bookshop researched gluten-free restaurants in the area so that they could take me out to dinner while I was in town. While I was in Phoenix/Scottsdale, I got to meet the lovely Liisa (who wrote a Reader Report about her trip to Hawaii a while back), and she gave me a list of very accommodating local restaurants.
  • Still, Never Travel Unprepared: My hotel in Houston, the Four Points Sheraton, left a lot to be desired. That was especially true on the food front. As one employee said to me, when I started to ask about gluten-free options: “What, do you want me to explain what’s in a steak to you?” I was very glad I had protein bars, pistachios, and fruit along with me.
  • Fast Food Chains Are Catching On: At Houston’s Hobby Airport, my only dining option turned out to be Wendy’s, which offers gluten-free salads. At Philadelphia’s Central Station, I was able to pick up dinner at Cosi. At Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, I was able to have dinner at Paradise Bakery Café. To tell the truth, the employees at each of these places didn’t know what gluten-free was and had to get a manager, but each turned out to have a list (in Cosi’s case, a giant binder) of nutritional information for people with food allergies or gluten intolerance.

*          *          *

If you’d like to read THE DAMAGE DONE, the first three chapters are available for free online. The book is available from independent mystery booksellers across North America, as well as from IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & NobleBordersPowell’s, and — in Canada — Indigo/Chapters. Signed copies are available from The Mystery BookstoreMurder by the BookThe Poisoned Pen, and The Mysterious Bookshop.

On the Road With Author Rebecca Cantrell

According to her website, “a few years ago Rebecca Cantrell quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Hawaii to write a novel because, at seven, she decided that she would be a writer.” It turns out that was a very wise idea. Cantrell’s debut novel, A Trace of Smoke, was widely acclaimed when it was published in 2009, and it went on to win the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Its sequel, A Night of Long Knives, came out in June (both novels are published by Forge, which is also my publisher). Thanks to Twitter, I discovered that she is also on a gluten-free diet, and since she was just on a book tour across the U.S., it seemed like a terrific time to talk to her about it. For more information about Rebecca Cantrell’s books, check out her website.

I read A Trace of Smoke and loved it. Your new novel, A Night of Long Knives is waiting in my TBR pile. For people who haven’t encountered the Hannah Vogel mysteries yet, how would you describe the books?
I’m glad to hear that you loved it! The Hannah Vogel books follow one woman through pre-World War II Berlin. Hannah tries to fight the Nazi Party, protect those she loves and bring out the stories of those being crushed by the rising regime. They are painstakingly researched literary historical mysteries. And they have some funny bits too.

You’ve written a book for young adults as well, under the name Bekka Black. Can you tell us about that?
I certainly can! My next project is called iDrakula. It’s a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula using only text messages, voicemails, emails, photos, and web browsers—basically it’s as if you stole Mina Murray’s cell phone and read through it to watch her unmask and battle Dracula. It’s not just a new storytelling method, though, it’s also a brand new delivery system: iDrakula comes out first on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (in a week, I can hardly believe it’s finally almost here!) and then as a beautifully designed print book. The early reviews are quite positive, and Kirkus Reviews says: “Black brings Bram into the modern age with e-mails, smart phones and websites, all while preserving the brooding heart and vicious nature of Dracula, the literary ur-vampire….Mina’s heartfelt final e-mail to Lucy blends a traditional goodbye with the ephemeral nature of today’s digital technology.”

How long have you been on a gluten-free diet, and how difficult was the transition for you?
I’ve been on a wheat- and oat-free diet for about 13 months, and the transition was awful! The first two weeks all I did was mope around in mourning for bread and pastries. Then I got hold of myself and started trying to discover what I could eat, which must have been plenty as I’m still around.

You were on your book tour for A Night of Long Knives recently. Was that your first big trip since going on the gluten-free diet? How did you prepare for it?
It was my first long trip since I found out. I’ve done 4-5 day stints, but for the A Night of Long Knives tour I was away from home for a month. I stocked up on Zone bars (peanut butter) and made myself a few bags of my favorite snack food (dried apricots, pecans, and dark chocolate chips). Then I resigned myself to eating a lot of chicken Caesar salad, since most restaurants have it and so long as I skip the croutons I can actually eat it.

