Monday, October 19, 2009

Remembering September 11

Commemorations and sorrow engulfed our nation once again this past September 11, now known as Patriot Day. In newsprint, on the airwaves, and even on Facebook, people recalled where they were, what they were doing, and their reaction to the horrendous events that September morning in 2001.

I was living in a suburb of Dayton, OH and had just pulled into a nearly deserted parking lot at the shopping mall. Something was obviously amiss because, in those days, the mall was always a hub of activity. I remember shaking my head briefly, trying to pull into focus some random bit of information floating around my brain that would clue me in as to why the mall was empty. But nothing came to mind.

Six weeks earlier I’d received a biopsy-confirmed diagnosis of celiac disease, and was stumbling along the steeply pitched learning curve of my new and overwhelming gluten-free lifestyle. Being one of those people who experienced the condition known as “brain fog” in addition to a few choice gastrointestinal issues when I ingested gluten, it was completely possible I had known at one point, but now couldn’t remember, why the mall parking lot was vacant. So, I turned on the radio, hoping for some local news to jostle my memory, only to hear that two airplanes had flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Jarred out of any lingering stupor, I scurried home to park myself in front of the television set. There, I viewed the video footage of a plane smashing into the South Tower, and then watched in shock as the Pentagon burned, a plane went down in rural Pennsylvania, and the Twin Towers collapsed.

In the days and weeks that followed, many of us walked around in a fog. We were equally beset by the heartbreaking stories of people searching for missing family members and friends, and the uplifting tales of heroic acts by emergency workers, military personnel, and everyday citizens. We sought desperately to understand why and how such an act of terrorism could’ve happened on our soil. Our world had changed, seemingly overnight. It no longer appeared so friendly, so familiar. We no longer had the same sense of freedom.

Several months later, my family traveled from Ohio to New York to visit my husband’s relations. Mercifully, none of them had been directly in harms way on 9/11, although some had been personally impacted. One cousin had serendipitously not gone to an office at the World Trade Center that morning, instead traveling to offices in New Jersey. From there he stared helplessly across the Hudson River as the burning buildings collapsed, wondering if any of his co-workers were trapped inside. Another cousin was on an overnight flight from Paris, France to New York when the plane got redirected and all the passengers were indefinitely deposited in Nova Scotia.

During that trip to New York, I, like many Americans, felt compelled to visit Ground Zero. In some vain attempt to make sense of the carnage, I needed to see the surrounding buildings covered with ghostly gray dust, listen to the eternally silenced voices, and smell the smoky debris. I needed to mourn collectively with the nation. So the healing could begin. So I could move on with this new way of living.

I also needed to mourn for myself. As insignificant as my celiac problem was compared with the immensity of the loss and grief that surrounded me, it was something I had to face. That trip to New York was my first attempt at traveling away from the safety of my gluten-free kitchen; it was my first crack at carrying on despite the odds stacked against living gluten-free in a gluten-filled world.

It was scary. Could I eat New York’s famous Nathan brand hot dogs for lunch? No! They contain wheat gluten. Could I make my needs known at a restaurant in Chinatown? Barely anyone had even heard of celiac disease in 2001, much less come up with the idea of laminated gluten-free dining cards. The world was not a friendly and familiar place for someone like me with celiac disease. I felt a loss of personal freedom.

Fast forward to 2009. Much has changed in the world, both at large and for those of us with celiac disease. While I have no intention of commenting on the “larger” issues, it is easy to see that time has brought mostly positive change to the gluten-free world. Celiac disease is no longer considered a rare disease that affects only children, blood tests are more accurate, and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act that requires manufacturers to identify whether products contain the top eight food allergens, including wheat, has been in affect since 2006. Likewise, the gluten-free food industry has expanded beyond belief, and restaurants are increasingly happy to serve celiac customers.

No where were these changes more appreciated than on a recent trip to Manhattan - my first time back in the city since 2001. As usual, we were in the area visiting relatives, but we booked a downtown hotel instead of staying with family. The Best Western Hospitality House, located on 49th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues, is a three-star hotel that offers apartment-style accommodations, complete with a full kitchen, at a price reasonable only by city standards. Not that I needed the kitchen, other than to store my gluten-free breakfast items (no gluten-free items at the included continental breakfast) and a few snacks. This was a mini-holiday; I had no intention of cooking.

