Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The College Trip

There comes a time in every parent’s life when we have to let go. Even though I’m not quite there yet with my oldest son, I know it’s coming soon. He’s a senior in high school, after all, with college looming just around the corner. So why do I feel so unprepared for this next stage?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been so darn busy lately. Moving back to the U.S. after living in Italy for two years has kept me on the fringe of insanity, what with all the packing, unpacking, and traveling. Not to mention my husband’s military retirement, his months of searching for and starting a new career in the civilian world, deciding where to live, buying a house, and getting all three kids settled into yet another new school system. And then there’s the celiac side of my life, which follows me around like a shadow, with its own set of needs and demands.

Fortunately, my son, Peter, took the lead with regard to his college career. He wrote to schools, collected information, talked with peers and counselors, narrowed down his choices, and set up dates to visit the schools that interested him the most. The only thing he couldn’t do by himself was drive to the schools because, after living in Europe where the driving age was 18, he still didn’t have a driver’s license.

So one beautiful day this past fall, my husband, son and I, with Map Quest directions in hand, pointed the minivan north to visit five small liberal arts colleges in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Since the timing of this milestone trip came amidst such an overall tumultuous time in our lives, I didn’t do too much preparation for it celiac-wise. For even though I instinctively knew what to pack in the cooler for the car trip, including snacks and breakfast food, and I’d actually made reservations at hotels for two of the three nights we’d be away, I was still nervous. That’s because it had been two years since I was a person with celiac disease traveling in the U.S. It was almost as if I were navigating foreign territory!

More than half way through the first 340-mile leg of the trip, we pulled off the highway and into a Wendy’s. Recalling that Alamo Celiac (http://www.alamoceliac.org/) member Debbie Holladay included this fast food place in her April 2007 newsletter review I felt it was a safe bet for a quick bite. Inside the restaurant, a nutrition poster listed the top major food allergens for all of Wendy’s food items, making it easy for me to choose chili and a baked potato for my lunch. Just to be sure I hadn’t poisoned myself, I also later checked Wendy’s website for their updated gluten-free list.

A few more miles down the road we arrived at the first college on my son’s list. We joined up with other potential students and their families for a one-hour information session followed by a one-hour student-led campus tour. Then we took a quick jaunt into the nearest town (bookstore, jewelry store, smattering of eateries, not too many bars) before hitting the road again. We needed to log an additional 200 miles that night to reach our hotel so we could attend another school’s information session and campus tour early the next morning.

Our route from New York State to Vermont took us through Albany right about the same time that evening rush-hour traffic and nighttime darkness engulfed us. Struggling to focus on the miniscule letters on my road atlas, I directed my husband to a highway exit that led away from the city along a dark and twisty road, in a sparsely populated area, towards Vermont. Noting it was nearing dinnertime, and doubting I’d find a place that could accommodate me, I was resigned to snacking on hard-boiled eggs, crackers, and fruit I’d brought along for just such a scenario.

Right about then, however, a hand-painted sign above the doorway on a barn-like structure at the side of the road caused me to do a double-take. “Did you see that?” my husband asked excitedly. With a hard brake and a quick U-turn, we all sat dumbfounded outside a place called Sherry Lynn’s Gluten Free Bakery & Café, in Brunswick, NY. Run by celiac Sherry, and her non-celiac husband, the restaurant was birthed from their frustration over not having a safe local place where Sherry could eat out. In their two months of business, a steady stream of celiac customers, in addition to a loyal local non-celiac following who just like the food, have made their way to Sherry Lynn’s. They also recently catered a support group meeting in nearby Albany. The night we were there, a large pan of gluten-free pasta and oversized gluten-free rolls tempted our palates. Neither disappointed. On the way out I also purchased sweet cinnamon fritters for breakfast the next morning.

Back in the van, rechecking our route before setting out, I noticed something strange - we were on the wrong road to Vermont. Somehow I’d mixed up the directions and had pointed us towards a college we’d be visiting later in the trip instead of to the one where we had an appointment the next morning. Quickly calculating what we should do at this point (backtrack all the way to the interstate or forge ahead on the dark county roads), I marveled at the improbability of it all: I was in New England, visiting colleges with my son, when I took a major wrong turn and found a newly-opened totally gluten-free restaurant. Call it what you will – fate, fortune, destiny – but I’d like to think of it as the wave of the future; that dining gluten-free in the U.S. will just keep getting easier!