The thing that was the hardest was explaining to everyone I ordered food from that I was really allergic to wheat and oat and tomatoes (plus a variety of other stuff). It got very old, very fast and I constantly felt like Sally from When Harry Met Sally. Almost everyone was really wonderful about it, but I hate asking for special meals even though I pretty much have to these days.

Where did you go on your book tour, and were there any restaurants and/or hotels that did a really great job at taking care of a gluten-free guest? I seem to remember you tweeting about a castle in Colorado…
I hit 10 cities: Phoenix, Arizona; Encino and Westwood, CA (Los Angeles area); San Diego, CA; San Mateo and Tiburon (San Francisco area); New York; Chicago; Milwaukee; and Denver.

Au Bon Pain in Westwood (right across the street from The Mystery Bookstore) had a great quinoa salad that was quick, tasty, and filling. Bar Breton in Manhattan had tons of gluten-free items clearly marked on their menu (hooray!). And Castle Marne in Denver went out of their way to make me a tasty gluten-free breakfast: from my own scones to my own bread. It was all delicious and I was very touched! I also have to thank Jerrle Gericke who made me delicious gluten-free peanut butter cookies when I stayed with her. She gave me a box to take with me and that helped me through those hours I was stuck in O’Hare airport.

What was the toughest thing about traveling gluten-free?
Until I realized I was allergic to wheat, I never noticed how many events have only wheat foods. So, it’s tough when you go to your special debut author breakfast and they have a wide selection of muffins, croissants, and pastries you can’t eat. Often this gets followed up by lunchtime events filled with tons of sandwiches and then a few wraps that you can’t eat either. I ended up eating a lot of Zone bars and fruit. The worst experience was when I was stuck in the LaGuardia airport for several unplanned hours and the only thing I found I could eat was a boiled egg (man, was I ever grateful for that egg!) and I’d run out of my own snacks because it was near the end of my tour.

What things do you always bring with you when you travel?
My apricot/pecan/chocolate chip trail mix, my iPhone (cannot travel without it. I even dedicated iDrakula to my phone), my netbook, and a couple of pashminas.

You live in Hawaii, which is many readers’ dream destination. Have you found restaurants/shops near you that you’d recommend to others?
I like the Keei Café up in Kainaliu. Their buckwheat noodles are gluten free and tasty, but their open hours are odd, so it’s best to check before you go.

What’s your own dream destination to visit?
Berlin in 1931. Failing that, Berlin now. And Barcelona. And China. Also Japan. Really anywhere with good food and soft pillows.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? Also, any readings or conference appearances coming up?
Pack a meal before you leave the house and be prepared to spend hours more at the airport and on the plane than you think (after I was delayed on my way to Chicago, I got delayed again on the way out and this time we were stuck in the plane for three hours with only those snack boxes full of wheaty treats to eat). Of the 10 flights I took, two were delayed by more than three hours.

As for appearances, I’ll be at Bouchercon in San Francisco from October 14-17 and also will be launching iDrakula at the Books, Inc. book store in the Laurel Heights area of San Francisco at 5 pm on October 17. Please come! If they let me serve food, at least some of it will be gluten-free!

On the Road With Crime Writer BV Lawson

Book Cover
Thanks to the wonder that is modern technology (okay, it was Twitter), I discovered that crime writer BV Lawson is on a gluten-free diet. BV is a former classical musician turned radio announcer turned writer who also worked for the Discovery Channel for over a decade. Now a full-time freelancer based in Arlington, Virginia, she’s penned radio and television scripts, articles for various publications, and won awards for her more than two dozen published stories and poems. (Check out her delightful “Gun Love” in Plots With Guns.) Thanks to the influence of library genes handed down from her mother, she created the blog In Reference to Murder which contains over 3,000 links for mystery readers and writers. She’s currently working on a series of novels set in various locations in and around the mid-Atlantic; be sure to visit her author site.

How long have you been on a gluten-free diet? Unfortunately, I only discovered the problem relatively recently, was in denial for awhile, then finally settled in to the full gluten-free lifestyle about two years ago. It’s been quite an adjustment.