As with any vacation with a limited time frame (and aren’t they all?), we first carefully selected the sights we would see, and then I consulted the GIG’s Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program website. Mapping out the location of these restaurants helped me select which ones were closest to our hotel and sightseeing priorities. Naturally, I wanted to revisit the World Trade Center Site, yet also wanted to take our three teenage boys to typical tourist haunts such as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, Greenwich Village, the Empire State Building, and Times Square. Along the way we would pass iconic landmarks such as Wall Street, City Hall, the New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grand Central Station, the Trump Building, FAO Schwartz, and Central Park. Our big splurge would be tickets to “Mary Poppins - Broadway’s Perfectly Magical Musical.”

With near perfect summer weather, sturdy walking shoes, a good map, and subway passes, we accomplished nearly everything on our “must see” list. What made the entire experience even more wonderful, though, was the ease with which I found gluten-free meals. At Bloom’s Delicatessen, on the corner of 40th Street and Lexington Avenue, I gobbled down an open face Reuben Sandwich with cole slaw on the side. Lilli and Loo, at 792 Lexington Avenue, offered over 30 gluten-free items on its Asian cuisine, Chinese, and sushi bar menu. On weekdays they even have gluten-free lunch specials! Our favorite restaurant, however, was Risotteria, in Greenwich Village. Serving gluten-free breadsticks and pizza, fresh salads, made-to-order risotto from three different kinds of rice, and gluten-free desserts, it was my personal perfectly magical moment!

GIG’s Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program lists 17 dining establishments for Manhattan. Yet there are also numerous restaurants that independently serve gluten-free food. Our 19-year old son discovered this when he visited the city with friends two weeks after our family trip. Intending to “eat across the city” by day before attending a music concert at night, he unknowingly walked into a place for pizza (he does not have celiac disease) where he was confronted by a wall of gluten-free bakery items and the option to order gluten-free pizza. The restaurant is Mozzarelli’s. The next time I visit NYC I will check it out. In fact, I think the next time I should also try to “eat across the city,” gluten-free of course. I would just walk from restaurant to restaurant, bypassing all the tourist sites, save one.

The World Trade Center site today is alive with activity and rebuilding. Anyone wishing to connect with people from the September 11th community - through walking tours, exhibits, and programs - should visit the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. It’s a non-profit corporation that serves as a central place for information pertaining to 9/11 at the WTC, and seeks to unite and support victims of terrorism. Other places to learn more about September 11 include: 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, WTC Visitor Information Kiosk, Battery Park in Lower Manhattan to view the Sphere (large metallic sculpture that once stood between the WTC towers), New York City Fire Museum, the bronze 56-foot FDNY Memorial Wall, the American Express Memorial, “Eleven Tears,” and the exhibit, “Unwavering Spirit,” at St. Paul’s Chapel, the home base for the volunteer relief effort.

According to the 1st century Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “Time heals what reason cannot.” Not that any of the pain and loss is diminished for the families directly affected by 9/11, but certainly there is an understanding that time continues to move forward. Really, it’s the only direction to go.

Helpful Information

GIG Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program, http://www.glutenfreerestaurants.org/.

Tribute WTC Visitor Center, 120 Liberty Street, NY, NY 10006. Tel: 1-866-737-1184. Admission is $10.00. http://www.tributewtc.org/.

To learn more about visitor resources regarding 9/11, see http://www.national911memorial.org/.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

New York City

I was in NYC two weeks ago with my husband and three boys, ages 12, 15, and 19. We were there for only 2 nights so had time to check out just a few of the many restaurants that are celiac-friendly.

As with most destinations, and perhaps even more true for a city like New York, where you choose to eat has a lot to do with where you're staying and what you're doing when mealtime rolls around.

More to follow regarding our sightseeing and meals!

Top restaurants recommended:

1. Risotteria, 270 Bleeker St. Located in the West Village between 6th and 7th Avenues. Tel: 212-924-6664. www.risotteria.com. GIG GFRAP Participant. Italian cuisine with GF bread sticks, pizza, salad, risotto, desserts.

2. Nizza, 630 9th Ave. Located between 44th and 45th Streets, in the Theater District, two blocks west of Times Square. Tel: 212-956-1800. www.nizzanyc.com. GIG GFRAP Participant. Italian cuisine with GF pasta, and their specialty - Socca – a chickpea flour pizza.

