Posts tagged ‘personal stories’
I knew when the Mardi Gras parade came down the main aisle of the exhibit hall with the band playing Dixieland and masked characters throwing beads that this was not going to be your typical food show. With lots of revelry and champagne, the 60th “Toast to Talent” Louisiana Restaurant Show was a full three days of fun, southern hospitality and amazing aromas and tastes. Fortunately, my husband Dave and son Cole agreed to come along. Since we are all in the foodservice business, we could learn a few things at the show and explore the city together at night.
When Sandy Riddle, Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) Exhibitors, called to invite me to speak at the LRA show this year I was so excited, but a bit sad too. I hadn’t been to New Orleans (NOLA) since my 20’s, before my celiac disease diagnosis (or as I like to call it “pre-CD”). I remembered all the amazing food like gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya and beignets, which of course all contain gluten, and all but the beignets contain roux. (Roux is a mixture of flour and butter cooked together until bubbly and brown. The desired color depends on what you are preparing and sometimes it can take a good long time of stirring and waiting to get the perfect color and taste.) But I was hopeful that I would find some new flavors and gluten-free foods while exploring the city.
I’ve met some really nice people at various shows across the US and always enjoy that first day when I’m able to meet fellow vendors setting up in the same aisle. It’s also a good time to check out which spots will have safe food choices when you need a nibble to keep up the energy and pass the time. Luckily, I happened to be smack dab next to one of the most popular exhibitors, Your Way Cuisines, a gluten-free roux company. Kristie Buford and her husband Chad are brand new to the gluten-free industry and saw a need and decided to fill it. They have created two roux bases made from corn and sorghum and they’re delicious. I have not had gumbo in 20 years and the gumbo they prepared with their product was full-flavored with a nice, smooth back heat.
Evenings consisted of strolls through the French Quarters from Bourbon Street to the Riverwalk. We tried to get the full NOLA experience, a concert at Preservation Hall, a ghost tour, shopping and people-watching on Bourbon Street.
Of course my guys had to find the bar, “Spirits” from the TV show Bar Rescue and purchase some kind of voodoo potion. We did find some tremendous restaurants that offered gluten-free options. Red fish was a popular entrée at many spots especially at Redfish Grill. The chicken with jambalaya risotto was succulent and spicy at Bourbon House and the service was impeccable. We really loved the music, atmosphere and Caribbean flavors at Rum House in the Garden District.
By day, I enjoyed meeting many of the chefs and restaurateurs from some of the famous and well-known establishments. We talked a great deal about the increasing demand and requests for gluten-free options, and how GREAT Kitchens, an online training course from NFCA, would be a valuable tool for staff to learn about safe preparation. When I was able to take a break from the exhibit, I found some tremendous booths showing off their gluten-free spice blends and recipes to create Cajun cuisine so I’m looking forward to putting my samples to good use. But by the end of the week, I was feeling a bit crabby; swampy heat can take its toll on a woman from Nebraska! NOLA certainly delivered new flavors, new recipes and new friends – even on a gluten-free diet.
The following guest post is from National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) volunteer, Candice Clifford of Embrace G-Free.
What does, “expect the unexpected,” mean to you? This was an exact interview question, which was given to me during my international service trip (ISP) interview. As I heard these words I felt both fear and a thrill of excitement. However, as I thought more about this central ISP theme, I began to realize this phrase could describe my life for the past eight years.
I don’t understand why certain events have happened in my life, but I certainly know that each hardship has taught me valuable life lessons. While dwelling on the “why question” was a part of my grief process when I was first diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’), I quickly realized this was not going to help me live my best life.
As Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” says, “make your mess your message.” Whether big or small, we all have our own challenges. In the end I truly feel that you will not be defined by your “something,” rather people will remember you for what you did with your life after you faced adversity.
After I was diagnosed, I was full of fear. Food, going out to eat and getting sick again were fears hat controlled my life. However, in 2011 I made a choice to make a change by starting my blog, Embrace G-Free. Not only did this help get me back cooking in the kitchen, but it also empowered me.
Empowerment is one of the words which is continually tossed around in my counseling classes. However, I truly believe empowerment is a concept that you can’t fully understand until you personally experience it. As a future counselor I feel blessed that I will have the opportunity to help my clients become empowered. However, it is possible to discover self-empowerment without the guidance of a professional.