How often do you travel? As often as possible, which isn’t often enough! My husband is a private pilot, so we rent a little Cessna 172 and fly whenever we can.

Where have you traveled since going gluten-free? Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, the eastern shore on the Delmarva Peninsula, and other areas of Virginia. Would love to go back to Europe or the Caribbean someday soon.

What foods or snacks do you usually pack when traveling? When I was in Florida recently for a night shuttle launch, we had a little mini-kitchen, so I took gluten-free instant oatmeal, instant grits, individual applesauce containers, cereal, juice, nuts, fruit and some chocolate (natch!). Breakfasts are the hardest due to all those “free continental” things they have in hotels these days, which are basically gluten gluts.

What other things do you always bring with you? Laptop computer, books, a little writing pad that fits in my purse for story ideas, a heating pad (can’t live without that – it’s great for emergencies), and unfortunately compression socks, thanks to a couple of rounds with blood clots. That leads me off on a bit of a tangent, but I believe it’s gluten related:  because I lived with a gluten problem for so long and didn’t realize it (in hindsight, it was very easy to see), it led to a whole host of health “annoyances.” Gluten problems are often linked with autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (which I have), fibromyalgia (which I have); plus, an acquired autoimmune condition can also lead to blood clots. My unscientific (but valid, I think) hypothesis is that gluten caused all the immune problems, which in turn led to the clots. I wish we could develop a good reliable gluten test to give to young people to prevent things like this later on in life.

Any favorite restaurants you’ve discovered on the road? What about in your town? We ate at a wonderful little hole-in-the wall restaurant in Melbourne, Florida, called the Thai Thai. I love Thai cuisine because they don’t use wheat much at all, except soy sauce, and I ordered some gluten-free soy sauce travel packets off the Internet. I’m also a big sushi fan. We have a wonderful pizza joint in Arlington called the Lost Dog Cafe, which the hubster and I have loved for years. When I went gluten-free, I had to salivate while I watched him eat the pizza, trying to enjoy my salad. Recently, they added gluten-free crusts, and I am in heaven. Another popular area pizza restaurant, Z Pizza, also recently added GF crusts, and I’m looking forward to trying them.

Any favorite hotels? It’s a little silly to choose a hotel due to its breakfast options, but Hampton Inns generally have a larger GF choice in their complimentary breakfast bar. We stayed at the Doubletree in Melbourne and loved it – all rooms are ocean view and we could open the sliding glass door to the patio and let the surf sounds waft through all night. Wonderfully soothing. My secret dream is to stay in one of those ritzy island getaways with your own private infinity-edge pool looking over the ocean.

Favorite city/destination that is not your hometown or current home base? From my childhood/teen years, I still have fond memories of the Bay of Fundy area and Prince Edward Island, as well as Florence, Italy. My husband is a diver, so we’ve enjoyed places like Bonaire together. We took an astronomy trip to Arizona in 2003 and fell in love with the desert southwest, including Tucson, Phoenix/Scottsdale and on up through Sedona to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. It’s a beautiful state, that Arizona. And for guilty pleasures that make you feel like a kid again – it’s Disney World.

What’s your dream destination? There are so many places on my list, it’s hard to narrow it to just one. Places in the Caribbean we haven’t been to, Hawaii, Alaska, Ireland, Iceland (yes, I know – volcanoes, but they have lovely views of the aurora borealis, too), Egypt, Australia, New Zealand. The world, basically. And hopefully be like my parents some day and be able to say that we’ve been to all 50 states.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? Try to avoid all packaged foods whenever possible (which is just about anything with over 5 ingredients). Definitely don’t be afraid to ask the waiter and/or manager about special food preparations, if you need them. If you have to, stick with chain brands with standardized food choices. Download as many GF restaurant menus as you can from their web sites online and take them with you (or transfer the info to your PDA/phone).

