Sunday, December 18, 2016

An Accidental Food Renaissance - Part 1

So it’s the holiday season, and I have been exposed to some fantastic food – including a new place called the Two Twenty Two which had the first ever “gluten-free open-faced calzone”… which to be fair is really just fancy-talk for “pizza”. I was too excited to take a picture, so I’ll do it next time I go there [and there will definitely be a next time, woo!].

Instead, I want to take advantage of the free time to do a little reminiscing, and think about all that I have to be thankful for during these past three years on my health journey… or as I like to think of it, my food renaissance. :)

But while I feel the most effective change has happened within the last three years, the story itself begins much farther back.

Well not too far back else I start speculating about my childhood… though I can say I’ve always had a passion for food. At least up until I started being conscious about health, and becoming self-conscious of the fact that I was mostly overweight – what was once a sense of pride for me suddenly became a liability.

Sooner or later, though, I became a firm believer in the orthodoxy of mainstream diets, and began not only shunning fast food and junk food whenever possible, but also engaging in pseudo-vegetarianism, limiting fat, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables [mostly fruit], consuming soy everything, and, of course, cramming down on all of that HEALTHYWHOLEGRAIN. For my sandwiches I would shun the dreaded white bread, replace it with stone-ground healthy whole wheat bread – I could almost taste the windmill stone pulverizing those wheat grains into the dark, roughage-packed manna – and then just sit back and relax as I imagined the pounds rolling off. Maybe I’d throw in a bowl of Total cereal [with soy or rice milk, of course], and maybe a spat of Country Crock margarine … I adored popping open a fresh tub of it, breathing in all the yummy chemical deodorants. Oh and let’s not forget the fruit… add in some apples and bananas, maybe both. Meat was too be shunned, at best maybe low-fat, low-salt Butterball sliced turkey,… and heaven forbid I eat more than one egg a week, or I imagined I’d choke on all that cholesterol! Cheese was perhaps my only “cheat” food, although once I discovered over-priced soy cheese and rice cheese I felt I could eat as much as I could afford and gain no health repercussions whatsoever [in hindsight, I’m thankful I couldn’t afford to gorge myself on those things].

At the time, “calories in calories out” did not exist for me, at least not as a silly catchphrase. Even so, it seemed like “common sense” that great food choices alone was not going to be enough -- I had to also exercise till I dropped!! And so I would jog, treadmill, cycle, do weights, push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, stretching, and so forth. Dance Dance Revolution was a godsend at the time, and through manic spasms that the PS2 somehow equated to "dancing" I was able to lose about 5 pounds in a month. Once I got bored with that, Wii Fit came around and took it to the next level of self-deprecating interactivity!

And seemingly doing everything right, I was rather shameless in my efforts to spread the gospel. This WAS the best way to eat healthy, and I wanted to make sure everyone was aware of that. I was proudly smug when news story after news story continued to validate the wonders of HEALTHYWHOLEGRAINS or the horrors of ARTERYCLOGGINGSATURATEDFAT! I was buddy-buddy with any doctor who wagged his or her finger at those straying from the orthodoxy, courting fat, cholesterol and other death wishes. When Super Size Me came out, I showed it to EVERYONE I knew in the hopes they’d finally “get it”. When the news people HOWLED over the unholy Atkins diet, I was unified in the collective derision against all the who risked their very lives and their arteries over some weird fad diet.

And the irony of it all, despite my fanaticism, I was still overweight and gradually getting bigger over time. And each time it happened, I would seek to determine a culprit based on my pool of dogmatic knowledge. Fat makes you fat, so maybe I was eating too much “low-fat” peanut butter? Ergo, I should try non-fat peanut butter, or even no peanut butter at all… maybe soy butter was the answer! Meat was bad [OF COURSE!], so no more fat-free turkey… and in fact no more normal Mexican food! Tortillas with beans and veggies it is! I didn’t believe in the emerging low-carb “craze,” but I was a believe in portion sizes, and it occurred to me that I was always eager to finish my entire plate. So small plates it is! And when making sandwiches, the “lean” flatbreads and wraps would replace the big, calorific bread slices. I was often hungry, so I looked up every magical way to not feel hungry and put the pain out of my mind [after all, no pain no gain] – I still remember a period of time when I would always drink several servings of yerba matte a day for that reason. And of course the excessive exercise would continue, combined with other oddball shortcuts the likes of which you would see in a 6-minute ab commercial.

