Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gluten-Free Vacation: South Carolina and Beyond

I love to travel. After I finished my MA in English a few years ago, the Science Teacher and I took off for 5 weeks of sightseeing, training, swimming, and eating through the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia. We had a blast. One of our more amusing post-trip jokes came when we realized that in practically every picture I'm toting a little plastic bag that carried yogurt, fruit, and muesli. Ahh, muesli. Muesli was my travel staple before I went gluten-free. Either it or the ingredients for it have been available practically everywhere I've traveled. I carried bags of it around that summer and ate it for breakfast with yogurt practically every morning. Now that I'm gluten-free, though, most commercial muesli is out. What's a gluten-free girl to do for food when she can't carry it all with her?

I mentioned previously that my first gluten-free trip took us to Istanbul and that I was somewhat disheartened at the large suitcase of food I ended up taking. In the past, I have prided myself on my ability to pack light. For our previous 5-week trip, I schlepped all my stuff in a daypack. My 22 in. suitcase felt like a Louis Vuitton trunk set.

In hopes of lightening my load, I've come up with some gluten-free travel tips. As my bits of advice are completely dependent on the kind of trip you're taking, check out Book of Yum's account of her recent Florida trip for another take on gluten-free travel. I take lots of road trips and pack tons of food. For such a trip, the challenge is in eating out, not figuring out what to eat for breakfast. And my South Carolina trip was a hybrid--I definitely made room for some unnecessary favorites. It's the I'm-carrying-my-life-in-my-backpack travel that's more challenging for the gluten-free packer. So before thinking, "but I want my GF pancakes in the morning," consider whether you're taking:
  • a car trip (i.e. you're taking the Subaru wagon and the big coolers): read my advice and laugh as you enjoy your Cardamon-Date Muffins (aka Not-Too-Sweet Midnight Muffins), your sandwiches on millet-oatmeal bread, and your Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies.
  • a plane trip to single destination (i.e. you're taking a suitcase and won't have to carry it around except in the airport): read and decide how much of your suitcase will go to clothes and how much to food. You might find you don't have to fill it half with food...
  • a plane trip to multiple destinations (i.e. you may have to run 1/4 mile with your luggage to make your train): I'm really talking to you!
I've realized that successful gluten-free travel for light packers depends on a few points:

1. Don't rely on specialty GF products for most meals. I'm not saying don't bring your Bumble Bars or homemade granola bars or GF chocolate. Those are more for treats and emergencies than for providing regular meals. But do figure out what you would be happy eating for breakfast that doesn't involve access to Bob's Red Mill products. Rice porridge? Millet? Kasha? Baked sweet potato? Eggs? Yogurt? Choose food that can be purchased at your run-of-the-mill Food Lion where maybe you'll find a new GF product to try (the Food Lion on Lady's Island, SC, had a surprising GF shelf--I wouldn't call it abundant, but there was cereal, flour, and snacks). Choose staples to take that use space efficiently: a bag of cooked cereal, some fruit and nuts, energy bars, etc. (Did I really need those rice cakes that took up so much room in suitcase on our Turkey trip?)

Staples I Packed for SC:
Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies (I'm addicted...)
6 Cardamom-Date Muffins
natural peanut butter
energy bars
Dagoba's dark chocolate
roasted almonds
dried figs

Light Packer Rating (1-5): 3 (I definitely took several space-suckers, but the muffins were great!)

2. Do your research. Where are the grocery stores? Are there natural foods stores? Visit the local celiac association website and/or email a contact for advice. Be confident: if you can find a grocery store, you will be able to buy rice, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, etc. There are worse things than eating a lot of stir fries.
Research for SC:
My research turned up Whole Foods in SC but none in the areas where we'd be. A few web searches turned up a chain called Earth Fare. I found Bob's Red Mill GF Gluten-Free Oats, which I thought were sold out all over the country, and millet flour. My aunt also recommended a store in Columbia called The Fresh Market. Other web searches for restaurants turned up your regular chain restaurants with GF menus (sorry, but I'm not an Outback Steakhouse girl) but nothing that sounds interesting enough to check out.

Light Packer Rating: 5 (I knew exactly where I needed to go to find my food the day after we arrived.)

3. Make sure you have food for the plane, for when you first arrive, and for emergencies. There's nothing worse than looking for a grocery store in a country where you don't speak the language when you're hungry and jetlagged. Traveling light on food requires energy for foraging.

Food I Took For Traveling:
The Science Teacher and I stopped by our local co-op on the way out of town for lunch and dinner supplies, though after reading Biggie's post on airplane bentos, I can't believe I didn't pack bentos for the both of us.

1/8 lb. nitrate-free smoked turkey
small chunk of asiago cheese
1/8 lb. nitrate-free roast beef
small chunk of provolone
Mary's Gone Crackers crackers
1 container Greek-style yogurt
1 banana
1 apple

Light Packer Rating: 3 (The food took up a lot of space in my backpack. A bento would have allowed me to condense everything much more with the added aesthetically-pleasing factor.)

4. Find a kitchen. Surprisingly, this usually means staying either high or low on the room rate scale. "High" might mean condo, suite, or house. "Low" probably means friends/relatives or hostels. It's hard to cook that rice if you don't have a heating implement.

Our SC Kitchens:
Our aunt and uncle's kitchen in Columbia, and the family beach house kitchen in the low country. The Science Teacher made paella and pasta arrabiatta....mmmm.

Light Packer Rating: 5 (We always had a place to cook...)

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