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.

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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.

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

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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?

A Happy — and Gluten-Free — Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, my husband and I are doing what we usually do: taking the train down to Philadelphia to celebrate the holiday with family. While I won’t have the chance to sample any of Philly’s many celiac-friendly restaurants, I’ve got a special event to attend. My husband’s cousin Joanna and her husband, Seth, host a family party that spans four generations. They are always careful and considerate hosts, and while I can’t eat every dish at Thanksgiving dinner, most items are gluten-free.

I also have to tell you that Joanna is an expert cook and an entrepreneur who opened Yo Dogs in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, earlier this year. Yo Dogs is a gourmet hot dog, burger, and salad place, which also caters events. If you’ve got a craving for a dog and you want it on a gluten-free roll (and maybe dressed with cheddar, avocado, and mushrooms), check it out. Yo Dogs [address] 1014 E. Willow Grove Ave., Wyndmoor, PA 19038 [tel] 215-233-DOGS (3647) [web] www.eatyodogs.com.

Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for those on the gluten-free diet, and for people with food allergies. Shauna James Ahern, the Gluten-Free Girl, shares some wonderful advice — and recipes — on her blog. Sure Foods Living provides great tips about what celiacs and food-allergic people should watch out for. Nancy Lapid, About.com’s guide to celiac disease, has a terrific roundup of Thanksgiving-related links. (Until I saw Nancy’s list, I had no idea that NPR had covered the subject of a gluten-free Thanksgiving this year.)

Lately, I’ve been seeing some great gluten-free recipes from sources that don’t specifically serve the celiac market. Janet Rudolph, the woman behind the wonderful Dying for Chocolate blog, has published some of my favorites. Another great source is Canadian House and Home magazine, which has an archive of recipes available for free on its website. The website has a special Thanksgiving section for its many American readers. While you can’t search by “gluten-free,” take a browse to see what’s available. Finally, Canadian Living magazine’s online recipe archive does let you search by the term “gluten-free,” and you’ll find everything from a mouth-watering cardamom shortbread to egg crepes with smoked salmon.

Wishing everyone a very happy Thanksgiving!

Philadelphia’s Great Gluten-Free Initiative

When you’re deciding where to go out for dinner — whether in your hometown or while traveling — what helps you choose a restaurant? There are a few terrific resources for the gluten intolerant, such as the international restaurant listings offered by Celiac Handbook and the American listings from the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program. There’s also Gluten-Free Maps, a site I discovered recently via Twitter. You might read blogs that are devoted to dealing with celiac disease. But there normally aren’t many mainstream sources that can help the gluten-averse.

That’s why I was so excited to hear about Philadelphia’s amazing initiative. Recently 28 restaurants in and around the city worked with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness to complete its Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training (GREAT) program. This NFCA program trains restaurants in everything they need to know about preparing celiac-safe food, including issues such as avoiding cross-contamination and answering diners’ questions and concerns.

The list of participating Philadelphia restaurants is impressive. None of them is entirely gluten free, but a few can boast that a majority of menu items are safe for celiacs (at Distrito, a Mexican hotspot, 90% of the choices are gluten-free). The restaurants are a diverse bunch: there’s Italian (Vetri), Indian (Bindi), tapas (Bar Ferdinand), French (Cochon), and seafood (Little Fish), to name a few. The list includes high-end spots (such as The Palm, an elegant steakhouse), and affordable ones (like the Ugly American). When dining at one of the participating restaurants, it’s still a good idea to let the staff know in advance that you are gluten-intolerant, but once you’re at your table you should be able to relax and enjoy. Not many of the restaurants mention their gluten-free offerings on their own websites; hopefully they’ll update this soon (the Ugly American already has its gluten-free menu online; a few others, such as Cochon, mention that they can accommodate gluten-free diets).

It’s exciting that so many Philadelphia eateries would participate in the GREAT program. I’m also impressed with the fact that the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation is playing an important role in promoting this initiative. The tourism office is showcasing the city’s gluten-free offerings on its website; visitors can read about the restaurants, map their locations, and check out what attractions are nearby. It’s a smart and savvy move, and I wonder how long it will take other cities to catch up.

For more information about gluten-free dining in Philly, visit www.gophila.com/glutenfree.

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I mentioned above that I’d found a new resource via Twitter. I joined a couple of weeks ago, and I’m finding it valuable. If you’re on Twitter, I hope you’ll follow me there at http://twitter.com/hilarydavidson or @hilarydavidson.