Food was becoming complicated, and gone was the simple pleasure of just eating what was good and what I enjoyed. Now food was my enemy, and I would beat it into submission until it started acting as it should, and not embarrass me in front of my friends and family. And it seemed to work… the thrill of doing what wright, but MORE OF IT, simply heightened my sense of infallibility. Now it was going to work, and NOW I was finally going to lose weight. And that was more important now as I began to have some strange health problems appear too – including random fainting, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, and a less than stellar cholesterol profile. I didn’t really make the connection, but instead figured that once I got thinner, somehow magic would happen and the other conditions would go away too. So I carried on wasting time, energy and money on this conventional lifestyle.

Then, in 2010, came what I now call...

Mailroom Day...

Original at:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Ema-zing Experience

Okay, I think I'm taking title puns a bit too far; but while the place does have a few flaws, Ēma Chicago offered a superb dining experience, and washighly committed to its gluten-free menu.  This includes offering a separate kitchen area and utensils, knowledgeable waiters (thank you "James Cameron"!) and a large dedicated GF menu that was nearly identical to the main menu. In fact, there were a handful of items UNIQUE to the GF menu -- we had Market Greens and Fish of the Day, two things arguably healthier than the few "gluteny" items left behind in the conventional menu.

But I digress....

Dinner was enjoyed as sort of a swan song for my Meetup group, and I was able to share the experience with two fellow GF'ers (thank you Rachel and Mustafa!).  Both of them had to avoid gluten out of medical necessity, and neither of us had been at this restaurant before (in fact, it's the latest Lettuce Entertain You chain that had just opened). We were all definitely venturing into uncharted waters, and so there was no shame in asking and re-asking questions, no matter how big or small. And ultimately, the restaurant came through for us! Ēma is certainly one of the few restaurants I've been to where a person with Celiac Disease, wheat allergy or extreme wheat intolerance can feel safe and welcomed.

As a benefit of being in a group, we had the opportunity to sample a good variety of dishes. First off, the hummus...

Being a kind of "Mediterranean" restaurant [in the American sense of the word], this place offered a nice variety of fancy hummus dishes, some conventional, others never before seen.  Nonetheless, we did order the conventional hummus as a control...

"Conventional" only in name at least as this stuff was superb! Creamier and richer than your average hummus, it was also peppered with savory spice and these adorable little za'atar granules that added some crunch as well as delightful bursts of flavor with each mouthful. It was also accompanied with a nice set of raw vegetables.

Next we had the mushroom hummus, an item I had never seen done before, but I suspected would lead to a heavenly flood of umami....

And I was right -- this was pure flavor town! The combination of cognac, onions and mushroom juice infused the hummus with a meaty savoriness that defied expectation. The mushrooms themselves were a gorgeous medley of different types, though I at least tasted oyster mushrooms in the mix. It was VERY hard to take my time eating this, fighting back the urge to tear into this highly addictive dish!

Finally we had the seasonal oddball, the pumpkin hummus:

Really more of a pseudo-hummus since this was primarily mashed kabocha squash with sweet spice and beautiful little pepitas [pumpkin seeds]. Maybe there might have been some chickpea thrown in, but if not I can't say they would have been missed.  Puréed squash, I can confidently say, makes a damn fine substitute -- and being a huge fan of pepitas, I felt right at home!

Oh and FUN FACT!  All these hummus dishes came with these enormous bowls generously-packed with GF crackers:

They were primarily rice flour-based, though I did taste some potato in there too.  They were tasty, they held their shape admirably, and they did give everything a delightful crunch.  They also served as my favorite edible scoop for that dynamite mushroom hummus!  XD

But we didn't just come here to binge on hummus, time for some entrées!

First off we have the celery root soup with pine nuts and currants! I may have only once had celeriac before but obviously I forgot how creamy and potato-like it can be, albeit with a more refreshing taste and texture. It's also highly nutrient dense and packed with great fibers, and above all it makes a damn good soup!  If you ever miss those old "Cream of [Whatever]" soups, here's a hint to recapture that silky flavor: purée some celery root!!

Next up we have the Stracciatella....

I had to look this up since "Stracciatella" could mean lots of food things, including ice cream and soup.  Luckily, it turned out it was the buffalo milk cheese definition!  I've had buffalo milk cheese before, but never uncooked so this was quite an experience -- and I will say it has a much more delicate and pleasing flavor than your run-of-the-mill fresh mozzarella. It was a unique and refreshing bit of fat, protein and history that is not easy to come by -- add some delicious vine tomatoes and a good drizzle of olive oil, and you have quite the... striking stracciatella!  :3

Finally, just a little bit of meat....

