Gluten Cross Contamination- at home & in restaurants

glutenfreeI want to talk a bit about cross-contamination. Normally I try to focus on the positive aspects of being gluten-free; helping people to be proactive in their cooking and travel, and trying in my own life to experience fully the fabulous gluten-free options that are available to us.

But as I sit here reeling from the effects of serious gluten contamination Saturday evening at the hands of an inexperienced and very careless server at a restaurant we frequent often, I feel that I need to address the very serious issue of cross contamination and the ramifications of the gluten-free ‘fad’.

For me being gluten free is not a ‘fad’. I’m not gluten free out of a desire to eat better, lose weight, avoid GMOs, or any of the other trendy reasons people go gluten-free these days. I have always said if you feel better not eating gluten, then don’t eat it. But for me, eating gluten-free is a matter of life and death. Let me explain what happens in my body when I have 2 BITES, yes 2 Bites of bread.

  • Within the hour I experience severe intestinal cramping which will last 6-8 hours. This isn’t like PMS cramps, this is like chef’s knives slicing apart my insides…
  • Within 24-48 hours I will experience a painful and unattractive acne breakout around my chin and lips. If I’m lucky the swelling will recede in 7-10 days.
  • Within 24-48 hours my legs will start itching. Depending on the amount of gluten ingested, they can stay itchy for 2-3 weeks. At its worst, its an itchy, blistery rash. At its best, a little cortizone and deep breathing can control the itching and it will dissipate in 7-10 days.

Forgive me if I get a little irritated when I hear waitstaff saying “a little cross contamination is okay”…

This happens whether or not I take a sip of beer (somebody served me a margarita spiked with beer at a party and didn’t tell me) or eat a bite of a Rice-Krispie treat (Rice Krispies have malted barley syrup making them not gluten free)

This is why 20ppm is the allowable gluten level for anyone with Celiac…that’s the amount of flour that fits under your pinkie fingernail…maybe 2 crumbs. Studies show that nearly 45% of ‘gluten free’ food manufactured in a facility containing wheat has more than the allowable gluten level. That means no Trader Joe’s lemon mustard aioli…It should be gluten free. It’s made with oil, lemon, mustard, eggs, etc.. No flour whatsoever. But it’s manufactured in a facility containing wheat- and even though their line might be far away from where the flour is, I can’t risk that jar being one of the almost 45%.

dsc03066And here’s the rub. The gluten-free fad has done wonders for raising awareness about gluten. When I was diagnosed almost 17 years ago with Celiac, people looked at me like I had 8 heads when I asked if certain foods contained gluten. Now, many who work in food service are at least aware. The problem is, many are not aware of the serious consequences that some of us have when we ingest gluten. Or they foolishly assume that people are asking for gluten free for frivolous purposes and don’t bother to be meticulous in the kitchen.

Successful gluten-free eating outside the home is a two-way street. It is the responsibility of the gluten-free eater to be proactive, ask questions, and ultimately decide for themselves what they feel comfortable consuming. And it is the responsibility of the restaurant, managers and staff if they are claiming they have gluten-free offerings to ensure those items going out to the gluten-free table are indeed gluten free. Apparently easier said than done. But I do believe continued education helps, which is why I’m being so forthcoming about what happens to me when I ingest gluten.

Restaurant owners/managers/servers- I’d love to hear from you. Gluten Free-ers, I’d love to hear from you too..

Here’s what I personally would like to see and experience in a restaurant:

  • Accurate menu descriptions… If you state on a menu that something is gluten-free, then don’t EVER send anything out on that plate containing gluten. It’s one thing for me to ask and verify that something is gluten-free, but well meaning grandparents, babysitters, parents of friends etc. will likely be too trusting and believe that everything on the plate is gluten free.
  • Instruct your waitstaff to never ever ever say something is gluten-free if they don’t know. Ever. The correct answer should always be, “I don’t know. Please don’t taste anything until I’ve verified with the chef/manager.” I will happily wait if it means avoiding hours and days of discomfort.
  • Come up with a system on your line to alert line cooks and expeditors that a ticket is gluten-free. This could be as simple as a red marker, or an extra button on the computer tickets.