One of the best things you can do to achieve self-empowerment is set a goal; big or small, size doesn’t matter. What makes the difference is your attitude. Throw the self-doubt out the door. “I can’t” isn’t an option. By no means am I saying you will achieve all your goals. I for sure haven’t; failing is part of life. It is possible you may discover a barrier which prevents you from achieving your goal. However if you take all the proper steps and know you did everything in your power to try and achieve your goal, consider it a success. In taking action rather than letting your dreams pass you by, you will begin to feel more empowered.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, self-empowerment is something I am so passionate about because becoming empowered has moved my life in such a positive direction and has provided me with experiences which I am forever grateful for. Finding empowerment through my diagnosis was one of life’s “unexpected” moments, eventually leading me to achieving a goal which I was ready to give up on. However, a long-term college dream was achieved this past May when I was blessed to go on an international service trip to El Salvador.
It was a long process to see if this goal could even be achieved. I started back in April 2012 and continued when I returned to school in September to make sure the sites could accommodate my needs. It was one thing to want to go on an ISP trip, but I needed to ensure I could do it safely. Patience, diligence, determination and an incredible program director helped me get through step one. Once I got the green light, it was onto getting over the hurdles of application selections and an interview process.
I will never forget the day I received the e-mail notifying me that I was selected to travel to El Salvador. I cried and would have screamed if I wasn’t at work. The planning process was incredible and in May 2013, my group and I were ready to head off to El Salvador.
While many people see a service trip as a way to serve others, I can honestly say that the people and experiences I had taught me more than I could ever give to the people I served. Although I felt empowered prior to ISP, this experience truly allowed me to take my feeling of empowerment to a new level. Not only was I faced with the challenge of new food allergy diagnoses a month before the trip, but while in El Salvador all my fears that I had prior to leaving happened. Despite this, I was OK.
I truly believe it was my individual choices, which helped me overcome the challenges I faced. For example, rather then crying when I walked in the first night and realized I couldn’t eat the main meal, I took a deep breath to calm myself down, told myself it was going to be OK, and made an almond butter sandwich. Overall that was one of the only meals I couldn’t eat and when I was unsure, I did without and turned to a safe option I brought with me.
After going on this trip I really began to realize even though food is our medicine, it doesn’t have to make or break our experiences. Of course enjoying some of the cultural dishes was wonderful and delicious, however, when I look back 20 years from now, I will not remember the foods I ate. Rather my memories will be of all the wonderful relationships I built during those 7 special days in El Salvador.
Food is our medicine, but don’t let it stop you from achieving your goals. Become Empowered!
About Candice Clifford & Embrace G-Free
Visit Embrace G-Free where you can find empowering tools to live your happiest and healthiest gluten-free life! Browse through great recipes, product reviews and helpful resources. Candice Clifford started Embrace G-free in January 2011, after being diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Follow her journey as she rediscovers her passions for baking and cooking. Candice shares her story with others to spare them from years of misdiagnoses and to inspire hope.
Follow Candice on Twitter (@CandiceRose90) and like Embrace G-Free on Facebook.
New to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) team, Healthcare Relations Intern Josh Goldberg has developed an interest in all things celiac disease and gluten-free related. Eager to get more involved, Josh took to the kitchen to put his gluten-free baking skills to the test. Read on for Josh’s account of his first try at gluten-free baking.
Savory Avocado Coconut Cookies.
I glared at my monitor incredulously. It sounded like the sort of thing you would make on a dare. I had wandered into this recipe while searching for something gluten-free to bake. If I had a lick of common sense, I would have stuck with something a little more traditional for a dessert. My eyes darted down to the ingredients and baking steps. The recipe only required three ingredients: a large avocado, coconut flour, and some salt. All I had to do was mash up the avocado, mix it into the coconut flour and salt, toss the concoction onto a tray, and leave in the oven for a bit.
Savory Avocado Coconut Cookies. Three ingredients. Seven steps. What could go wrong?
I scrambled over to Whole Foods and picked up the necessary ingredients. Once I got home, I pre-heated the oven and got to work. The avocado peel came off easily and I attacked the fruit with all the precision of Norman Bates. Some of the resulting mess ended up on the floor where the cat sniffed it curiously and then retreated. I tried not to think of it as a bad omen and dumped the appropriate amount of coconut flour into the avocado’s bowl.