On the Road With Daphne Oz

Last October, I was excited to find an excellent article on Oprah’s website about gluten intolerance. The author was Daphne Oz, daughter of Oprah’s favorite health expert, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Daphne, who graduated from Princeton in  2008, is an author in her own right: in 2006, she published The Dorm Room Diet, which is being re-released in an expanded and revised edition this September; in 2007, she wrote The Dorm Room Diet Planner. She is also co-author of the bestselling books You: The Owner’s Manual, You: The Smart Patient, You: On a Diet, You: Staying Young, and You: Being Beautiful. Last year, after experiencing health issues that ranged from sleep problems to weight fluctuations, Daphne followed the advice of a naturopathic, Ayurvedic doctor who recommended that she cut gluten from her diet. While tests have shown that she doesn’t have celiac disease, Daphne noticed her health improve on the gluten-free diet. She’s currently at work on a self-improvement book about conscious living.

How often do you travel? I am a total gypsy. In October and November, I was living in Chicago, but now I’m back in New York. Recently I’ve also traveled to Florida, Philadelphia, Maine, California, and England.

What foods or snacks do you pack when traveling? There are some staples that I always bring with me, like pistachio nuts. My dad has really drilled home the nuts issue! They’re a great snack. I also bring apples and soy crisps. Generally, I prefer to eat food I’ve brought with me, rather than what’s served on a plane.

What other things do you always bring with you? I’ve assembled a travel pack because I’m on the road so much. I bring hand sanitizer, facial moisturizer, lip balm, and a full-size pillow — those tiny pillows they give you on planes just don’t work for me. I bring my iPod and a bunch of magazines, like Oprah and Vogue.

Any favorite restaurants? I absolutely love a New York restaurant called Peasant. They serve fresh fish with just a little olive oil and sage. There’s no gluten-free menu, but the food prep is so simple that many dishes are naturally gluten-free. There’s another place in New York, Fatty Crab, that I really like. They serve Malaysian cuisine and have amazing coconut-milk broths. In Los Angeles, I always go to the Newsroom Café, which does great vegetarian food, and the LA Mill, a coffeeshop that serves food, including gluten-free crackers. In London, I just had brunch at Baker & Spice, where they had wonderful Mediterranean salads, like peppers and feta cheese, and roasted sweet potato.

Any favorite hotels? Staying at the Penninsula in Los Angeles was probably the most luxurious experience of my life.

Favorite city or destination that is not your hometown or current home base? I love Istanbul for many reasons. I have family there, the food is wonderful, and the city has this amazing union of Byzantine architecture and modern skyscrapers. I also love London, even though the weather is terrible.

What’s your dream destination? The place that immediately comes to mind is Thailand, because of the history and culture. I’d also love to see Bora Bora.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? When you’re traveling, one of the best things to do is to visit a local market, where you can get fresh fruit. Not only is that good for you, but it teaches you a bit about the culture of a place.

Photograph provided courtesy of Daphne Oz.

Vacation Planning for Celiacs: Resorts

Back in the fall, I got an e-mail from a reader who wanted to get married at a resort, but was having trouble finding one that could accommodate the gluten-free diet. While it’s certainly true that more and more places are offering options for gluten-intolerant and food-allergic guests, it’s not always easy to find those spots. Here are some resorts that are ready and able to cater to the gluten-free. Keep in mind that it’s always important to confirm in advance, via telephone or e-mail, that a resort will be able to accommodate you; even in a celiac-friendly kitchen, ingredients may need to be specially ordered before your visit (particularly if you’re staying at a resort in a remote location).

Canyon Ranch: With locations in very different climates — Tucson (Arizona), Lenox (Massachusetts), and Miami Beach (Florida) — Canyon Ranch offers something for everyone, and that includes the gluten-intolerant. While the company does point out that none of its kitchens are completely gluten-free, they are ready and able to take care of gluten-intolerant guests.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: When I’ve done the “On the Road With…” interviews, one of the things I’ve noticed is that Hyatt seems to be universally respected for its food allergy awareness and its ability to cook for those on a gluten-free diet. Personally, I’ve found this to be true of Hyatt kitchens in cities across North America, as well as in Santiago, Chile. Oddly, this fact doesn’t seem to be mentioned on the company’s own website.

Sandals Resort Hotels: The company, famous for its all-inclusive Caribbean resorts, doesn’t specifically mention celiac disease on its site, though it does discuss food allergies — which we all know gluten intolerance is often lumped in with. According to Sandals’ website: “You can rest assured that we will work very closely with you and our chef can ensure that the appropriate meals are available. Please provide us with your arrival date and booking number as well as your name and the resort at which you will be vacationing so that arrangements can be made for you to speak with the chef on arrival.”

