Iron Cactus

Posted: August 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Iron Cactus

My wife and I recently decided to try Iron Cactus on a night out. They have a gluten free menu and neither of us had ever been there. As the warning at the bottom of the menu notes, they do use common fryer oil, which means the chips are not actually gluten free and neither is anything else deep fried. I confirmed that it was common oil with our server. That’s a common pitfall, so I was prepared for it. (I will note it makes me appreciate Maudie’s even more. They have sealed bags of gluten free tortilla chips they bring to your table still in the bag.)

Even with that caveat, they have some intriguing options not found at the typical Mexican restaurant. I had their Abuelita’s Meatloaf and it was quite good. It’s probably not a place we’ll go frequently, but the food and experience were both good. And I didn’t seem to have any reactions, so as long as you make your selections carefully, it’s possible for someone with celiac disease to eat safely.


Green Mesquite BBQ

Posted: July 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Green Mesquite BBQ

Our family has long been patrons of the Zilker Summer Musical. In the last nearly quarter century, we’ve only missed a couple. We always donate at the musical and sometimes donate in advance as well. We’re fortunate to live in a community that supports the arts and which provides free offerings. (My daughter and I also attend the free Shakespeare in the Park put on by Austin Shakespeare each year.)

This year was one of those years we chose to be “official” donors so we were invited to the catered outdoor donor dinner and special preview performance (also the final dress and technical rehearsal, but usually with no interruptions). The dinner was catered by Green Mesquite BBQ. I had never been there, so I contacted them by email to see if their food would be safe for my children and me. They responded very helpfully.

“All of our meat is gluten free along with with our barbecue sauce. Our rubs are made by a local spice vendor, Texas Spice, and they do not add msg or gluten in our spices. We don’t add gluten products to our beans or potato salad. Our buns are bread so they are not gluten free.”

We attended, had a wonderful night. The food was delicious and we had no reactions to it. Although we’re not among the group of celiacs who tend to have strong and aggressive acute symptoms to exposure, we do tend to notice it. (The acute symptoms are not the real problem. The autoimmune response and the often more “hidden” damage to the body is the major concern for us with celiac disease.)

Given that positive experience, we’re adding this restaurant to our “safe” list.


The Psychological Side of Celiac

Posted: June 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Psychological Side of Celiac

The latest episode of the Hold the Gluten Podcast includes an interview with Blair Raber, with the Celiac Disease Program at Children’s National Medical Center on their efforts to address the psychological impact of a celiac disease diagnosis.

Any diagnosis of a chronic disease carries a psychological toll, but since food is so deeply interwoven in our social interactions, a diagnosis of something like celiac disease can be particularly disruptive. I’m very much a “well, that’s the way things are, now I need to figure out how to deal with it” sort of person in most aspects of my life, but celiac disease was and to some extent still is a challenge for me. And it was even more of a blow when I discovered two of my children had essentially inherited celiac disease from me. (My other children don’t currently have active celiac disease, at least.) Yes, I know we don’t control our genetic makeup, but it’s still impossible to truly escape the sense that it’s my fault they have to deal with all the medical and social consequences of celiac disease.

My son seems to deal with it in some ways more like I do. The idea of going out to eat somewhere that requires a lot of discussion with the staff, preparation, and caution can seem exhausting. Like me, if he’s placed in that situation he’ll often just choose to get something to drink and wait until he’s home to eat. That’s a big part of the reason I tend to stick to restaurants that are tried and true and really prefer ones that make it relatively painless for their gluten free patrons.

My daughter, however, is much more assertive. She will quiz restaurant staff on how something was prepared. She’ll check and double-check to make sure it was prepared with all the necessary modifications. She’s always been one who, even from a very young age, would stick up for herself and argue her case with anyone. And those traits serve her well. Of course, she was angry when she was diagnosed and it did take her some time to deal with that aspect of it. (My son, on the other hand, more quickly focused on positive thinking and moving forward.) But I think she’s done a pretty amazing job of adapting. They both have.

I’m glad there is beginning to be an emphasis on working through the psychological toll a diagnosis of a chronic, incurable disease takes on any of us, even with the best attitude and support. I generally focus on the positive because I tend to pull myself toward the positive by speaking and writing about it instead of the negative, but it’s not easy and the road has often been bumpy. In my case, my body was so severely damaged by the time I was diagnosed that as I recover, there are more and more foods that, while not provoking an autoimmune reaction, are not things that I can readily eat without adverse reactions (to put it delicately). And sometimes as that list of restrictions has grown, my positive attitude has been in short supply.