By comparison to the aforementioned, the chicken kefta was more on the conventional side.  You have a seasoned chicken kebab/souvlaki with a little side of tzatziki and some saffron rice.  It's by no means a bad offering, but could it have been too much to ask for two skewers rather than one?  ;)

Perhaps that's my only gripe with the restaurant, and one that's perhaps a bit uncalled for since Ēma is meant to be more on the medium-to-high end of the cost spectrum [and I certainly knew what I was getting into]. But as with all "small plate" restaurants, I feel the size of the portion doesn't always justify the cost. Of course I'll take into account the quality of the ingredients and the uniqueness of the dishes... after all, I expect to pay a little premium to enjoy the mushroom hummus or Stracciatella that they serve here. But these hidden gems aside, other menu items strike me as a bit overpriced; and either the quantity needs to be ramped, or the uniqueness has to be pushed up a notch to justify the investment.

But this is a minor niggle -- overall Ēma treated us very well and opened my eyes just a little further to new food ideas! And while I don't see myself returning frequently for dinner, I can imagine dropping by every once in while for some tea and a side of mushroom hummus as a snack.

What can I say?  That thing left its mark on me!  <3 

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Break from Thanksgiving Leftovers

I have a ton of reasons to talk about my Thanksgiving meal and why it was amazing, including the apple-gooseberry pie that has been to die for (and has, admittedly, inflated me like a balloon with its treacherous deliciousness). But for now, I want to to get this out of the way while it's still fresh in the memory. 

Enter Marino's Pizzeria & Cafe...

Featuring one of the most lackluster websites this side of the 21st century, it is by all accounts an average pizzeria.  Even so, it's a place I've walked or driven by regularly on Irving Park Road, always enticing me with its giant pizza sign ever since I moved to Chicagoland. At the time I had promised to check this place out,... and then the Wheatless Era arrived, and suddenly this average pizzeria fell off into the wayside of inedibility. 

Then Thanksgiving 2016 weekend came, and I found myself taking advantage of the unseasonable warmth to have a long-walk, just like in the good ol' days of racewalk practice! A fit of curiosity made me head on over to that general direction road, and check out this average-looking pizzeria.

And so I came, marveled at the marvelous mini mall architecture betraying its really sad occupancy (where Marino's was probably the most interesting store there, unless you find Subways or dentist offices thrilling).  I walked in, noticed it was one of those hybrid sit-down places where you still have to order up front. 

All very average indeed. 

I took a copy of the menu cheerfully as a souvenir, and walked away to read through it carefully.

And then... I was in awe...

Not only did it have a token, gluten-free, "hockey puck" pizza offering (for a large markup of course), but it also had options for GF pasta, sandwich bread and pitas!!! Granted these were all just options with a nasty little markup and well hidden in the menu so that it wasn't really obvious... but still, WOW! This very average pizzeria in a very lackluster location attempted something that few other average pizzerias of its kind were brave enough to do!! 

I just couldn't resist.  And so today I stopped on over with the family to give it a try! 

For evaluation purposes, I ordered a 10" GF pizza with bacon, a GF focaccia sandwich, and an order of hot chicken wings as our control [as if we didn't have enough poultry over the week!].  Bear in mind that when I say these GF options have markups, I MEAN they have markups... this is not a very inexpensive average pizzeria.  Granted while Aurelio's (my gold standard for common chain GF pizzerias) isn't cheap either, the portions are at least hefty and it does have a dedicated GF menu with few visible markups, so I don't feel punished for eating there.  I should also mention that the "Order Here" model is a bit messy, so here too Aurelio's shows its supremacy by being a true sit-down restaurant with friendly service.

Of course, Marino's has a leg-up by offering free appetizers; but when said freebie is a bunch of regular bread you hadn't asked for and can't eat, I would really call this a pyrrhic point-in-favor. And they both tie in the use of hideous blended "olive oil" as their drizzle, so I suggest sticking with butter. ;)

As for the food itself...

The pizza was TINY, a la Domino's Pizza token GF offering. Unlike it's Domino's counterpart, however, this did not taste like cardboard (even Domino's regular pizza has ALWAYS tasted like cardboard to me). The rice flour-based dough was light, tasty and kept its shape admirably, and the toppings were filling and satisfying. They're both around the same price, so clearly Marino's offering is the better value versus Domino's. While Aurelio's still leads the edge here in offering a more family-friendly size for comparatively less money, and arguably better flavor, I can make the case that Marino's GF pizza makes for better "snack sizes". After all, there's also a 7" personal offering for less money!

The wings are naturally wheatless and a good hefty size, but they're expensive and I would hardly call them "hot" -- the sauce was probably more sweet than spicy, and I found myself wanting to reach into the kitchen and grab a bottle of Tabasco. They were still delicious, but I wouldn't get these again.