I’d love to hear about your resort experiences. Please e-mail or comment to let me know which resorts have treated you exceptionally well.

The Best of 2009 for the Gluten-Free

DSCN9347

One of my favorite things about the last week of the year is that it’s a good time to take stock of what’s happened over the past 360+ days. In 2009, I found that some posts got a great deal of feedback from readers — and I learned that sometimes it’s impossible to predict which ones will spark the most interest. Below are the posts that garnered the greatest responses, and if you missed them the first time around, you can still read them (and comment) now.

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to e-mail me, follow me on Twitter, join the Facebook group, or make a comment on the site. I deeply appreciate your support, and look forward to hearing more from you in 2010. Happy new year!

Vacation Planning for Celiacs: Cruises

The irony for me was that, after researching different cruise options, I ended up going to Las Vegas instead. But my research wasn’t wasted: because I looked at the gluten-free options onboard different cruise lines, I was able to share what I’d found about Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, MSC and other companies. Better yet, so many readers contacted me about their cruise experiences (mostly with positive reports about dining gluten-free) that it inspired another post.

New York City Day by Day… for Celiacs

When I wrote the New York City Day by Day guidebook for Frommer’s, I was a newly diagnosed celiac. Fortunately, the book didn’t require full-length restaurant reviews; since it was intended as a cheat sheet to the city, and mostly filled with walking tours, I could get away with short mentions of favorite eateries. Of course, that list included many great spots for the gluten-free, such as Rosa Mexicano, Rice, Blue Smoke, and Pure Food & Wine. The book is now available as a download from the New York Public Library; for details, check out the original post.

Philadelphia’s Great Gluten-Free Initiative

Bravo to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness for training so many Philadelphia chefs via its Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) program… to the wonderful chefs who took part… and to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation for being savvy enough to recognize this as a terrific tourism initiative.

Smart Businesses Support Celiacs

This was inspired by Starbucks’ “now you see it, now you don’t” gluten-free Orange Valencia Cake. Remember it? But the post was about much more than Starbucks. It was about making smart choices to support businesses that are responsive to their customers’ needs. One of the things I wrote last July was, “At a time when we’re all watching our budgets, I’d like to make a case for spending even more carefully. If a major corporation isn’t serious about serving the gluten-intolerant, I see no reason to support them.” I stand by that position.

Gluten-Free Fast Food at the Toronto Eaton Centre

This post was an accident. While I was in Toronto last June, working on the Frommer’s Toronto 2010 guidebook, a business lunch was canceled at the last minute. Since I was stranded near the Eaton Centre, my hometown’s famous shopping complex, I decided to explore the fast-food options there. The response from readers was overwhelming. It turned out that just about everyone wanted to know more about celiac-safe fast food. This post had an unexpected result: a Toronto reader wrote to tell me that the Druxy’s Famous Deli in Commerce Court had gluten-free bread. When another reader saw that, she contacted Peter Druxerman, Druxy’s vice-president of marketing, to ask if the company could make gluten-free bread available at their outlet inside Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. In the blink of an eye, Druxy’s responded, adding gluten-free bread to its offerings at PMH. Remember what I said earlier about supporting businesses that are responsive to their customers?

On the Road With…

I love finding out the secrets of great travelers. Both Alice Bast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and Sloane Miller, who writes the delightful Allergic Girl blog and runs Worry-Free Dinners in New York, were kind enough to share many of theirs.

Mail-Ordering Gluten-Free Groceries

First and foremost, the Gluten-Free Guidebook is about travel and dining out. But even if you’re on the road a lot, as I am, you need to buy groceries sometimes. I’m lucky to have some great spots near me in New York, but there are also some companies that I order from online. And it still surprises me that Amazon consistently offers some of the best prices on gluten-free groceries.