For most of my life, even as a child, I was the person who would try any food, liked most of them, and had a cast-iron stomach. People would try to play jokes on me by doing things like coating a slice of pepperoni pizza with red pepper under the toppings. (I remember that one clearly at a youth camp I once attended.) The joke ended up being on them because I ate it and loved it. Fortunately, I can still handle peppers and coffee fine. But as the universe of things I can eat has gotten smaller and smaller, it’s hard not to feel like my body has betrayed me.

Sometimes I want to scream.

I do get over it and move on. If you are going to have a chronic disease of any sort, celiac disease is not a bad one to have. I have control over the disease myself. I don’t need medicine (beyond all the things for nutritional deficiencies I suffered). And if I strictly control my diet I will keep the disease completely at bay. Yes, sometimes it sucks, but as chronic, incurable diseases go, it could be a lot worse.

On the podcast, Maureen and Vanessa also discuss the recent dust-up with Domino’s Pizza and their “sort of gluten free” pizzas. The issue was not in the ingredients, but in the risk of cross-contamination. (For instance, if you cook a gluten free pizza, but then put it on the same surface for slicing that you do gluten-containing pizzas and slice it with the same utensils, the pizza has certainly been cross-contaminated and can no longer be considered “gluten free.”) I examined Domino’s FAQ on their gluten free pizza crust offering. For comparison, I’ll offer the similar FAQ page for Mr. Gatti’s, a large regional chain. Note the differences.

While there is always a risk of cross-contamination in any restaurant without dedicated gluten free facilities, there are a long list of actions Mr. Gatti’s took that Domino’s apparently did not. When you make a gluten free order at Mr. Gatti’s, your order is handled from start to finish by a “gluten free agent” who has successfully completed the company’s training on their gluten free preparation procedures and how to avoid cross-contamination. The gluten free pizzas are cooked in separate pans. They are sliced with separate utensils in a pizza box instead of on a common surface. So while they cannot guarantee there won’t be any cross-contamination, they are clear about the training, procedures, and actions they have in place to limit the possibility. There is nothing similar on the Domino’s FAQ. Indeed, they even list as a risk something as simple as an employee handling gluten-containing dough and then contaminating the other ingredients, something that should be easy to control with strict glove-changing procedures. (As an interesting aside, when my wife was growing up, her fatherĀ  was friends with a long-time past owner of Mr. Gatti’s, so my wife had a lot of interaction with their family. Just a curious bit of trivia. They both have some stories to tell.)

Personally, if I’m going to have pizza, I prefer to either make my own or get it at one of the local places, like Promise Pizza, with very strict cross-contamination procedures, knowledgeable owners, and well-trained staff. But if I were going to risk it at a large chain (well, now that I can’t really eat dairy either, that’s extremely unlikely to ever happen), the clear winner from all the ones I’ve seen is Mr. Gatti’s. On the podcast, they mention the approach Chuck E. Cheese is taking, which is also a perfectly reasonable approach. They may have been ill-advised, but the approach Domino’s took was not a good one. It made it look like they were trying to tap into a “fad diet” more than trying to meet the needs of those of us with a medical requirement for a restrictive diet. That may not have been true. They may have had nothing but the best of intentions. But that’s the appearance it created.

Finally, if you listen to the end of the podcast, I’m the “Scott” Maureen mentions. Hold the Gluten was one of the online resources I discovered shortly after I was diagnosed more than three years ago. I’ve listened to most, if not all, of her podcasts. (I can’t remember how far I went back or if all her early ones were available, but I’ve certainly listened to every podcast since then.) Even when her podcasts were just Maureen talking into a microphone sharing her struggles and frustrations, they were still helpful to me. I didn’t necessarily struggle with the same things or have the same issues, but there’s something helpful in hearing from others. (And when I was diagnosed, I didn’t know anyone else with celiac disease.) It’s important to hear that you aren’t alone. Thanks Maureen!