But saving the best for last was the surprise contender!  Ordered as a mere after-thought to cover my bases, the GF chicken focaccia sandwich did open my eyes to new possibilities! First off, unlike my medium-tier favorite Chicago's Pizza, they did not make actual GF focaccia bread which was a bit of a let-down. They did, however, offer a GF pita bread which was unlike anything I've had before! Also seemingly rice-based (like the pizza), it was firm and supple in its shape, but light, airy and savory in taste! Combined with the delicious slices of chicken -- topped with provolone, lettuce and tomatoes, and a drizzle of mayo on top -- I practically had a CHICKEN GYRO!!! And it felt just as nostalgic eating it as it sounds -- A true unexpected joy for a fairly-reasonable price!

So is this a great pizzeria for gluten-free offerings? 

Sadly, no. It is still very much an average pizzeria. However, despite that, it does at least make a good effort to cater to us compared to other comparable pizzerias. If you're in the area, and don't have severe allergies or Celiacs, I recommend you give them a try.

But if you're looking for gluten-free SANDWICHES, however -- and Chicago's Pizza is too far and Jimmy John's is too light -- then you might find this place a bit above-average!  Good effort, Marino's!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Short Notice and Sweet Ali

Question:  Do you like cake?


Well that's the short and sweet answer, pun intended.

The long answer is: depends largely on the cake, but I would say that 8 out of 10 cakes would end up being personally disliked by me.

While a large part of this is due to my current inability [and disinterest] in eating wheat-based baked goods), the truth is, even long ago during my pre-wheat years, I was never much of a cake person.  In fact I despised things that were too sweet, and cakes generally offered the opportunity to overdo it on the sweet factor, adding gobs of frosting, milk chocolate, strawberry preserves, raisins, fondant, caramel, sprinkles, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, ice cream, and, on top of that, several cups of sugar into the cake batter itself.  AND LEST WE FORGET... the wheat in the flour digests down to sugar as well...! It was just too much for my taste buds to handle, still is!

I like to joke that my disdain for sugary sweets was born out of a friend's birthday party at McDonald's when I was a kid, when I raided the sealed-off and unoccupied party room full of chicken nuggets and sweets using what I can only imagine was food-induced kung fu [because no one caught me].

...After gorging myself on chicken nuggets, I saw the McDonald's birthday cake, and on it were flat little sugar figures of the mascots at the time.  For reasons beyond me, Grimace looked particularly tasty , so that was the first figure I picked off the cake and greedily decapitated with my teeth.  While I have no way to recount the resulting sugar coma and hallucinations that ensued, I do remember screaming and crying from the disgusting sugar overdose (that sort of felt like a nauseating brain freeze), and then I bawled even more as all the kids and adults flooded in to catch me at the scene of the crime, writhing in pain and shame no less.  Since then I've had overly-sugary things, but I like to think that saved my life because... given my pre-wheat eating habits... I certainly did NOT need to eat more sugar!

There are of course exceptions to the anti-cake rule, those 2 out of 10 I alluded to earlier.  Lightly sweetened and buttery cake-like products such as pound cakes were always welcomed. Black forest cake,.. when it used real cherries and didn't overdo it on the white frosting... was always a favorite.  Cheesecake I adored, and luckily that's a cake that transitions well into the post-wheat world. And while not technically cakes, pies and tarts were always fantastic alternatives, and there are hundreds of way to make them naturally wheat-free and scrumptious!

And of course I always adored my mother's cakes -- once legendary for being rock-hard, they always had the right amount of buttercreme, consistency, and, of course, sugar-lightness that I was looking for.

So when it came time for her birthday one Saturday morning, and she playfully joked that she couldn't have a quick off-the-shelf birthday cake, I thought it was only fitting to try and find one to fulfill her wish, however fleeting.  Luckily for me, it turns out I didn't live far from Sweet Ali's Bakery.

Those of you who follow my Facebook/Twitter know that I LOVED Flur Bakery -- but if there's any gripe I do have about it, it's that its cakes are a bit too expensive and impractical to order.  So imagine my surprise when, just as I walk into the Sweet Ali's retail store in Hinsdale, IL, the first things I see in the refrigerators are an array of large, basic-looking chocolate and vanilla cakes! Eureka!!! But surely they cost an arm and a leg... NOPE!!  I mean they're not inexpensive, but compared to what I was expecting, they were a bargain!  They had more elaborate cakes that could be ordered online or through them, but those generally need more time in advance to order, plus they increase the cost significantly -- for my needs for this special day, a basic gluten-free chocolate cake was more than enough.  I also purchased some GF cheese rolls and GF challah bread to taste test, but those are a story for another day.