3. Lilli and Loo, 792 Lexington Ave. Located between 61st and 62nd Streets, a few blocks east of the southern edge of Central Park. Tel: 212-421-7800. www.lilliandloo.com. GIG GFRAP Participant. Asian, Chinese and Sushi cuisine. GF lunch specials Monday-Friday.

4. Ruby Foo’s, 1626 Broadway at 49th St. Located in Times Square. Tel: 212-489-5600. http://www.brguestrestaurants.com/restaurants/ruby_foos_times_square/index.php. GF Menu. Pan-Asian Cuisine.

Other suggestions:

1. Mozzerelli’s, 23rd St. between Madison and Park. GF pizza and desserts.

2. Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. Great fish, fabulous seafood. On the expensive side.
Rice ‘n’ Beans, on 9th Ave between 50th and 51st Streets. Located in the Clinton-Hell’s Kitchen district. Rice, beans, plantains, greens, grilled fish and meats.

3. Petit Café, 70 Greenwich Ave. Located near 7th Ave. in West Village.

4. Bistangos, 415 3rd Ave. Located at 29th Street and 3rd Ave. Tel: 212-725-8484. GIG GFRAP Participant. Italian Cuisine.

5. Bloom’s Delicatessen Café, 350 Lexington Ave. Located at the corner of 40th St. near Grand Central Station, Murray Hill/Midtown area. Tel: 212-922-3663. www.bloomsnewyorkdeli.com. Deli and Diner Cuisine, including omelets, burgers, sandwiches, and salads.

Other sites to check:
http://www.geocities.com/glutenfreenyc/dining.html
http://glutenfreenyc.blogspot.com/
http://www.celiacchicks.com/
http://tinyurl.com/gfnewyork

Saturday, May 16, 2009

When It's Not All About the Food

December 2008

Some travel destinations are so entwined with their gastronomical pleasures that they seem to shout at us: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD! Think New Orleans’ famous Cajun and Creole cooking, or how synonymous San Francisco is with “California Cuisine,” a form of dining that champions eating in-season local ingredients and which introduced us to fusion cooking and artful presentation.

And then there are some places that keep their mouths shut when it comes to food because, in keeping with an old adage, they have nothing nice to say. Such was the case with my family’s recent vacation to Crystal River, Florida. An inquiry I made on the celiac listserv about local restaurants and grocery stores netted me only two – TWO - responses. Neither of them encouraging.

Crystal River is situated along the west coast of Florida, about 70 miles north of Tampa and 70 miles west of Orlando. Yet it has little resemblance to either of these places. There is no thriving business culture, art scene, or vibrant Gulf coast beaches like Tampa. Nor any of the fantastical make-believe whimsy of Orlando’s theme park scene and the accompanying security of Disney’s noteworthy celiac-friendliness. Heck, Crystal River doesn’t even have chain restaurants. One guidebook I consulted went so far as to advise day trippers to pack a picnic lunch. That’s because Crystal River, and surrounding Citrus County, is known as the Nature Coast. Its main attraction is the great outdoors itself.

If nature is the draw to this area, then the West Indian manatee is the star. These large marine mammals are herbivores that inhabit warm, shallow, marshy coastal waters predominantly around Florida. In the winter months, they tend to congregate in mild, constant-temperature spring-fed rivers such as the seven-mile long Crystal River that flows through the town of the same name. The Homosassa River, seven miles further south, is another favorite hang-out.

The easiest way to observe manatees in this natural habitat is through a floating glass observatory at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, on the Homosassa River. Those willing to don a wetsuit and brave the 72-degree water can get up-close and personal with these 10-foot, 1200 pound creatures by joining a guided snorkel tour in either the Homosassa River or the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Kings Bay, which forms the headwaters of Crystal River.

Manatees are an endangered species, protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Human interaction with them is controlled by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which makes it illegal to annoy, harass, or disturb one of these creatures. Before heading out by boat into Kings Bay with American Pro Diving Center, one of the largest outfitters in the area, we were shown a film about the dos and don’ts of our manatee meet up.

Once on the water, we were all on the lookout for manatees. A telltale sign is a circle on the water’s surface formed when the mammal must pop its nose up to breathe air every 3-5 minutes. Soon we were all slinking into the water, moving as softly as possible towards a small herd, with hopes that one of them would choose to come close to us. It is permissible to pet manatees if they initiate the encounter. Two of my sons, ages 12 and 14, got the biggest surprise when a 5-foot calf swam up to them, rolled over like a puppy, seeming to ask for a belly rub, and then excreted. Oh, it was a highlight!

