Tag Archives: asking questions

A Superlative GFAF Expo Roundup: Part 1

As many of you know, I spent Saturday and Sunday at the Gluten-Free and Allergy-Free Expo in Secaucus, New Jersey. I found the experience so rewarding that I wanted to give out a few awards of my own.

Speaking of which…don’t forget: Today’s the last day to enter my giveaway! I’m sending out a package full of sample-size treats from various vendors. Take my celiac personality quiz (you don’t have to have celiac disease!) and report your results for a chance to win.

The event was enormous, with both large, well-known companies and smaller companies local to the NJ/NY area or working to expand to it. Despite the size of the crowd, the venue itself was large enough that I rarely felt claustrophobic and had to wait in line to speak with a vendor. I tasted about a million great things, and there were about a billion things I wanted to say about the event, so I’m going to split up my report across a couple posts. Without further ado, here’s Part 1.

Cleverest name

Sevierly Good Gluten-Free logoWhat’s in a name? Plenty, when it comes to branding (notwithstanding the incredible ability of Rudi’s and Udi’s to coexist comfortably in the same market with such ripoffy-sounding names). My favorite was “Sevierly Good Gluten Free.” I love it because it’s a play on the owners’ last name (Sevier/severe) that connotes both really good food and strictness/seriousness—an important quality to most gluten-free consumers.

I’d be severely remiss if I didn’t also mention this Washington State–based company’s standout product: their cinnamon roll mix, which they’d made without eggs or dairy for samples and which blew a certain GF behemoth’s version out of the water.

Most accidentally convincing sales pitch

This goes to El, of El’s Kitchen. She was selling bagel chips, both plain and mixed in to what she called “Chex mix without the crap.” She elaborated, “No gluten, no MSG…,” but all I could think was, “I can take this home and put Chex in it.” I was sold.

P.S. The mixes are super good, even without Chex.

Best photo opp

Althea and me with "seedlings" pins

One photo was blurry, one had a fingertip…whatever, just pretend it’s a pumpkin.

After sampling every flavor of “Super Seedz” sold by Kathie’s Kitchen, my sister and I got stickers and were told that we were now Seedlings (which, like Sevierly, is a great name, because it suggests that we are being scattered to the wind with the germ of their success hidden within us, ideally to land somewhere fertile and sprout, spreading the word about their brand…am I taking this metaphor too far?).

Every flavor was good (e.g., Coco Joe, mmm), but on the second day, when we returned with cash, we decided we’d had enough sugar and went for the Tomato Italiano (two for one on Expo day—a deal!).

Most disappointed not to see there

Krumville Bake Shop, of Williamsburg. I met the owner, Antonella, at this summer’s NYC Celebrate Celiac event, and I really can’t sing her praises enough. She sent me home with several of her apple-ginger muffins, which include whole grain flours and shredded apple throughout—so although still an indulgence (with the taste and texture to match), they’re at least a little virtuous. We froze the muffins and enjoyed them, reheated, over the following weeks (sometimes with peanut butter…swoon).

If you live in the New York area, you can find Krumville at Smorgasburg on Saturdays through November 23rd, selling sweet and savory goodies. I know I’ll be making my way there myself!

Best brownie

Without a doubt, this goes to Whipped Pastry Boutique. Not only was it the best brownie at the Expo, but it may be the best brownie I’ve ever had. Like the Krumville muffins, I tried these first at the Celebrate Celiac event, and I also carried home several for the freezer. Fresh or reheated, these are chocolatey, moist, sitting at the most perfect possible intersection of gooey/dense and light/cakelike. No frills, no mix-ins, no nuts: just brownies.

Better than Betty? Dunno, haven’t tried hers yet. But my money’s on Whipped. We got to take home a bunch of samples again, but I’ll definitely be scouting them out around the city once our supply runs dry.