A Celebratory Gluten-Free Lunch in New York

For those of you who know me mainly as a travel writer and celiac advocate, it came as a shock that I have a dark side. My debut crime novel, The Damage Done, will be published by Forge in October 2010. I have been publishing short stories for a while, but I’m still happily surprised about my two-book deal with Forge. What I didn’t expect was that some criminally minded fiction types would be interested in the Gluten-Free Guidebook, too. David Cranmer, editor of Beat to a Pulp (one of the best places to find contemporary crime fiction), asked me about both my novel and my gluten-free travels when he interviewed me. Jen Forbus, the book blogger behind the wonderful Jen’s Book Thoughts, was kind enough to ask me to take part in her Six-Word Memoir project, in which she asked crime writers — including Dennis Lehane, Linda Fairstein, Joseph Wambaugh, Sue Grafton, Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Ken Bruen, and Mary Higgins Clark — to sum themselves up in six words. Have you read mine yet?

On the Road With Allergic Girl

Sloane_Miller_5

When I started the Gluten-Free Guidebook in March 2008, one of my role models was Sloane Miller. I admired her Allergic Girl blog for its charming style, thoroughly researched posts, and sense of adventure. Many people with gluten intolerance or food allergies focus on what they can’t have; Sloane’s writing inspires me with the sense of what’s possible. A tireless advocate for the food-allergic, Sloane has been featured in many national media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN.com, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, and ABCNews.com. A New York State-licensed psychotherapeutic social worker since 2000, Sloane founded a private coaching practice, Allergic Girl Resources, for the food-allergic community in 2007. Part of her practice includes Worry-Free Dinners, an NYC-based dining club for adults and children with food allergies and intolerances. Here’s what she had to say about her recent travels.

How often do you travel? Not often enough. I fly 2-4 times a year domestically and I get away on weekends throughout the year.

Where have you traveled since going gluten-free? I’ve been gluten-free since 2004, and since then all of my travel has been domestic: Florida, Long Island, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Eastern seaboard mainly.

What foods or snacks do you pack when traveling? As someone with food allergies (tree nuts, salmon, some fruits and veggies; and I’m dairy- and wheat-intolerant) my family has been traveling with food for as long as I can remember. My standard complement includes: boxes of juices, packages of applesauce, dried organic fruit (raisins, apricots, dates), granola that I make at home (recipe here), rice crackers and organic cheese, fruit, Enjoy Life cookies and chocolates. Most of my bag is actually food when I travel. I also shop when I get to a new place. I find the local grocery or greenmarket and stock up on allergy-friendly local goodies.

What other things do you always bring with you? Medicines for environmental allergies, food allergies and allergic asthma, always in multiples, and all up to date. A travel pillow, check. Tea, check. (I like PG Tips from England so I always make sure to have some on hand when traveling. Also if I feel wheezy because of a new room, space or hotel, some caffeine helps to calm it down.) Magazines that I never have time to read otherwise: The New Yorker, Oprah, Lucky and Real Simple. Music and movies although I rarely get to those, too. There’s a lot of packing in my world that’s for a just in case scenario. Just in case there are delays and I need food or entertainment, just in case there are feather pillows only and I need something to sleep on. Clothing is always secondary to food because what’s better than shopping for new duds in a new place?

How do you prepare for a trip? Homework, homework, homework.  All the advance work makes getting there and being there so much more relaxing. Of course, you also need to prepare for the unexpected by remaining calm and flexible and that’s where your just-in-case provisions come in handy. I recently traveled for work to Boston and I had brought enough food with me for three days (dinners, lunches and breakfasts). Very quickly, I made friends with the hotel chef who cooked all of my meals for me, allergen-free. So then I schlepped all of the food home again. There were unexpected train delays because of a bomb scare. Was I concerned? Nope, I had enough food to feed half the line.

Any favorite restaurants? My favorite NYC safe restos are listed here. Now ask me, where do I think I and my dietary needs will be welcomed with open arms, delicious food and excellent service? I have that dream list too: Alinea in Chicago, IL, Per Se in NYC, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NY, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, to name a few.

Any favorite hotels? I love small boutique hotels, ones that take an interest in each and every guest. I especially love returning to a hotel year after year, having a favorite room and overlook. The Standard Miami (room 32) is one fave. So is the St Thomas D’Aquin (room 15) in Paris. I’ve been invited to stay at the Winvian in CT for work. The property looks wonderful and like it may be a new favorite.