Another day we rented a kayak and a canoe, and then paddled up the Homosassa River towards the state park. Along the way, we blissfully observed manatees surfacing, swimming, and resting in the shallow waters. Equally thrilling was the sight of two dolphins gliding beneath our boats before zealously slashing though the water in pursuit of a school of fish. Later, while sitting on the dock outside our rented cottage down river from the state park, we watched in awe as several manatees seemed to revel in the sunlight speckled afternoon.

Our “cottage,” however, was not so awesome. Basically a one-bedroom trailer set upon stilts, the putrid smell of fish was the first thing to greet us after we’d checked in at the “office” that was really a dry-docked boat. There are six rental units at the Last Resort in Homosassa, each with a full kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and deck. Our unit appeared to be halfway through a much-needed renovation. The bedroom and bathroom were completely worn out, with uncomfortable beds and broken built-in dresser drawers. The kitchen, though, was clean, and once the property owner disinfected the fishy refrigerator, we visited a nearby grocery store and a citrus stand to settle in.

Publix, Sweetbay, and Winn Dixie, were the three big grocery store chains we found in Crystal River and Homosassa. All three carried a good selection of gluten-free products, leading me to believe there must be people in the area with celiac disease. After trying to find gluten-free food at local restaurants, however, I also came to believe that none of these supposed people with celiac ever ate out.

We dined at three different restaurants in the area, and then only after scrutinizing a number of restaurant menus, assessing my chance of getting a gluten-free meal. At not one of these places had anyone ever heard of celiac disease. Being on the rivers, with the Gulf of Mexico a few miles away, at least seafood did figure prominently on the menus. Fried seafood! So at the Marguerita Grill in Homosassa, I stuck with a bunless hamburger and side salad with oil and vinegar. At the Homosassa Riverside Resort restaurant, where they understood I had a “wheat allergy,” I did enjoy grilled grouper, baked potato, and steamed vegetables. Still, the waitress wondered why I hadn’t yet outgrown my allergy. The third place we ate was a Thai restaurant, called Thai Phoon, where I had Pad Thai.

These dining experiences, though, were just a footnote in our overall vacation experience. We snorkeled two times with the manatees in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and my husband and I went scuba diving in an overhead cavern. Another afternoon we all snorkeled/scuba dived down the spring-fed Rainbow River, in Rainbow Springs State Park. With crystal clear water ranging in depth from 3-18 feet, the current pushed us along, providing an ever changing view of fish life and vegetation.

On the final full day of our vacation we hired a small fishing charter, hoping to catch enough for a fish fry of our own, gluten-free style. Despite our boat captain’s best efforts to help with our quest, we caught only one keeper; the dozens of others were either too small or not good eating. Not willing to stink up our kitchen for one measly fish, we tossed it to a blue heron that had been patiently watching us from a nearby rock crop. With one long gulp, the fish slowly disappeared down the heron’s throat. “That’s so cool,” exclaimed our boys. My husband snapped a picture. It was truly all about nature.

Helpful Information

Citrus County Website
http://www.visitcitrus.com/

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
www.fws.gov/crystalriver/

Homosassa Springs State Park
4150 S. Suncoast Blvd.
Homosassa, FL
352-628-5343
www.floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings

Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 S.W. 81st Pl. Rd.
Dunnellon, FL
352-465-8555
www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings/

American Pro Diving Center
821 S.E. Highway 19
Crystal River, FL
352-563-0041
http://www.americanprodiving.com/

Last Resort
10738 Halls River Rd.
Homosassa Springs, FL
352-628-7117


Homosassa Riverside Resort
5297 S. Cherokee Way
Homosassa, FL
352-628-2474
http://www.riversideresorts.com/

Marguerita Grill
10200 W. Halls River Rd.
Homosassa, FL
352-628-1336ecember 2008

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Going to Atlanta

In preparation for my trip to Atlanta to visit a friend, I'm putting together a list of places where I can get gluten-free food. As of now, all of this information is gleaned from other sources, including the celiac listserv and personal blogs.