Most likely to be recreated in my home kitchen

Okay, maybe this is a bit mean, but the Kitchen Table cheese crisps struck me as an ingenious idea not quite worth the price tag for someone, like me, who prefers to make my own when possible. They’re just Parmesan cheese and seasonings, baked into chips, like the crispy bits you’d scrape off your baking sheet after making a pizza. Now, don’t get me wrong: they’re awesome. If you’re looking for a ready-made salad or mac & cheese topper, or an especially decadent cracker, and you aren’t prone to sticker shock, definitely buy a pack or two. Every flavor was good.

Best bread

Everybody Eats. Hands down. The co-owner, Pedro, was terribly nice, although he did seem to like me less once I told him, after he’d rhapsodized about the smoked salmon and prosciutto topping possibilities, that I was a vegetarian. He bakes in Red Hook (Brooklyn), and I’ve meant to try his bread for ages. Both the multigrain and baguette were out of this world. When we decided to buy a baguette, Pedro urged us to “choose our own—they’re all different.” I felt a couple up (through the plastic) and selected the one that felt right. Next time we have company, we will be pulling it out of our freezer to make some (meatless!) crostini.

Most embarrassing moment

At the New Planet stand, my sister and I did a full flight of beer tastings. The rep there, by the way, was also the only one to card us. He also read my birth year aloud, prompting a fellow taster to comment, “Since when does ’89 mean 21?” Guess we look young. But that’s not the embarrassing moment.

Breakfast Stout bottle

Not gluten-free…just seemed appropriate.
Photo © Andrew | Flickr

That was when a rep from the Freedom Foods stand came by to barter for bottles. He and the New Planet rep had twin Aussie accents and got to talking about it. Eventually, the cereal rep turned to Althea and me and told us that in Australia they eat cereal with beer, for breakfast.

“Like, in the beer?” we wondered.

He nodded earnestly, stringing us along until he couldn’t help but laugh. He also called us idiots, which you’d think would be bad salesmanship, though we still bought two boxes of Corn & Psyllium Flakes later (we think he was joking).

Anyway…apparently people don’t substitute beer for milk in Australia. And apparently I’m incredibly gullible.

On a more serious note, and speaking of being gullible: I left many of my usual food suspicions at the Expo doors, leaving it up to the event’s organizers to have sufficiently vetted everyone in attendance. I asked fewer questions and read fewer labels before sampling.

Then, on the way home from the event, I pulled out a full energy bar I’d been given. Though the label says “gluten free” on the front, on the back it says “manufactured on equipment that also processes peanuts, tree nuts, egg, and wheat.” I never would have eaten the samples had I known that.

In many cases, I did check the back of the box before sampling, mainly out of curiosity about the other nutrition info, since I was assuming everything was gluten-free. This time, I’d already chowed down on samples of two different flavors before finding out this critical info. Not cool. And not my wisest moment. We have to be the keepers of our own health. And, for me, that means NO POWERCRUNCH BARS.

Do you relax your guard at gluten-free events and gluten-free-friendly restaurants, or do you stay as strong as ever?

Note that there was absolutely no “committee” involved in the making of this post; all opinions are strictly my own and entirely dictatorial. For these “reviews,” I was not compensated with anything other than huge amounts of free samples and a sugar high. Thank you to the organizers who made this event possible, and particularly the vendors and other attendees who made it a fantastic weekend.

P.S. Find Part 2 here.

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Congrats, grad! And a “needs improvement” grade for me.

My little sister graduated this weekend. The same little sister who used to agreeably complete the activity books I made for her, who walked to school with me in elementary school and shared several of my high school teachers, is now a college graduate—cum laude—with a degree in neuroscience! She never would have made it there without my activity books.

The proud siblings!

The proud siblings! Nice of them to provide spotlights.

Seriously, though, my sister is right up there among the smartest people I know, and I’m glad she’ll be using her own brain to learn more about the most complex structure in the universe (even if she does have to dissect a few songbirds to do it…poor songbirds). She’s going to be doing research related to the brain–gut axis, for the next couple of years at least, which I think is awesome. Why study one brain when you can study two?