After the salt was added, I grabbed a big spoon and started to mix. It felt like I was pushing sand. The flour and avocado were adhering to one another, but the product was crumbling and barely clumping. It took a good long while to bunch the mixture into what can only be described as The World’s Saddest Cookies. Despite their less-than-perfect appearance, the bright green of the “cookies” brought me some level of optimism. I pursed my lips and guided the cookie tray into the oven. Surely, the baking process would instill some flavor into these little green lumps.
All signs should have pointed to me lowering my expectations for the cookies. I caught a sniff of the coconut flour and began thinking about sharing these cookies with my family. I would now have a signature dessert that I could bring to my in-laws when we ate at their residence. Their fears of the bizarre-looking cookies would dissipate with a single taste. I would be the new gluten-free baker on the block. The thought was as savory as I hoped the cookies would be.
I vaulted off the couch and grabbed the tray with a gloved hand. The little green lumps that I had sent in were now…little green lumps with a tan. I could still smell a hint of coconut, so my hope for a good, savory flavor remained intact. After giving the lumps time to cool, I brought my fiancé into the kitchen to take a taste test with me. She was surprised by the appearance of the cookies, but tentatively took a bite with me.
I didn’t even have time to ask her if she liked them before she placed what was left of the lump in my hand and ran to get a drink of water.
Dejected, I got in touch with my stepmother-in-law. My fiance’s father and sister were diagnosed with celiac disease over ten years ago and it largely fell to her to figure out how to cook and bake without gluten. Surely, she would give me some guidance as to what went wrong with the recipe or my cooking method. My stepmother-in-law listened to my story and shrugged. She had recently spent a Saturday making cookies of her own. She made the cookies multiple times with different ratios of ingredients to get the right level of consistency and texture, but the end result was the same. This woman, who had been cooking and baking gluten-free for so long, still struggled to perfect a recipe.
I was stunned. Having eaten with my in-laws on numerous occasions, I knew her cooking was top-notch. My stepmother-in-law noted my surprise and told me that cooking and baking is a constant learning process. You rarely ever get the recipe right the first time. The issue is compounded in gluten-free baking. It is important to not be discouraged when a recipe does not go as planned. Instead, take stock of what you have learned and incorporate it into your next try. The reward of having a go-to baking recipe is worth the effort.
My discussion with my stepmother-in-law soothed my bruised ego. She had spent an entire day on a cookie recipe that went nowhere and I was upset over one simple recipe gone awry. I went back over the avocado coconut cookie recipe and checked some similar, more complex recipes. It turns out that I need to add some additional binding agents to the recipe to bulk up those green lumps. It would also help to add chocolate to enhance the flavor. My lesson has been learned. I don’t feel embarrassed about the experience anymore. I feel empowered.
Savory Avocado Coconut Cookies. I’ll give you another try…someday.
Healthcare Relations Intern, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
I really like to stay home. I’m not embarrassed by this statement but embrace the fact that I no longer feel pressure to “go out.” Not only have I had plenty of years spending countless nights and weekends making the most of my free time, but both mine and my husband’s jobs require that I attend events, dinners, receptions and every feasible sport played by college athletes possible. The added benefit to staying home is the control I have over my food. A perfect weekend night is eating an Amy’s gluten-free cheese pizza on the sofa, catching up on all my shows on the DVR. Now that’s indulgence! But, despite typically loving my weekends at home, I was super excited to head out last Saturday night with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) to the studio of Liddy Lindsay, local artist and friend of NFCA Founder and President, Alice Bast. It was such an amazing night!
NFCA brought lots of gluten-free goodies for guests to experience gluten-free food and ask questions about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Everyone was surprised that they were eating gluten-free; comments, like “this actually tastes good” were heard throughout the night. The studio was filled with this wonderful array of individuals from varied backgrounds and lifestyles. Everyone was inquisitive and curious about NFCA and celiac disease. While most people did not know what celiac disease is, they all have heard about the gluten-free lifestyle and most know someone with gluten sensitivity.
As the end of the party neared, it became apparent that no one wanted to leave (always the sign of a good party!). The evening continued for a number of us NFCA art-lovers once we arrived at Pod – a West Philly, Steven Starr, establishment that provides gluten-free options on their menu. So, while a night out typically means worrying about what I’m going to eat, this night was less worry and more “let’s eat!” (Post-party confession – I stashed a gluten-free pizzelle in the car for an after dinner treat and enjoyed it when we left the studio. What a nice way to end the night!)