Pizza Fusion in Buckhead, http://www.pizzafusion.com/. They do make gluten pizzas here as well, but also take precautions to prevent cross-contact with the gluten-containing foods. Apparantly, this Pizza Fusions location makes its gf crust in a separate spot in the kitchen, but not all Pizza Fusions do this. Here is a link to a blog with an interview with the owner of the Atlanta Pizza Fusion at 2233 Peachtree Road, Suite MAtlanta, GA 30309 / 404-351-9334.
http://gladtobeglutenfree.blogspot.com/2008/06/finally-gluten-free-pizza-in-atlanta.html

Z Pizza has three locations in the Metro Atlanta area. Check http://www.zpizza.com/ for locations. The author of the "Glad to Be Gluten Free" blog doesn't like the Midtown store location due to the staff seeming uninterested in the needs of gluten-free diners, and also stated that parking in that area is a hassle. A better experince was had at the Alpharetta store, as well as the newest location in Duluth, where she also got a gluten-free apple pie pizza for dessert.

Pepperoni's in Duluth GA has gotten high marks for its gluten-free pizza crust. They are also working in serving gluten-free pasta and desserts. They already have some gluten-free ciders and Bard Tale beer.

Virginia Highlands (near the Junkma n's Daughter) either already has gf pizza or will soon. They use the same crust as Z Pizza.

Another reisdent of Atlanta has found a GF Baker that she loves. Called Little Red Hen, it does not have a retail location; it only does custom orders, including wedding cakes, special occasion desserts, and items such as red velvet cake and gingerbread house and cookies. They deliver in the Atlanta metro area. Call (404) 376-3410.
http://www.littleredhenbakeshop.com/

The following chain restaurants in Atlanta have gluten-free menus.

Bonefish Grill

Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, 8215 Roswell Rd., Building 600, Atlanta. 800-434-6245

The Capital Grille, 255 E. Paces Ferry Rd., Atlanta. 404-262-1162

Carrabba's Italian Grill, 2999 Cumberland Blvd., Atlanta. 770-437-1444
Carrabba's Italian Grill, 1210 Ashford Crossings, Atlanta. 770-804-0467

Cheeseburger in Paradise, 1230 Ashford Crossing, Atlanta. 770-730-0782

Fleming's Steakhouse, 4501 Olde Perimeter Way, Atlanta. 770-698-8112

Legal Seafood

Mimi's Cafe, 1221 Ashford Crossing, Atlanta. 770-351-8444

Outback Steakhouse, 3850 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta. 404-266-8000
Outback Steakhouse, 2145 Lavista Rd., Atlanta. 404-636-5110
Outback Steakhouse, 1220 Ashford Crossing, Atlanta. 770-481-0491

P.F. Chang's China Bistro, 500 Ashwood Parkway, Atlanta. 770-352-0500

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, 267 Marietta St., Atlanta. 404-223-6500
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, 5788 Roswell Rd. NW, Atlanta. 404-255-0035
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, 950 E. {aces Ferry Rd., Atlanta. 404-365-0660

Ted's Montana Grill, 1874 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta. 404-355-3897
Ted's Montana Grill, 133 Luckie St., Atlanta. 404-521-9796

Other recommendations for Celiac-Friendly restaurants:

Brasserie Le Coz, Lenox Square Mall.
Cedar's, Lenox Rd.

Doc Chey's Asian Kitchen, http://www.doccheys.com/

Fogo De Chao, http://www.fogodechao.com/

Four Seasons on Peachtree at 14th St. According to one celiac listserv post, the chef at Four Seasons does a gluten free High Tea, but please call ahead.

Himalaya's Indian Restaurant, Peachtree Industrial Rd.

Houstons

Jitlada, La Vista Rd.

Maggiano's Little Italy, 3368 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta. 404-816-9650
Maggiano's Little Italy, 4400 Ashford Dunwoody Rd., Atlanta. 770-804-3313

Rathbum

Roy's, http://www.roysrestaurant.com/

Saba Restaurant, 1451 Oxford Rd., NE, Atlanta.
Saba Restaurant, 350 Meade Rd., Decatur. http://www.saba-restaurant.com/

Woodfire Grill, http://www.woodfiregrill.com/

MORE:

Here to Serve Restaurants is a conglomeration of serveral restaurants in the Atlanta area that apparantly can provide gluten-free meals if they have enough notice. http://www.heretoserverestaurants.com/. Included are:

Goldfish
Prime
Shout (located inMidtown) but they do not have gf soy sauce for the sushi.
Twist

Restaurants owned by the Buckhead Life Group, including Buckhead Diner, and Nava, are said to accomodate the gluten-free diet.