Favorite city or destination that is not your hometown or current home base? Drat. I do love New York. It is my hometown, my current home base and my favorite tourist spot. I love Paris and London, and Oxford, cities I’ve spent considerable time in. I also love the English countryside, I’d like to see more of it. I love the ocean; ocean towns are some of my faves.

What’s your dream destination? When I was little my dream destination was Hawaii. Probably because of too many reruns of the Brady Brunch goes to Hawaii eps. However, I think I’d still like to go there for maybe a month and explore.

Do you have any other advice for gluten-intolerant travelers? Don’t be afraid to travel because you believe you may not be able to eat safely. There are many valuable resources out there to help you. Seek them out and use them. Here’s an article by Conde Nast Traveler that may help you get on your way. And of course, Gluten-Free Guidebook, which is an invaluable resource. Thanks, Hilary!

Photograph of Sloane Miller: copyright Kenneth Chen.

Reader Reports on Gluten-Free Cruising

DSCN3013

Ironically, after I researched several possible cruises and cruise lines for my vacation, I ended up picking a desert location instead. But my research wasn’t wasted: I heard from several readers who had considered taking a cruise but had been worried about doing so because of their gluten intolerance and, in a couple of cases, their food allergies. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that many cruise lines are sensitive to these issues.

Others responded to the post by sharing their own experiences with cruising. Janet Rinehart, the Chairman of the Houston Celiac Support Group, had terrific things to say about the cruise lines she’d traveled with, and also some good advice for anyone taking a cruise:

I have found from years of experience that Holland America also does gluten-free very well. Holland America has tours from Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe, New Zealand/Australia, and more. Also, Vantage and Viking Tours in Europe are excellent. We have traveled on the rivers from Amsterdam to the Black Sea on various legs of river boat trips with Vantage. The sightseeing (all included) is excellent and they do gluten-free very well. It helps to have translated restaurant cards (laminate several to have with you) in English and the country’s language in which you are traveling for both the ship’s chef and off-shore restaurants.

For language cards, I recommend one of my favorite sites, Celiac Travel. For some guidelines about dealing with celiac disease in a foreign language, check out this post.

Another reader, Alice, had a particularly terrific experience to share:

I went on a cruise with the Norwegian Cruise Line last March & experienced first class service.  I was presented with the menu a day in advance & the Assistant Maitre D’ would assist me with choosing items that could be made gluten free by the chef.  If he had any doubts about anything he would communicate with the chief chef.  The Assistant Maitre D’ would serve me personally; he would make sure that no one would make a mistake with my meals.  I was astounded by the degree of care & attention my meals received.  People were jealous of the personal service that I received.  I was treated like some royalty.  It was the most relaxing holiday I ever had since being diagnosed with celiac disease. The only restriction was that we had to eat in the 2 main dining rooms in order to obtain the meals I had ordered the previous day. Otherwise, it was like going to any other restaurant — studying the menu & discussing the different items with the waiters & deciding on a safe meal.  The Norwegian Cruise Line has several restaurants on board & one can eat at any of them.  There are no restrictions as to sitting times, etc.  I’m going on another cruise this winter with the Norwegian Cruise Line.  I would highly recommend it.  I hope this is of help to your readers.

Thanks so much to Janet and to Alice for sharing their reports. As for me, I’m hoping to have some new restaurants to share — when I get back from Las Vegas!

Vacation Planning for Celiacs: Cruises

Sunset

It turned cold very early this fall in New York, as it has in much of North America. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of taking a vacation somewhere warm. One thing that I’ve never tried is a cruise. I’ve taken day-long boat trips in places like Newfoundland and Chile, but that’s just not the same thing.

My daydreaming may have been inspired by a reader, Barbara Collins, who wrote to me in July to share her fantastic experience onboard a Holland America cruise ship. You can read her letter in this post. It was extremely encouraging to hear that a cruise line would go above and beyond the basics to take care of a wheat-allergic and gluten-intolerant traveler.

What I’ve discovered so far is that many cruise lines seem willing to accommodate people on gluten-free diets and other special diets. Each cruise line seems to have a different policy on the subject. Most seem to have a special requests form that you must fill out, often weeks in advance of your cruise. While I haven’t tried any of the following cruise lines — yet — all of them sound pretty great.