Now that her daughter has been diagnosed, I find myself somewhat on the flip side of that equation. Maureen has been diagnosed with celiac disease about twice as long as I have, but I’ve been dealing with having two of my kids diagnosed for a couple of years now. They are both older than Maureen’s daughter, but there’s still some common ground and I try to offer what little I can when the opportunity presents itself. The struggles when you deal with a child diagnosed with this disease are somewhat different than your own personal struggles, especially when your child “got it” from you. So I was glad to hear my little practical advice helped. It’s not much, but the celiac community is only a community to the extent we are willing to try to help each other. And ultimately, we’re the only ones who really understand what it’s like — however much empathy other people might have.


Joe’s Crab Shack

Posted: May 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Joe’s Crab Shack

Joe's Crab ShackPeace, love, and crabs, baby!

My wife loves crab legs (though she usually buys and steams them herself) and BC (before celiac) we used to head over to Joe’s Crab Shack at least a few times a year. It’s pretty good for a big chain and the atmosphere is always a lot of fun. I don’t believe we had been back since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, though. It just never came up on my radar as I was learning how to eat (and eat out) gluten free.

Recently, however, a friend of my wife wanted to meet her there for lunch along with the daughters. They’ve been friends since both were pregnant, so the two girls have known each other their whole lives. In fact, the girls used to play together in the sandy play area at Joe’s while the Moms hung out and talked. (Obviously, that was before they were teens.)

As my daughter also has celiac disease, I naturally checked the restaurant beforehand and yes, Joe’s has a gluten free menu. My wife and daughter enjoyed their visit, so a few weeks later, we decided to make it a family outing. Many of their buckets and steampots are gluten free. I decided to try the Orleans, since it’s been a long time since my last crawfish boil. (I was born in Louisiana after all. And yes, I do suck the heads.) So, what was my verdict?

The crawfish were well-spiced, but under the spicing the tail meat seemed pretty bland to me. I’m not sure why, exactly, but they weren’t bad — just not great. The sausage, potatoes, and corn were all quite yummy. The shrimp were horrible — probably overcooked as they typically take much less time to cook than everything else in the pot. (And my wife confirmed my opinion on the shrimp, so it wasn’t just my tastebuds.) But I didn’t order the dish for the shrimp, so I didn’t really miss them at all.

My wife and daughter had snow crab buckets. I tasted a bit of the crab and it was quite good. They both certainly enjoyed their meal.

Joe’s definitely has some good gluten free options. It helps, I suppose, that their signature dishes are composed of food that’s naturally gluten free and tends to be best prepared in a gluten free manner anyway. Joe’s gets a definite thumbs up from us. It’s true they are a chain restaurant, but they are one of the decent ones.


Mama Fu’s

Posted: May 7th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Mama Fu’s

Mama Fu’s is a restaurant I had seen on a number of local gluten free restaurant lists for years, but had never visited. We recently watched the release of Titanic in 3D (which was fun) and happened to be near one of the local restaurants and decided to give it a try.

Chinese and Asian restaurants where we can safely eat are few and far between. Most soy sauce is fermented with wheat and soy sauce tends to be everywhere in an Asian restaurant. There’s Pei Wei and PF Chang’s, of course. And there are higher end local restaurants like Uchi’s (which is really more Japanese). But the options are pretty limited.

Their gluten free guide contains a note that not all locations outside Texas have the gluten free sauce, so check first if you live in another state with a Mama Fu’s.

The food was decent. I wouldn’t call it great, but it was pretty good and as far as my daughter and I could tell it was safe. Neither of us got noticeably sick, anyway. And it was reasonably quick, convenient, and not too expensive. I got what was listed on the menu as one of the spiciest dishes and found it somewhat bland personally. But then, I tend to like spicy things.

So if we’re out doing something and need to go grab a bite to eat somewhere, Mama Fu’s definitely makes the list of options.


Maudie’s Tex-Mex

Posted: April 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Maudie’s Tex-Mex

For my birthday, we finally tried Maudie’s Tex-Mex. I’ve heard about Maudie’s for years, of course, but with all the excellent Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants across Austin, had never actually been. Now that my younger kids and I are diagnosed with celiac disease, our options for Mexican food are somewhat more constrained. Some places, like Chuy’s, use beer to marinade all their meat. Other places make flour and corn tortillas on the same surfaces at pretty much the same time. And some use flour to thicken their sauces. As with most other sorts of restaurants, it’s become a minefield.

