long post about travelin’ with food drama

One of the hardest (and most disappointing) aspects of having a lot of food-related health issues is that traveling is more than often really really hard. I keep thinking that I will get used to it, but it’s a real annoyance.

Most of the time, I travel with people who care deeply about my ability to function (and not spend the night in my hotel room getting incredibly sick) that they find ways to help me make traveling with food intolerances less frusterating. I’m extremely grateful for these people. But the reality is that even though it’s trendy to eat “gluten-free” these days, there is a lack of knowledge in the general public about the seriousness of the issue for those of us with actual health issues related to gluten. For those of us who don’t have an option, it’s much more than just a diet change: it’s a serious way of life that requires calculating risk in ways I have never had to before.

For example, this weekend I went to a Gender and Science Research conference in Philadelphia with my academic advisor April. We were invited to participate because of our research with urban girls and the after-school science club we run together. It was an honor to be invited. The trip was paid for in full. As one of the attendees, I was asked over email if I had any dietary issues. It’s hard to know what to write when you know you’re going to be held up in a room with 50 other people eating food prepared by a museum and a hotel. Trusting that some one would at least glance at what I wrote, I went with short version of the following:

I’m completely gluten intolerant. Soy is a serious issue, including soy lecithin. (Fun fact: Soy lecithin is derived from soy beans. It’s technically considered the “waste product” produced during the process of making soybean oil, but it’s widely used as an emulsifier, especially in chocolate because it keeps the cocoa and cocoa butter together. I’ve found that it’s almost always in diary-free chocolate as well. Some people claim they can eat soy lecithin even though they can’t eat straight up soy. I constantly mess around with small doses of the stuff and rarely is it okay with my body.)  Moving on: I can’t have most diary. Meaning I can’t have products from cows, but I can eat eggs, and some goat cheese, but only as long as it’s made with vegetable rennet and not animal rennet (which is usually from cows). Who reads those labels and even thinks about what rennet is and where it comes from? No one but people like me. And most labels just say “rennet” so you can’t tell anyway unless you call and ask the producer. (Just a heads-up: 99% of the time I ask, it’s animal rennet. Turns out vegetable rennet is more expensive to produce and therefore more expensive for cheese makers to use.)

I figured that my chances of a museum and hotel cafeteria figuring out any labels in a massive kitchen were slim to none. So, I filled out the form and wrote “I’m used to traveling and figuring out my own food, so I’ll come prepared.”

Coming prepared means coming with 4 Larabars and a bag of salted almonds as backup. (Heads-up #2: Half of Larabars contain dairy. Read the labels to be safe. I’m addicted to the peanut butter and jelly flavor. If you’ve never tried Larabars, they are the expensive way of eating paleo nuggets.)

Day #1: My food the first day of the conference consisted of a lunch of dry lettuce and a few cherry tomatoes with no dressing (can’t risk the dressing when you don’t know where it comes from and what’s in it) and 4 dill pickle spears.  Good thing I love dill pickles. I took a risk and had a scoop of potato salad. I got lucky and didn’t get sick from it. (Some mustards contain gluten, which was my main concern with taking the risk, but I had skipped breakfast and it was 1:30 and  lettuce and pickles isn’t really filling.) Dinner was more dry lettuce and a piece of salmon made special with no butter or breadcrumbs. The very kind wait-staff brought also brought me some fruit.

Day #2: Breakfast at the hotel was 4 pieces of extremely salty bacon, some melon cubes and coffee. Despite having an omelet station, they wouldn’t make me eggs minus butter because they had no other oil to cook them in. I got lucky at lunch and ducked out to visit Anthropolgie and happened upon a farmer’s market where I found this gluten free flat bread and this hard goat cheese made with vegetable rennet. What I love about small businesses is that when you buy from them, you are often talking to the person who either made the cheese or knows what’s in it. The guy looked right at me and said “Oh yea, vegetable rennet for sure. That’s all we use.” I had a hard time not asking for a hug.

Dinner in the airport was rosemary flavored almonds, olives, and wine.

There are my thoughts on this trip:

*It was literally a 40 hour trip so there wasn’t much time to actually look for food. I got lucky happening upon a farmer’s market in the middle of the city. When you have to depend on hotels and museums to feed you, it’s hard to trust that what you are getting comes with a guarantee. And by no means do I ever blame the staff that served me: they have no idea and that’s okay. I’m happy to eat lettuce greens dry and some fruit. But I didn’t get to eat the Philly cheese steak appetizers, which was kinda sad, but then again, all that melted cheese on bread makes me queasy now.

*I’m very grateful that there are small businesses producing gluten, dairy and soy-free food like Larabars. Maybe in my next career, I’ll invest in a business that’s focused on helping people like me get through traveling.

*Taking a short trip to a city like Philadelphia reminds me just how much amazing food I will be missing out on for the rest of my life when it comes to traveling and experiencing culture through food. As someone who grew up near lakes and farms, I’ve always felt a strong connection to local food and food systems and it’s disappointing to realize that no matter where I go, whether it’s in the U.S. or internationally, it’s very likely I won’t be eating many of the things that my friends and family enjoy. I’m glad that I got to experience France and Italy in my early 20s and ate all the bread and cheese I could possibly fit in my body in 10 days. No regrets there.

*As much as I love traveling, it’s nice to be home where I know all the food I’m eating is safe and I don’t have to live in a constant state of panic that if I risk something, I may end up regretting it. Yay for home-made food!