In return I (and hopefully other gluten free diners)

  • Will be patient. I recognize I may be the first gluten-free diner you’ve encountered. I will answer your questions, and am willing to read labels or speak with the chef.
  • Will make an educated and informed decision about what (if anything) I feel comfortable eating in your establishment, and I will not complain if your kitchen is run in a way that makes me not feel safe. Since we’re not in Paris and there are no gluten free restaurants in the US (that I know of) I recognize I’m only 1 customer among many, and that your restaurant may not be a good fit for my needs.
  • Will be a loyal customer if I feel safe eating in your establishment. And will tell all my gluten free friends to support your restaurant too.
  • Will politely inform the managers if there has been an issue. (no need for tantrums)

Profit margins in restaurants are razor thin, and studies show that restaurants who maintain a reputation of being a safe place to eat gluten-free see a 17% increase in their bottom line… That’s huge. I also eat locally. I’ve found the kitchens and staff at local restaurants are far more willing to go the extra mile to earn and keep gluten-free diners’ business. While many chains are hopping on the gluten free bandwagon, most also have a CYA disclaimer saying they can’t really guarantee gluten free… Fine, that’s their prerogative, but that’s not quite good enough for me.

Have you been cross contaminated? Share your experiences below. Know of a safe and delicious restaurant? Share that below too. Check out our gluten free travel page for write-ups on places we’ve enjoyed. More will be coming in 2015!

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Gluten Free St. Louis

As I travel the world, I’m continually amazed at how easy it is to have an enjoyable gluten-free food experience.  It does require a little bit of homework and advanced planning; but in general,  I have to say it’s waaaaaaay easier than when I got diagnosed 15 years ago when nobody even knew what was, let alone how to prepare something delicious without it.

As you know we just spent four days in St. Louis attending and participating in the FIRST Lego League World Festival. This festival brings together 85 middle school teams from around the world to compete in the areas of Robotics, Research, and Teamwork, and celebrates all that they have accomplished. Simultaneously, there are international High School competitions as well. In all, over 35,000 people descended on St. Louis to celebrate and compete last week.

I brought lots of gluten-free snacks to keep the Kitchen Divas In Training going during their long days, but was surprised at a few of the delicious meals I had outside the arena. Here are 3 locally owned places you must put on your list the next time you visit St. Louis. In addition to being locally owned, all of the restaurants note on their menus that they source local ingredients wherever possible. This makes me so happy!  There is wonderful food to be had here in this part of the Midwest, and anytime we can support our local growers and ranchers, it’s better for all of us. Just click on the restaurant name in each section to visit the restaurant websites and look over their menus.

ROOSTER

This was our first stop when we arrived in St. Louis.  Known for their gluten-free/vegan crepes, and just down the street from the America Center, this seemed to be the perfect place to begin our St. Louis Adventure.

The food did not disappoint. They have an extensive mimosa and bloody mary list- I enjoyed the “Mimo” a mimosa flavored with pomegranate. At first, I thought I had been brought the wrong drink, as I was expecting bright red pomegranate juice. However, this restaurant specializes in local/organic, and if you’ve ever had non-POM pomegranate juice, you know it’s more brown than red. Whatever the color, the end result was delicious, and I only wish I could have enjoyed two.

The crepe selection was enormous, and I could have stayed for days trying all the different kinds of crepes. The ladies both enjoyed a German Sausage #2, which contained a locally made, somewhat spicy (and very flavorful!) sausage, apples, cinnamon, and lots of gruyere.  I enjoyed a sirloin crepe with bleu cheese, sundried tomatoes and arugula, while my husband enjoyed a pulled pork crepe that was accompanied by a cinnamon syrup. He was nice enough to order a GF crepe so I could try it.

The crepes were a huge hit, both in flavor and portion. They were enormous, and fortunately we were very hungry. The crepe itself was remarkable. It was large, thin, and strechy- just like a good crepe should be. I asked how the chef made them, and got a few hints, but then the server said the chef started to get nervous. I completely understand not wanting to give away your secret recipe!  Three cheers to the chef for making a fabulous, satisfying crepe!

I must mention that the service is very laid back here. Almost to the point of being annoyingly slow. I enjoyed our server very much, but the restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived, and it felt like we had to beg for attention. I’m willing to give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt- maybe the server was new, maybe there was a shift change and we got lost in the shuffle. Whatever the case, I’d be willing to try The Rooster again, at the very least to enjoy a new mimosa and another fabulously constructed crepe.

PW PIZZA

This gem of a pizzeria was right around the corner from our hotel, and our group ended up ordering 26 (yes 26!!!!!) pies from them. I had the pleasure of working with Linda on our big order, and she was a dream!