But my story doesn’t end just yet. This is just the first day, after all. We still have to get to Vermont and we still have four more colleges to visit.

So off we went (we chose the dark county road), arriving several hours later at our hotel. When asked by the hotel clerk if we wanted the morning breakfast buffet, I told her I probably couldn’t eat most of their offerings because I had to eat gluten-free. “That’s so weird,” was her reply, “you’re like the third person this week who’s told me that.” Naturally, then, I asked her for any recommendations about places in town where I’d have the best chance of getting a gluten-free meal. She immediately suggested a restaurant that serves mostly local organic fare, and said she’d leave a note for the morning clerk to call them for me.

The next morning I checked with the morning clerk, who did indeed have a note from the night clerk about calling the restaurant. Since it was still early, though, she said she’d have to wait a little later to make the call, and asked if I had a cell phone number where she could reach me later to give me the lowdown. At the exact agreed upon time, my phone rang, and I was given the good news that a gluten-free meal would be no problem. What the hotel clerk didn’t know, however, and what I discovered upon dining at the restaurant, was that one of the owners has relatives with celiac, and right there on their menu they mention being able to handle special dietary requirements, including gluten-free. I had a burger, no bun, spiced up with hot sauce and peppers, smothered in melted cheese, and a rather wild-looking salad with ingredients that seemed to have been freshly gathered from the nearby river bank!

And so the rest of the long weekend went. Hundreds of miles in the van, punctuated by information sessions and campus tours of small liberal arts colleges, fortified by healthy snacking, gluten-free dining, and restful hotel stays. The New England area is dotted with charming and historic Bed & Breakfast accommodations, several which apparently can provide gluten-free meals (see http://www.1-888-inn-seek.com/) but this was not the type of trip where such ambiance and pampering could be appreciated.

It was also interesting to note that chain restaurants were conspicuously absent in many areas of New England, so it was only when we were back in the New York suburbs that we found a Bonefish Grill with their gluten-free menu. En route, I also tapped into the GFRAP website and located a hot dog joint, called Soul Dog, in the downtown area of Poughkeepsie, NY, not far from the final college on our list. Much like the school, the restaurant was fresh, lively, and artsy. Unlike the school, it was incredibly affordable!

Run by yet another husband-wife team, and with a Zagat listing, Soul Dog's specialty was gluten-free hot dogs (Sabrett brand – the kind New York City hot dog vendors sell) served on homemade gluten-free buns that didn’t fall apart! All varieties of their hand-cut fries (Soul Fries, BBQ Fries, Jamaican Jerk Fries, and Cajun Fries) were also gluten-free, and they served gluten-free chili, salads, pizza, and beer. But the best part? All of their desserts were gluten-free! On the day I was there, the owner was making gluten-free cinnamon fritters and donut holes, samples of which he passed out to all his celiac diners. I believe there was one of us in each group of diners, which strongly confirms the point that celiacs can and do drive business. That is, any place a celiac can dine, their non-celiac family and friends will follow. Soul Dog also did a brisk business with seemingly non-celiac locals.

After visiting the five colleges, Peter was hard-pressed to say which one was his hands-down favorite school. Realistically, he knows he’s done his best to obtain admission to these schools by being a good student, doing well on standardized tests, participating in extracurricular activities, and using his written essay to set himself apart from the other thousands of students also applying to the schools. Also realistically, he knows he'll most likely go to whichever school gives him the best financial aid package. A bit selfishly, I hope he gets accepted at the school that boasted it has culinary school-trained chefs working in its kitchen who can accommodate special dietary needs (I’ll need to eat when I visit him!). If only it wasn’t the farthest one from home. For, while I know that I’ve done my best to prepare him to take this giant leap into adulthood, and that it’s now up to him to choose the path he wants to follow, I’m just not sure I’m prepared to let him go.

HELPFUL INFORMATION

Sherry Lynn's Gluten Free Bakery & Cafe
1691 Rt. 7
Brunswick, NY 12180
Tel: 518-279-9267

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