Not only did little sis graduate with honors, but she also picked up some very nice compliments from some of her teachers who we met over the course of the weekend. “One of my best students ever”; “Personal impact on my own life”—yep, those things were said. Go Althea!

While my sister came out top of her class this weekend, I failed the main test before me, which was to navigate the weekend’s catered meals in a way that left me feeling safe and unstressed. Although I did call in advance to ask what the meals would be like, I called while walking to the subway on my way to work, rather than sitting down somewhere quiet with a list of questions to ask. My reception was spotty, the background noise was probably annoying, and I was in a rush. First mistake.

In response to my question about whether gluten-free (and vegetarian) options would be available, she said they would, but that there was no special ticket for gluten-free meals (unlike for vegetarian). She said I’d just need to speak up at the event and they’d be able to accommodate me. That should have been my cue to ask more about just how they’d accommodate me, but instead I thanked her and hung up. Second mistake.

In fact, it was a buffet (in a tent outside in the drizzly cold weather—thankfully the graduation was indoors, apparently for the first time since ’86, before Althea’s birth or mine). Everything was listed as gluten-free except for the rolls, cornbread, and desserts. Still, I was concerned that people were reaching over the buffet to grab the bread (and possibly spilling crumbs into the cole slaw on the way), and that the utensils being used to serve the entrees were brushing up against the bread on people’s plates and perhaps picking up gluten that way.

When I expressed these concerns—falteringly, apologetically, well on my way to tears—the head chef personally brought me a meal from the back. Everyone was accommodating and polite, even in the mob scene that was the tent full of several hundred starving graduates and their families, but I have absolutely no idea whether the food I wound up eating was really safe.

Because I didn’t ask. In advance or at the tent, where I shook the head chef’s hand. I didn’t ask, “What are the ingredients in the marinade?” or “Were the vegetables prepped on clean cutting boards that have not also been used for bread?” or “Was the cornbread made at the same time and in the same place as other components of the meal?” or “Did everyone change gloves between handling the rolls and touching the potatoes?”

Although this is the kind of question to which I routinely subject my family and friends, when faced with strangers, I didn’t ask. The time to do it was in advance, when I could have decided I felt uncomfortable and packed food instead. But I didn’t. And then when I had a second chance, I still didn’t.

Here's the family in the food tent. Do I look stressed?

Here’s the whole family in the food tent. Do I look stressed?

My sister assured me the staff is good about cross-contamination concerns, but it’s hard to be good about cross-contamination when preparing food for a crowd in the thousands. There were packaged Udi’s cookies and bread at the desserts station, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else was done correctly.

As much as I’d studied up on the right way to eat out (by which I mean reading many, many fantastic blog posts on the subject), when it came time to put it into practice, I choked—like a college student who pulls an all-nighter to cram, then shows up at the test and blanks, or sleeps through it entirely. Not only do I not feel confident I didn’t accidentally eat gluten, but I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I could have, had I been better prepared.

Next time—which will not be for a long time because I am once again, dear readers, committing myself to eating only what is made in my very own home until I’m better—I’ll go about this the right way. Mindful of how miserable I was when I did it the wrong way, I’ll ask the appropriate questions in advance, and opt for the meal tickets if and only if I feel assured they’ll pull out all the celiac stops. I’ll show up with more than a KIND bar in my pocket in case the situation seems different on the ground and I decide not to chance it. I’ll have a nice time, I’ll be able to focus on the real reason I’m there, and I’ll eat food that I’m sure won’t eat me back.

Next time, like my sister, I’ll ace it.

Check out these posts for more on eating out gluten-free: Amanda’s set of posts advising restaurant pros, Jess’s “When ‘Gluten-Free’ Does Not Mean ‘Free of Gluten,'” and “Top 10 Questions to Ask When Dining Out Gluten-Free” at Thriving With Celiac. 

For a happier sprue story, I’ll tell you all about the graduation party soon. Do you have any graduations to attend this season?

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