They brought us one salad with all the accoutrement on the side to accommodate the variety of food allergies/dietary needs in our group, and made several GF pizzas for us. Linda even called the next day to see how I enjoyed the GF Pizzas! That’s taking customer service to another level.

While I didn’t get to enjoy the ambience of the restaurant, I did read they have an extensive beer selection on tap, and a nice upper patio that I bet would be perfect for evenings al-fresco.

Everyone was very happy with the pizza. I ordered a number of their specialty pies on GF crust- both so I could try the crust, but also to experience some of the flavor combinations in action. They were great!!

At first, I felt mediocre about the GF crust. My gluten-eating taste testers enjoyed it, but I felt that it was a little grainy. In hindsight, I think that may have more to do with the size of our order and the cooking/waiting time than the quality of the crust itself. We snacked on leftover GF pizza for most of the 4 days we were in St. Louis, and the crust was great. It held up well in the ‘fridge, and reheated beautifully. We even enjoyed a GF sausage pizza with vegan cheese. I was a little concerned the girls wouldn’t enjoy the cheese, but they loved it, and spoke highly of the sausage.  

Hands down, the favorite pizza was the roasted veggie pizza with goat cheese. The pizza was absolutely loaded with vegetables that had been roasted to perfection. Often a roasted veggie pizza can get a little soggy because of the olive oil, but this was just right- and you could taste each individual vegetable.

One of the other pizzas we really enjoyed was the candied bacon and pear pizza. This was a winner in a contest they held, and I can see why- of all the specialty pizzas, this one went the fastest.

I can honestly say that you can’t go wrong visiting PW Pizza. We tried many of their pizzas and were happy with all of them. It did not occur to me to see if they carry GF beer. You can look on their site, and if they don’t, perhaps with a little prodding, they will soon!

MOSAIC 

Mosaic was a delightful surprise on every level, and quite honestly the best meal I’ve had in ages. Mosaic is located on Washington, just up from the America’s Center, and is a beautifully designed and executed tapas restaurant. I was a little hesitant to enter, as we saw the lovely white tablecloths through the window, and asked the hostess and servers if we were too underdressed for their establishment. Keep in mind, all of us were sporting light-up bunny ears and painted on whiskers! They cheerfully said “Of Course Not!” and welcomed us in.

I was also surprised and delighted at how knowledgeable our server, Ben, was about the food preparation in the kitchen. I cornered him almost immediately while the others were getting settled to discuss what might work on the menu. He took his time with me and went over nearly every dish available, explaining the ingredients and exactly how it was prepared. On the few items in question, he consulted with the chef, just to make sure. This is the kind of service that makes a foodie downright giddy.

I have a soft-spot for tapas. I learned how to eat well and cook well when I lived in Madrid. Although this menu takes tapas beyond the traditional to a new level of food experience, I love the concept of little tastes.  Especially when there are so many delicious things on the menu.

The roasted butternut soup infused with vanilla was the best I’ve tasted. And the creamiest- it was so smooth it was almost like pudding. The lobster bisque, which my adventurous younger daughter decided to order was presented beautifully, and poured over a lemongrass-shitake foam. When they poured it, and the aroma of the lobster filled the table, I thought I would faint with joy.  Seriously. It smelled that heavenly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also enjoyed a watermelon gazpacho, a surprise in that the traditional flavors of tomato gazpacho were present, just softened and sweetened with the watermelon. The lobster-crawfish risotto was creamy and saucy, and nearly every bite contained a succulent bit of shellfish.

 

My favorite though, was the watermelon salad served with baby greens, thin radish slices on the watermelon cubes, and a science beaker of balsamic vinaigrette, all on a schmear of foamed herbed goatcheese. It was incredible. The combination of color, texture, flavor and whimsy practically had me singing in my seat.

 

Dessert was the perfect end. The chef kindly served a flight of mini gelatos in tiny cups for the girls since they couldn’t do the cones. We also enjoyed a beautifully presented carmelized panna cotta with fresh berries marinated in Grand Marnier. I was so satisfied I didn’t even need a post dinner espresso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a meal this lovely. I would seriously stop in St. Louis again just to return to Mosaic. I heartily recommend you do the same!

And as for the robotics tournament- how did my amazing kiddos do? Their team took home the 1st Place Award in the category of Inspiration!!