While it may be a bit out of character for me now, I am looking forward to heading out with my NFCA pals for more events throughout May for Celiac Awareness Month. On May 7th, we’ll be shopping at C. Wonder in the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania with 20% off purchases and 10% of sales going the support NFCA (isn’t that great?). After that, I’ll be heading on up to New York City for a very special evening with Chef David Bouley on May 9th.
All of the ladies at NFCA are buzzing with excitement for the upcoming month and the energy is contagious. As I’m catching on to their excitement of being out-and-about more often than usual this month, I can’t help but be reminded of a famous quote from the infamous Dorothy Day: “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.” I’m so happy to be part of a team that helps people get diagnosed, restore their health and reclaim their lives, especially during Celiac Awareness Month – now that is food for the soul.
I LOVE pizza – cold pizza for breakfast, hot, gooey, cheesy pizza with thick or thin crusts and toppings of all kinds: pesto, pepperoni, olives, onion, even anchovies. So when I was diagnosed with celiac disease back in 1992, when very few gluten-free products existed, I concluded my love affair with pizza was pretty much over. Making gluten-free pizza was a chore I could handle, but it just wasn’t the same. Eating pizza out of the box and sipping an ice cold beer while watching a movie, and hanging with the family or friends seemed impossible or too depressing. During a pity party, I even told my husband, Dave, my last request before I died was pizza delivered to my death bed with a cold brew as my last meal. (What’s one last jolt of poison when your about to take your last breath anyway?) I’m so glad gluten-free has come so far that I can pick a more extravagant last meal….maybe chocolate croissants. Never in my lifetime, did I expect to live to experience gluten-free pizza so accessible and tasty.
Recently, I was honored to speak at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas on behalf of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA). Gluten-free pizza is a HOT trend and operators across the country want to know what it takes to include gluten-free as an option for their customers, so I was thrilled to be asked to attend. Over 7,000 pizza operators attend this show annually to taste the latest, greatest ingredients, find new equipment, and attend educational sessions to learn how to make their business more successful. The energy at this show is over the top and the events are show stoppers. These operators are serious competitors, too. The contests happening right on the “All Pizza, All-of-the-Time Show Floor” included Bake Offs, Freestyle Acrobatic Dough Tossing, Pizza Challenges, and Demonstrations for pizzas, salads, and beer brewing. What an amazing experience.
My educational session, “How Pizzerias Can Serve a Gluten-Free Pie” included 3 panelists. As moderator and speaker, I provided education about serving diners with gluten-related disorders, the importance of training and safe preparation. My panelists, GREAT Kitchens grads (a training course from NFCA on safe gluten-free food preparation) Adam and Debbie Goldberg from Fresh Brothers, LA area, and Willy Olunds, from Willy O’s in Michigan, gave the attendees real life experience in serving gluten-free pizza. These experts gave different perspectives since Fresh Brothers has 8 locations and Willy O’s is an independent operation.
Willy invited me to tag along during his pizza competition in the non-traditional category. (No gluten-free category yet, but maybe next year.) According to Willy and his wife, Carla, this is highly irregular to allow non-participants in the competition area. I felt honored and so impressed with the intense passion each competitor brought to their pie including Willy. His unique corn-based crust and decadent ingredients made for a pretty impressive entry.
Other GREAT experiences included hanging out with the staff at Venice Bakery. (Their booth was amazing and so was the pizza!) I also sat in the front row and watched Iron Chef Redemption challenger Elizabeth Falkner demonstrate kale salad (crispy, fresh, and blanched kale) and actually met her after the demo. She’s really cool. I had some time to check out the exhibitors, so I said “hi” to old friends like Joel Schut from RW Bakers, Pamela and Alison from Pamela’s, and the DeIorio’s team. Best of all I made a new friend, Denise San Filippo (a fellow gluten-free gal) from Schar. Denise and I hit the strip one night and had a fabulous gluten-free dinner at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Hotel. From our window, we could see the Eiffel Tower and watch the Bellagio fountain show. (Sometimes this job is grueling!) Our waitress was well-educated about allergens and gluten which gave us confidence in our restaurant choice especially when she answered all of our probing questions correctly. She even brought us toasted gluten-free bread and warm olives for our starter. Denise had the scallops and I tried the Lemon Chicken with shallow Pom Frites. (Shallow means fried separately in a pan not a deep fryer.) It was delicious, especially the fried potatoes.