Carnival: “Guests with special diets can be accommodated on Carnival Cruise Line,” boasts the company’s website. In addition to gluten-free, Carnival offers meals for a range of special diets, including vegetarian, low sugar, and low fat.

Disney Cruise Line: While advance notice is required to accommodate special diets — at the time of booking the cruise is strongly recommended — Disney is able to prepare meals for an incredible range of special diets. Vegetarian options are widely available on its ships, as a matter of course.

MSC Cruises: Given that Italy is a world leader in celiac awareness, it’s no surprise that this Italian cruise line takes special care of its gluten-free guests. However, there are different offerings on its different vessels. According to MSC’s website, “MSC Cruises works closely with the AIC-Associazione Italiana Celiachia (Italian Celiac Association) to provide gluten-free menus in the restaurants of MSC Fantasia, MSC Musica, MSC Orchestra and MSC Poesia cruising in the Mediterranean and in Northern Europe. On MSC Splendida, MSC Lirica, MSC Opera, MSC Sinfonia, MSC Armonia, [and] MSC Melody, guests can find pre-packaged gluten-free products like snacks, biscuits, croissants, plumcakes and muffins.”

Princess: This cruise line emphasizes “personal choice dining” so there are plenty of options. Gluten-free, dairy-free, salt-free, MSG-free, and vegan meals are all available — when arranged for in advance of sailing.

Royal Caribbean: Special diets this line accommodates include gluten-free, low-sodium, and low-fat. They are also happy to accommodate those with food allergies. These meals should all be arranged in advance. Note that vegetarian meals are also available without any advance notification. As Royal Caribbean says, “We make every effort to accommodate our guests’ dietary requirements whenever possible.”

I’d love to hear about your cruise experiences. Please let me know how well you were able to eat while at sea.

Conference Dining for Celiacs

grandcentral

I just spent four days at the ThrillerFest conference at the Grand Hyatt in New York. If you’re a fan of mysteries, crime novels, or thrillers — or if you aspire to write them — you may have heard of it. Best-selling writers such as Lee Child, Steve Martini, Lisa Gardner, David Baldacci and Meg Gardiner all spoke at the event (along with many others). It was a fascinating scene.

And yet, what I was really thinking about was lunch.

When I registered for the conference a couple of months ago, there was a place on the online form to add any special notes. I mentioned that I have celiac disease, and that I would need a gluten-free meal for the luncheon on Thursday (other meals weren’t included in the conference, so this was the only one I needed to arrange in advance). I didn’t really expect to hear anything back from the organizers, so 10 days before the conference, I e-mailed them. I told them what I needed, and asked them how I would go about arranging it. They responded promptly and assured me that they would look into it. And so I waited… and waited.

After a couple of reminder e-mails, I got a message from one of the organizers. This is what it said:

I never got an answer back on my question about this. What we have done in past years for the banquet is that you tell your waiter your special requirements when you are seated. If I learn something different, I’ll let you know.

At this, alarm bells went off for me. While a restaurant can come up with a gluten-free meal with no notice, it’s tougher at a catered event. My worst experience on this front was at a conference I attended in Chicago five years ago, just after I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I’d told the organizer what I could and couldn’t have, and she told me I’d be fine. Then, at dinner the first night, I discovered that our meal consisted mainly of pizza. When I cornered the organizer, she was indifferent. “You can eat the toppings on the pizza,” she told me. “You don’t have to eat the crust.”

That was an eye-opener for me. And however ill-informed that conference organizer was, she forced me to realize that even when you explain to someone else what celiac disease is and what you need to avoid, they may not take it as seriously as you do. It was an important lesson.

In the end, my luncheon problem was easily solved, because I got in touch with the catering staff at the Hyatt directly. As with every Hyatt property I’ve visited — from Toronto, Canada to Santiago, Chile — they assured me that it would be no problem to get a gluten-free meal ready for me. And they meant it: I was served a main course of chicken with steamed broccoli and carrots. (Several people I’ve interviewed, including Alice Bast and Vanessa Maltin, have mentioned how helpful and accommodating Hyatt is on the gluten-free front.) But it reminded me that sometimes you really do have to take matters into your own hands.