The GIG Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program has a list of restaurants that have undergone their training program. http://www.glutenfreerestaurants.org/index.php

The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide (2nd edition) 2007-2008 lists numerous other restaurants for the Atlanta area. It's a great resource that can be purchased at http://www.triumphdining.com/

Atlanta has a Meet-Up Gluten-Free Dining Group. http://www.meetup.com/atlantagfdinnerclub/

A site listing Gluten-Free friendly restaurants in Atlanta. http://www.urbanspoon.com/t/9/1/Atlanta/Gluten-free-friendly-restaurants

A Gluten-Free Guide for Atlanta.
http://aglutenfreeguide.com/category/atlanta

Friday, January 30, 2009

Washington, DC as a Battleground - September 2008

There’s a war going on in Washington, DC that has nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, the upcoming presidential election, or the economy. Instead, it’s a battle about something that fits in the palm of your hand, requires experience with chemical reactions, and, um, tastes sweet. This is a war about one of the city’s latest food fads: cupcakes.

I don’t know exactly when cupcakes took front line among our nation’s capital foodies because I’m still a relative newbie to the Washington, DC area food scene – I moved back here a year ago after a decade away. But I do know there are more than a dozen bakeries deeply entrenched throughout the city, all hustling a cornucopia of cupcake flavors.

At first I didn’t pay any attention to the hoopla because, as we all know, bakeries and celiacs just don’t mix. Then I heard through the celiac list that a new place, Hello Cupcake, was baking gluten-free cupcakes from scratch on a daily basis. The reports also said the cupcakes were really good. So when an old friend recently asked if he could come for a visit and take in some DC highlights, I strategically designed an itinerary that would include this new bakery. It would be the first stop of the day, followed by my other sightseeing priorities: a gluten-free lunch at the National Museum of American Indians and dinner at a gluten-friendly restaurant.

Hello Cupcake is located on Connecticut Ave., NW, near the Dupont Circle Metrorail stop on the Red Line. Metrorail has five color-coded subway lines that all traverse the city center on their way to and from various suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Fortunately for me, the Red Line is the artery that extends to my neck-of-the-woods in Maryland, and then flows into the city via numerous upscale neighborhoods, the venerable National Institutes of Health, the National Zoological Park, Chinatown, and Union Station, before pumping people out to other neighboring Maryland towns.

Organizing our day in Washington, DC solely around where I was going to eat was, I’m sure, not what my friend, Carl, had in mind when he came to visit. Still, he was intrigued with the cupcake wars. Mostly because the trend hadn’t yet taken hold in Atlanta, where he lives now, but also because baking is one of his passions. So it was with much anticipation that we both stepped into Hello Cupcake, taking our place in line behind several customers who each seemed to want a detailed description of the dozen or more flavors of cupcakes that were on display that day. All told, the bakery’s master menu includes about 50 different flavors, with about a quarter of them prepared on any given day. While waiting in line, we admired the bakery’s Neapolitan décor (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry!), two pink chandeliers, and the eco-friendly packaging.

Only one flavor of gluten-free cupcake is baked each day, and they are always the first item prepared each day. Penny Karas, the bakery’s owner, explained that the kitchen is cleaned and sanitized every evening. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, when the bakers’ day begins, the first and only batch of gluten-free cupcakes for the day is baked. Karas believes that baking gluten-free first thing in the morning helps minimize any potential cross-contact in the kitchen. Several dozen are made at that time, but once they’re gone, that’s it for the day.

While Hello Cupcake’s owner and staff seemed knowledgeable and enthusiastic about providing treats for the celiac community, they also seemed eager to hear my evaluation of their product. Between mouthfuls of my classic vanilla with chocolate frosting cupcake, I gushed about the exquisite texture of the cake – not dry, grainy, or crumbly, nor dense and gummy – and the just right sweetness of the frosting. But I also knew I was biased, this being the first time I’d eaten in an honest-to-goodness bakery since my celiac diagnosis in 2001. So I turned to Carl, hoping he’d present a more objective analysis. He did - first with a detailed and technical description of the texture, but then with a smile and a shrug, he stated that the cupcakes just tasted really good. Another point to note is that the gluten-free cupcakes cost the same price as their gluten counterparts - $3.00 each.