With every expo and conference I attend, I have the opportunity to meet new people and can’t help but feel ecstatic over the progress we’re making. 20 years ago, I thought I would never eat pizza again. Now, there are people seeking information on how to make both delicious and safe gluten-free pizza. And, to be able to be a part of that is a GREAT feeling.
When I first started working at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), I was terrified to cook for the team. I was still learning about the gluten-free diet, and there were two things I knew for sure: 1) There is a serious need to keep gluten-free food from getting contaminated; and 2) Avoiding that contamination can be challenging, especially when you have three gluten-eating roommates at home. So, I avoided making any offers to bring in homemade snacks for the group.
Then the team decided to have a potluck. I easily could have contributed some gluten-free products from the grocery store, but I felt this was an opportunity to get in the kitchen and make something from scratch for my co-workers.
Knowing that I wasn’t quite ready to dive into gluten-free baking, I opted for a simple, crowd-pleasing dish – what I call my Festive Fall Bake. It’s a combination of sweet potatoes, butternut squash and apples, splashed with some orange juice and baked until fork tender. Before preparing any food, I cleaned all the surfaces in my kitchen and thoroughly washed any bowls or utensils that I planned to use. I washed the baking dish and lined it with aluminum foil, just to make sure there would be no risk of gluten residue. As soon as it was done, I covered the dish with aluminum foil and stashed it on the top shelf of our fridge.
The next day, the staff raved about my Festive Fall Bake. Best of all, I was confident that I had made the food safely. Everyone enjoyed, and no one got sick.
My gluten-free cooking skills have become more and more helpful over the years, and it now hits even closer to home. Recently, one of my soon-to-be in-laws learned he has to avoid gluten for health reasons. When he came to dinner at our home, we served cheese and gluten-free crackers for appetizers; pork with mole sauce, roasted asparagus and homemade gluten-free cornbread for the main course; and ice cream with a gluten-free crumble for dessert. It was important to me that he got to enjoy the same complete meal as everyone else – no exclusions.
This month at NFCA, we’ve been hosting the “Cook for Your Love” campaign. It stems from our belief that everyone deserves a home-cooked meal, no matter what their dietary restrictions may be. You’re probably used to cooking your own gluten-free food each night, but every now and then you should be able to have someone else cook for you. So, this Valentine’s Day (or any day, really), take the opportunity to cook with a special someone and teach the ins and outs of gluten-free safety. It could be your mom, or your kids, or your best friend. Chances are, they’ll be eager to learn, and it could give them the confidence to cook gluten-free meals more often.
The gluten-free recipes on our “Cook for Your Love” campaign should be enticing enough to get your special someone in the kitchen, but if you need extra encouragement, sign up for the weekly giveaway. Nothing says “try me” like free products, right?
Has a special someone cooked a delicious gluten-free meal for you? Tell us about it (and include recipe links if you have them)!
The following is a guest post by Jaqueline Yngvason, a freelance food stylist, culinary producer and host of an online cooking show. Jaquy has celiac disease and multiple food allergies and is determined to bring awareness to these special dietary needs.
Since I can remember, growing up meant weekly visits to the emergency room, handfuls of pain medications and strong shots. In my half Icelandic, half Ecuadorean world, this seemed normal, but I would grow up to find out otherwise. While my brother and sister were outside playing with their friends, I was forced to hide from the sun, spending a large portion of my time sick in bed with excruciating migraines.
At the age of 16, after years of going to countless doctors who couldn’t seem to figure out what was wrong with me, I finally found out that I was sensitive to gluten. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I was fully diagnosed as having celiac disease. After that, my relationship with food was forever changed. I had to turn away from all of the foods that I loved and savored; wheat, eggs and dairy had to go, or I would continue to feel sick all of the time.
When I was first diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, there wasn’t much information on the subject and I was pushed to experiment and learn how to cook for myself to avoid eating out and getting sick. It was then that cooking went from a hobby to a healthy obsession, finding inspiration in recreating dishes that I once loved and transforming them in to something I could safely eat.
Shortly after college, not being satisfied with the current state of gluten-free awareness, I started my own health company to teach others in need. Feeling that I still had a lot to learn about proper handling of food and technique, I enrolled in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Oregon. Looking back, for someone like me, going to a French culinary school may not have been the most logical choice. But, I was a newly diagnosed celiac, and I wanted to learn the only way that any chef does from cooking… by tasting.