Maudie’s, though, stands out from the crowd with its gluten free options. It started as soon as we walked in and my daughter and I said we needed a gluten free menu. The waitress immediately told us the tortilla chips weren’t safe as they were fried in the same oil as gluten containing dishes. She brought us gluten free tortilla chips (still in a sealed plastic bag) and our own salsa so there would be no cross-contamination from dipping in the same dish. I was impressed that she did all that without any questions or requests from us. That’s a level of knowledge and care we don’t often encounter.

Their gluten free menu is also a pleasant change. Often, the gluten free menu at a restaurant is really a cross-reference to their main menu listing the dishes (often with modifications) from the main menu that are safe to eat. In order to get a full description of the dish and the price, you have to jump back and forth between the regular menu and the gluten free menu. At Maudie’s, the gluten free menu is self-contained. It describes the dishes and gives the price. It’s a complete menu and you don’t have to refer back to the regular menu at all. That may seem like a small thing, but it really means a lot.

The food was outstanding. My daughter got her usual cheese enchiladas. My wife got some taco plate with gluten-filled flour tortilla tacos. It was my birthday, so I got the grilled chipotle shrimp. They were served fajita style with corn tortillas and were absolutely delicious! I loved the sliced serrano peppers sauteed along with the onions and bell peppers. That was a nice touch.

Maudie’s goes on our relatively short list of safe and fun places to eat — places where you don’t have to think too much about having celiac disease or worry about the food.


End of Overeating 5 – The Culture of Overeating

Posted: April 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

End of OvereatingBefore I move on to the next section of the End of Overeating, I wanted to explore one underlying contributing factor to conditioned hypereating that I had not thought much about, namely our culture of eating in general. Dr. Kessler devotes a chapter to the topic. He opens with an intriguing observation.

The question “Is food available?” once had social and economic implications. We were really asking “Are we facing famine?” “Can we afford food?” That framework has changed in Western societies. Now we usually mean “Can I buy food nearby?” “Can I eat it anywhere?” In today’s America, the answer to these questions is usually yes.

An important change in our culture of eating in the United States is that we now believe it is okay to eat almost anywhere and everywhere. Eating while walking down the street, in class, in a meeting, or while conducting business is no longer considered rude. I’ve grown up in that environment and had never even thought about it before. Dr. Kessler shares the impressions of people from other cultures in a way that really drives the point home.

Of course, our culture of eating is beginning to infiltrate even anti-snacking cultures with extremely strong meal patterns. The French pattern of eating only at set mealtimes was once so strong that restaurants wouldn’t even serve food outside those traditional periods. As that cultural norm weakens, we are seeing a rise in weight in France, though not yet anywhere near the scale we see in America.

With hyperpalatable food readily available everywhere we go and few cultural restrictions on when and where we eat, those susceptible to conditioned hypereating live in an almost constant state of stimulation. It’s little wonder we’re suffering from an obesity epidemic.


End of Overeating 3 – The Food Industry

Posted: April 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on End of Overeating 3 – The Food Industry

End of OvereatingThe next section of the End of Overeating includes a lot of stories of different restaurants, foods, and techniques for generating repeat business. I think an excerpt quoted from the first such illustration will give you a sense for the way this section of the book is constructed. It’s very interesting, I think, and will change the way you read restaurant menus.

The first story involves Dr. Kessler’s observation of an overweight woman eating the Southwestern Eggrolls at a Chili’s Bar & Grill in O’Hare airport.

I watched as the woman attacked her food with vigor and speed. She held the egg roll in one hand, dunked it into the sauce, and brought it to her mouth while using the fork in her other hand to scoop up more sauce. Occasionally she reached over and speared some of her companion’s french fries. The woman ate steadily, working her way around the plate with scant pause for conversation or rest. When she finally paused, only a little lettuce was left.

Next, he provides the report from his industry source on the actual contents of that woman’s meal.

The woman might have been interested in how my industry source, who had called sugar, fat, and salt the three points of the compass, described her entree. Deep-frying the tortilla drives down its water content from 40 percent to about 5 percent and replaces the rest with fat. “The tortilla is really going to absorb a lot of fat,” he said. “It looks like an egg roll is supposed to look, which is crispy and brown on the outside.”

The food consultant read through other ingredients on the label, keeping up a running commentary as he did. “Cooked white meat chicken, binder added, smoke flavor. People like smoky flavor — it’s the caveman in them.”

“There’s green stuff in there,” he said, noting the spinach. “That makes me feel like I’m eating something healthy.”