Hopping back onto the Metrorail we made our way to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Opened in 2004, the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits are devoted to sharing the beliefs, history, identity, and art of native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. After spending about an hour in the permanent exhibit called “Our Peoples – Giving Voice to our Histories,” Carl declared it riveting, yet emotionally exhausting because it deals largely with the often brutal elimination of the Native Indian way of life. He suggested we take a lunch break.

Among all the food establishments located within the Smithsonian Institution complex, which includes 19 museums, the American Indian museum café is the only one to my knowledge that labels major allergens and gluten-free food. Mitsitam Café (meaning, “Let’s Eat” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples) is a large cafeteria with separate stations that highlight Native foods from various regions. This includes: the Great Plains, Meso America, Northern Woodlands, the Northwest Coast, and South America. The hardest part was deciding “where” to eat, as each Native region offered several gluten-free options, and they all looked wholesome and scrumptious!

After lunch, Carl and I walked next-door to the U.S. Botanic Gardens. An avid gardener, he probably could’ve spent an entire day exploring the Garden’s Conservatory and two permanent outdoor gardens. My goal was to see a temporary exhibit called “One Planet - Ours! Sustainability for the 22nd Century,” because an acquaintance who is a sculptor and a horticulturalist had designed a pervious walkway for the exhibit. We both came away with fresh ideas for honoring the environments in which we live.

Late afternoon found us sitting in a coffee shop near the Federal Center SW metro stop, with me munching on a gluten-free vanilla frosted cupcake from Hello Cupcake. Earlier in the day, when I hadn’t been able to decide between chocolate and vanilla, I planned ahead and bought one of each, knowing there’d be an afternoon cup of coffee in my future that would go great with a cupcake!

Afternoon soon turned to dusk, and the streets of DC buzzed with activity as museums disgorged intrepid tourists, and local workers trudged toward home, or perhaps happy hour and dinner at a favorite restaurant. Carl and I hopped aboard Metrorail, exited at Metro Center, and then hiked up 13th Street past a homeless shelter and the National Museum of Women in the Arts before entering a posh legal office where another old friend bided her days. Recently diagnosed with celiac disease, this friend took on the gluten-free diet pretty much as she had law school when she was a divorced mother with two children – with grit and wit. She declared we were dining that night at The Capital Grille, where the bartenders knew her by name, and that she was buying.

The Capital Grille in Washington, DC is called the “premier political watering hole in town,” by Frommer’s “Washington, D.C. day by day” guide book. More important to me, though, was whether or not they could provide a gluten-free meal. And the answer to that is: Yes...but always alert the manager to your dietary needs because most menu items must be modified. Dinner also comes with a hefty price tag, but with my friend treating, I dined lavishly on Greek salad, steak (no sauce), flourless chocolate espresso cake, and probably too much wine. But no gluten-free cupcakes.

UPDATE!

In November 2008, the Washington Post newspaper announced the winners of its cupcake-tasting competition. They rated 16 places that sell cupcakes, with the stipulation that all must be located within the Capital Beltway (I-495); this means the stores could be in DC, MD, and VA. The criteria used were: weight, appearance, taste and texture of the cake and frosting, ratio of frosting to cake, and overall impression.

Hello Cupcake ranked #2 overall, while the specific flavors of Vanilla Gorilla (banana cake/cream cheese frosting) and You Tart! (lemon) ranked #8 and #9 overall respectively! Even thought the gluten-free versions of these flavors were not included in the taste test, I hope they'll be available the next time I visit the bakery!


Helpful Information:

Hello Cupcake
1351 Connecticut Ave.,NW
Washington, DC 20036
202-861-2253
http://www.hellocupcakeonline.com/
Open Monday – Thursday 10-7, and Friday – Saturday 10-9. Closed Sunday.

The National Museum of American Indians
Fourth Street & Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20560
202-633-1000
http://www.nmai.si.edu/
Open daily 10-5:30.

U.S. Botanic Gardens
245 First St., SW
Washington, DC 20024
202-225-8333
http://www.usbg.gov/
Open daily 10-5 (Conservatory), 10-7 (Gardens).

The Capital Grille
601 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20004
202-737-6200
http://www.thecapitalgrille.com/
Lunch: Monday – Saturday 11:30 – 3:00.
Dinner: Sunday – Thursday 5-10; Friday – Saturday 5-11.