If you don’t know much about French culinary schooling, let’s just say they didn’t understand how to deal with my multiple food allergies. I ostracized by my teachers and peers, and encouraged to drop out because I did not belong. But like all hurdles in my life, I pushed on and became stronger. Going into baking and patisserie classes wearing a breathing mask, goggles and latex gloves to protect myself and further my culinary knowledge was necessary. I would find a way to flourish no matter what they threw at me, all in the name of furthering my awareness of food. Living with severe food allergies is strangely similar to boxing; no one gets to the top without taking a beating.
After culinary school, I headed to another place that left me feeling isolated: the Food Network. Again, I pushed through and went from being an intern to producing some of the Food Network’s top shows and food styling major commercials all in under one year.
Currently I live in New York City, working as a freelance food stylist, culinary producer and allergy friendly cooking show host (see one of my videos above!), always working to share my knowledge and learn from others along the way. Looking back at all of the pain and suffering I subjected myself to, I now know that it wasn’t all for nothing. Being gluten-free and having celiac disease isn’t a curse or a fad; it’s a blessing, and with the proper knowledge and understanding, you can live an extremely fulfilling life using food in a positive way.
My goal in life is to spread celiac and food allergy awareness to those similar to me who feel isolated and alone. The world can be changed through food, making it a better place not just for those with celiac disease, but for everyone.
The following is a guest post by Dhanu Thiyagarajan, a sophomore at University of Pittsburgh and founder of Gluten Free My Campus, the university’s gluten-free student group.
October 16, 2012 was a great day for Gluten Free My Campus, University of Pittsburgh’s Gluten Free club. With tons of planning since the month of May, the club was able to host a wonderful Gluten-Free Awareness Carnival for the entire UPitt campus. The carnival consisted of more than 20 gluten-free related companies/organizations either in attendance or providing materials, and several gluten-free related carnival games for the students to enjoy while learning what gluten-free means! Between learning about various gluten-free companies, gaining gluten-free knowledge from the games, enjoying the free food and earning raffle tickets for our wonderful raffle prizes, the carnival was a great success with more than 500 Pitt students and faculty in attendance.
Planning started with brainstorming a list of companies and organizations on and off campus that we thought would enjoy being a part of our event and would help our goal to spread awareness – and of course, those companies have great gluten-free options! After contacting all of these companies/organizations, we got many replies and of course some rejections as well. It was a great honor to have all of these companies trusting a club on a college campus to host this kind of event, and we were glad to build contacts with such people, too. Susannah Faulkner from Udi’s Gluten-Free Foods was also a great contact who put us in contact with several other gluten-free companies that helped us out greatly.
This event could have not been such a great success without the support of other campus organizations and the members of the club. Getting companies to attend is one very important aspect, but getting people to come and enjoy the carnival is the biggest and most important part of this kind of event. We were able to get many organizations and companies to post our carnival’s flyer on their website along with local companies posting the flyer in their stores. We also posted flyers all over UPitt’s campus and had club members spread the word in person and through texting. We also had a Facebook event inviting much of Pitt’s campus. We had many campus organizations helping us out, specifically Sigma Gamma Gamma, a service sorority that provided us with most of the volunteers needed for the event.
For the future, we hope to expand our array of companies/organizations, and of course increase our attendance by spreading the word even more! With the support of these companies, campus organizations and of course all of our attendees, we were able to host our first Gluten-Free Awareness Carnival of hopefully many, and it was a great success. This was a day that Gluten Free My Campus will never forget!
Last week, I received an email from Benny Solomon, the founder of celiac and gluten-free resource website called OnTrackCeliac. The website is still in its infancy, but the goal is to include restaurant listings, product recommendations and other tools for living gluten-free. Nothing out of the ordinary, but here’s what caught my attention: Benny is only 14 years old.
After reading Benny’s email, I just had to find out how a teenager decided to shelve some of his social time and spend it developing a gluten-free resource.
NFCA: What inspired you to start OnTrackCeliac?
Benny Solomon: I was diagnosed with celiac disease in late 2009, and immediately switched to a completely gluten-free diet. Within days, I noticed that many people knew what eating gluten-free was, but had no knowledge of cross-contamination. I did not feel comfortable eating out and not knowing what was happening in the restaurant’s kitchen. I realized that most places did not fully understand celiac disease.