“Shredded Monterey Jack cheese…. The increase in per-capita consumption of cheese is off the chart.”

The hot peppers, he said, “add a little spice, but not too much to kill everything else off.”

He believed the chicken had been chopped and formed much like a meat loaf, with binders added, which makes those calories easy to swallow. Ingredients that hold moisture, including autolyzed yeast extract, sodium phosphate, and soy protein concentrate, further soften the food. I noticed that salt appeared eight times on the label and that sweeteners were there five times, in the form of corn-syrup solids, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and sugar.

“This is highly processed?” I asked.

“Absolutely, yes. All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast … chopped up and made ultrapalatable … Very appealing looking, very high pleasure in the food, very high caloric density. Rules out all that stuff you have to chew.”

By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster. “When you’re eating these things, you’ve had 500, 600, 800, 900 calories before you know it,” said the consultant. “Literally before you know it.” Refined food simply melts in the mouth.

Dr. Kessler goes on to examine other foods and restaurants and performs the same sort of analysis on each. Food has become a form of relatively cheap entertainment for us. In a later chapter, a restaurant concept designer calls processed food a sort of “adult baby food.” Basically, they are trying to make food irresistible and largely succeeding through a wide array of techniques, including extensive use of chemical flavorings. I like the way he summarizes it in the final chapter in this section.

In industry shorthand, it all comes down to the difference between brown cows and purple cows, according to marketing expert Seth Godin. Brown cows are products that, while perfectly adequate, are fundamentally boring. But a product that’s a purple cow — now, that’s something that stands out. “The essence of the Purple Cow,” writes Godin, “is that it would be remarkable. Something remarkable is worth talking about, worth paying attention to.”

And that’s what the food industry is trying to develop.

How many of your memorable dining experiences have been “purple cows”? Think about it for a bit.

 


Lebanese Taverna

Posted: March 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

I have to periodically travel for work and last week I was in Washington, DC. I arranged to stay in a hotel with a mini-fridge two blocks away from Whole Foods, so I knew I wouldn’t be at the mercy of area restaurants for sustenance. I did, however, venture out to try one restaurant which was not only recommended, but had gluten free options listed on their online menu, Lebanese Taverna.

The restaurant was easy to find. After exiting the Woodley Park metro station up one of the longest, steepest, and scariest escalators I’ve ever taken, it was right across the street. The atmosphere was warm and congenial and the service was outstanding. Since I couldn’t eat the complimentary bread, they offered to bring me rice crackers and my own seasoned dipping oil instead. I’m not particularly fond of rice crackers, but I appreciated the gesture and took advantage of the offer.

For a starter, I tried the lentil soup. I love lentils and I grew up eating various dhals from Indian cuisine. This lentil soup was different, but absolutely delicious. The lemon seemed to combine with the rest of the dish to make it seem lighter than most lentil soups.

For my main course, I had the stewed lamb on spicy rice, which is not listed on their online menu. It was tender with spices that enhanced, but did not overpower the lamb. It was a large serving and, if I hadn’t been traveling, could have easily provided two meals.

And, perhaps most importantly for someone with celiac disease, I didn’t get sick.

If you live in the DC area or have to travel there, I definitely recommend this restaurant.


Black Eyed Susan

Posted: June 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Restaurant Reviews | Tags: , | Comments Off on Black Eyed Susan

Last week I traveled to one of my employer’s computing centers in Martinsburg WV for a major installation for one of my projects. When I travel for work, I take enough food to sustain me in a pinch. In this case, it turned out my hotel was right across the street from a grocery store, which was convenient. (I always stay in hotels with microwaves and refrigerators.) It was a good chance to meet some of the people with whom I’ve worked for a decade or more in person. They also wanted to have a dinner out with my coworker and me one night. (That’s fairly normal on our business trips, especially the first time people meet in person. Since I was diagnosed, I’ve noticed that a lot of interactions between people revolve around meals and food.) Since I have celiac disease and my coworker is vegan, that presented more of challenge than usual.

The restaurant they found was called Black Eyed Susan. The atmosphere was great and the food was safe and delicious. I tried the shrimp and grits and the steak salad. They were both excellent. Even more than the food, I appreciated the extra effort my Martinsburg coworkers made to include me. I so often have to either decline or go somewhere and just get something to drink that I deeply appreciate it when people make an additional effort to consider my needs.

You can’t mistake true hospitality.