Saturday, September 25, 2010

America's Food Wasteland: Gluten Free Travel in Central Florida

Shout out to the artist, Nu Breed, for that apropo video. If you've been to Polk County, you know what he's talkin' 'bout. If you haven't been there, take it from me, that groove pretty much sums up the vibe. Life is tough in this All American locale. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more seriously impoverished area of the country. Average household income is less than $35K/year, even in a booming economy.

I always plan my travel around the proximity of Whole Foods markets because with my collection of food allergies, it is vital that I have access to food that I know I can safely enjoy. With family residing in Polk County, I know the locations of all the Whole Foods from Orlando to Tampa and have visited most of them over the years. My mother, who shares some of my allergies, had requested a trip to the Tampa store on this visit, and since that is my favorite I happily agreed. 

Being a "first things first" kinda gal, it was my top priority to to check in on my father, whose poor health and bad behavior had necessitated this trip. I like to go and look after him to give his woman a break, so that she can get away without having to be overly anxious about whether he remembered to eat his dinner or take his meds or put out his cigarette before he falls asleep.

I slept through most of the redeye flight from homebase, then ambled off the airplane and into the terminal at Orlando International Airport to wait for my transport out to the boonies. We had no plan to stop in Orlando, as I needed to check in on Dad. I collected my luggage and an empty wheelchair, which I dragged near enough to an electrical that I could plug in my Android phone darling for power.

Fumbling around in my SeaTac shopping bag, I found the can of Wild Salmon that I had purchased the night before. I opened the box and slid out the small pop-top can. I didn't have any utensils, so I pulled the lid off the can and bent it into the shape of a -- spovel? -- a makeshift combination of spoon and shovel. I retrieved the loaf of gluten free bread I brought from home and started my meager breakfast, all the while giving thanks for the abundance of healthy, local foods available to us in the Pacific Northwest.

I glanced at the box from which I had taken the can of salmon while I offered silent thanks for that cardboard casing and pop top that made it so convenient to literally eat and run. I prayed a blessing on the businesses and people who labored to produce these resources, a practice I learned from Marge Piercy's Pesach for the Rest of Us.

And then I froze. There is nothing on God's green/blue planet that I hate more than cockroaches. Except maybe possums. No, definitely cockroaches are the worst creatures ever to evolve on our homeworld. Ever.

Yes, I saw Wall-E. Loved it, in fact! But no, they did not succeed in making La Cucarocha adorable. I spent the entire first viewing time struggling to restrain my disgust and hysteria at the featured creepy crawler. Can't abide 'em. And they had already zeroed in on my presence.

I had been in Florida for less than thirty minutes and here was the first of the genre, skittering about my salmon box and sending out signals of delirium to kith and kin. My horror only grew deeper as they began to congregate in the planter where I had temporarily parked my box. I really intended to toss it in a trash can, but there was NO WAY I could be persuaded to touch that thing now!
Mother arrived to whisk me away from the nightmare, thank God! And since there was no time to visit the Orange County Whole Foods markets, we made a stop at Publix in our destination town. Turns out Winter Haven is the hometown of Publix Super Markets. And in this place where the cheapest possible food seems to be necessitated by the ultra-low incomes, Publix has made a small commitment to gluten free and organic goodness. THANK YOU, Publix!!!

I was able to get a few staple groceries and I still had my loaf of homemade bread. I found some coconut water and some Fiji water for good hydration. I bought some organic apples and celery, some ground buffalo and ground lean beef (not organic, but at least free of hormones & antibiotics), and some gluten free So Delicious Coconut Milk Cookie Dough frozen dessert. Publix stocks Chex brand gluten free cereals.

I was surprised to note in passing that they also had some of our favorite West Coast wines on the shelf, namely Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel and Ravenswood!

We had a small family dinner at the local Outback Steakhouse and I learned that this American family favorite has a separate gluten free menu and ALL staffers are trained to manage the special needs of customers with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

In the end, events transpired to facilitate my swift return to homebase after only a couple of days in the 'hood, so we didn't make the planned pilgrimage to Whole Foods/Tampa. Instead, I got to stop in at the onsite Hyatt, completely accessible from within the Orlando International Airport. This hotel has saved me on numerous trips, just by being there. Since I am prone to vestibular migraine (the kind caused by sudden changes in barometric pressure, such as those you experience during rapid descent on a commercial airliner), there have been times that I could go no farther once I reached Orlando. Instead, I took a room at this Hyatt and ordered a protein entree sent to the room, then took my migraine medication followed by a tub soak for hydration and crashed.

Most of the major hotel chains in America have trained their kitchens to understand the needs of the gluten free customer, so they can be a big help to you when traveling. You wouldn't ordinarily think of a hotel dining room as a dinner destination, but they can be quite good for people with food allergies and often not more expensive than other restaurants in the same town. I have had dinner in Porterhouse at the Orlando Airport Marriott with good success and this Hyatt is my favorite in the continental USA. With a small, "safe food" respite, I was ready to board my homeward bound flight with a smile.

I used the time on board this flight to entertain the American soldier's young son across the aisle and to map out a basic plan for our upcoming teleconference series, Gluten Free Fast Track. All you #GF folks out there, watch for upcoming announcements of this series, slated to begin mid-October. Leave a comment on this page if you would like more information or follow me on Twitter @HypFoods.

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