For about a year and a half, I refused to go to more than about four different restaurants that I felt comfortable in, simply because I didn’t know which ones I could trust. It was at this time that I realized that those with celiac needed a place to go to be sure that there was no need to worry.
Many websites have huge, outdated lists of restaurants with gluten-free menus. If you were to go to about half of the restaurants on those lists, you would find that most of the staff has no familiarity with celiac. People with celiac disease needed a place to find gluten-free options that were reliable and where they did not have to worry about cross-contamination. In February of 2011, I started OnTrackCeliac to satisfy this need.
NFCA: Why did you decide to do a restaurant and food finder?
BS: I wanted to work with restaurants and foods since they are the base of starting a gluten-free diet. My plan was to develop more resources around these two categories over time.
This was not my first time making a website or app, but it was the first time that I seriously took on a technology-related task. For a few years I worked on a few iPhone games, and later I ran a small website that featured “the best videos on YouTube.” OnTrackCeliac truly felt like an idea where I could apply my computer experience to something I am passionate about.
NFCA: How do you choose the restaurants that you feature?
BS: My policy is that any restaurant that is safe for people with celiac disease should be listed on OnTrackCeliac. I don’t exclude any restaurants for quality of the food, or any other reasons. I try to provide as many options for restaurants as possible, as there are very few that have a strong knowledge of celiac. Although the main focus is on gluten-free safety, I will be starting a new star system, so that restaurants that have exceptional food and go above and beyond expectations will be recognized.
NFCA: How do you create your list of gluten-free foods on the website?
BS: When creating a list of gluten-free foods, I generally start by exploring the company’s website. I try and ask myself if the company looks reliable, and if they are promoting gluten-free foods. If they actively publish a list of gluten-free foods, that becomes a strong indicator of the company’s reliability. If not, I generally call companies to find out if they have a list of gluten-free foods, but do not publish it online.
The company must show significant knowledge to pass the test and make it onto the site, and if they do not have any apparent efforts for showing which products have gluten and which do not, they do not make the cut.
NFCA: How do you juggle this project with school and other activities?
BS: Working OnTrackCeliac development into my schedule is certainly difficult. I generally don’t work on the site every day (after homework is done); instead, I find that I work best when a large chunk of time is available. On a break from school, for example, I sometimes sit down and work on the website for 3-4 hours a day. I do give OnTrackCeliac a quick check every day though, just to make sure nothing has gone wrong, and that everything is working smoothly.
NFCA: Some people get discouraged about having to live gluten-free. You seem to have a passion for it. How do you stay so positive?
BS: I have mixed feelings towards having celiac disease. At times, I like having it, because it gives me something that I feel is unique to me in the way that I deal with it. At other times, I do experience frustration, such as on trips and when I go to a restaurant at a last minute’s notice. The way that I stay so positive is by knowing that OnTrackCeliac helps other people. By encouraging people to stay informed about celiac, we can only encourage progress for the future.
For the first year I worried about having celiac, but realized that worrying wasn’t getting me anywhere. By educating others, I hope that someday celiac will not be a burden at all on my lifestyle, and I am motivated to teach others to have the same outlook on eating gluten-free.
NFCA: What advice do you have for teens who feel tempted to cheat on their gluten-free diet?
BS: To any teens with celiac that want to cheat, I would say it’s simply not worth it. After having spent the first part of my life eating gluten without knowledge of celiac, I can assure anyone that the best substitutes for gluten-free are just as good as regular food. The trick is you have to find the best (I cannot stress that enough) brands. For example, there are hundreds of gluten-free breads out there, but in my opinion, only about two of the brands taste like “normal.”
Cheating might not initially seem like a big deal, but the long-term consequences are extremely serious. There is nothing to gain from eating gluten. Set a goal for yourself to not eat gluten, and reward yourself when you reach points along the timeline (but not with eating gluten!). If you ever need advice on the best foods, check out OnTrackCeliac’s food page!
NFCA: Is OnTrackCeliac something you’d like to turn into a career?
BS: At this point in development, I hope for OnTrackCeliac to become even more of a resource for people with celiac disease. I would like my career to be somewhere along the lines of what my website strives to accomplish, but I just can’t predict what lies ahead. I hope that OnTrackCeliac has a long future, and I want people to have the mindset that it encourages: To embrace celiac, find reliable ways to live your gluten-free life, and educate others.