But I accomplished my goal and we had a birthday cake for my mother this year! And upon taste-testing it...

It was great!  You couldn't even tell the chocolate cake was gluten-free, it was remarkably convincing!

But by GAWD, they overdid it on the frosting!!! >.<

I think it tasted better as it aged, but it just goes to show you: gluten-free does NOT automatically mean healthy.  Watch it for all that darn sugar!  ;)

Still, I can't recommend Sweet Ali's retail location enough -- it has the most variety of any gluten-free bakery I know, and it seems intent on improving its offerings!  Plus with good proximity (to me) and reasonable prices, expect me to come there more often whenever I'm in the mood for some hardcore carbs. :P

Oh and as a side note, this was an opportunity for me to test out my portable studio... I still have to play around with the lighting some more, but I like the picture quality so far!  :)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Walker's Marathon - Part 4

As a continuation to the third part of the story,...

A few things immediately struck me after I had passed through the starting line and, after achieving a nice comfortable rhythm, was on my way to the tunnel leading out of Millennium Park....




Granted most of the runners did slowly inch past me, I expected this for sure; but I was also expecting them to leap far ahead of me like a pack of gazelles. In fact, I was only fractionally slower than most of the surrounding participants, using significantly less leaping and bounding; in some cases I was actually a tiny bit faster! I was able to keep up with the runners for the first couple miles as we crossed the river, looped back down State street, then turned to make our way up north towards Lincoln Park. A necessary restroom break forced a small detour, but after a few minutes of catch-up my brother and I passed a few runners we started off with.

By mile 10, people were getting noticeably tired, and chugging down sports gels like there was no tomorrow. I know it's something of a tradition, but seriously people... don't toss empty Gatorade cups and sports gel containers and wrappers in the middle of the street for other fellow runners to trip on!

By mile 16, I was no longer afraid of being the oddball racewalker because, by that time, EVERYONE around me was essentially racewalking or walking briskly or just plain walking, Only a handful of runners kept at a semi-decent pace, and it was noticeably slower. It could be said that I trained for the latter half of the race as it certainly was pretty much the same from this point forward for all but the last mile...

Only by mile 22 did I begin feeling some uncomfortable knee pain, and not the kind that could be resolved by stopping to stretch, rather an odd sensation that my knee was clicking in place and threatening to do something painful. Fearing that I would dislocate it somehow -- and so close to the end of the marathon no less -- I kept at a much slower pace until near the last dash towards the Finish line. But by then my brother and I amassed a decent time buffer, and we finished the marathon together with a good 30 minutes to spare despite the detour and the slower pace towards the end! It was an amazing moment (immortalized in the picture below!); and the medal, free food, and rest that would follow were a very welcome sight!

Granted, I never did escape excruciating post-race pains as I had hoped; certainly racewalking proved to be no less stranger to that likely due to the repetitive movement of my legs for six hours. I felt a bit sore immediately after the race, SUPER sore after I got to my brother's place for victory gluten-free pizza (from Lou Malnati's!), PARALYZINGLY sore by the time I got to my own home, and almost completely immobile the following day (glad I took off work). Even so, whether it was due to post-race treatment or just the more forgiving nature of racewalking on the body, I was more or less functional by Tuesday.

So... hurray!

Now for a few food-based observations:
  • I never got very hungry. This is not meant as a brag, just a curious fact on the ground. Sure, I was craving bananas towards the end, but more for the potassium rather than the hunger (and as luck would have it, all but one stop ran out, boo!).
  • I did munch on some almonds for most of the first half of the marathon, however, so I did had tiny bursts of fat to help fuel me along the way. Once they ran out, and seeing no bananas in sight, dried apples served me well beyond mile 23.
  • For mile 26 I tapped into some nostalgic fervor with a pack of Smarties, which helped remind me why I was there and why I was perfectly comfortable using sugar as a kind of “afterburner”.
  • And after the finish line I never felt the need to gnaw off my arm, nor was I in any rush to go eat anything... other than those DAMN BANANAS, which I could finally relish thanks to the wonderful Jewel-Osco grab bag!
  • My breakfast that morning was a little croquet made with cassava and chorizo, with a miniature banana on the side, making it comparably-equal parts fat, protein and carbohydrates. Despite this, it's possible I was in a state of ketosis as I was consistently energetic throughout the marathon, and I don't recall ever “hitting the wall”.
  • And finally, except after mile 22 and its unfortunate banana shortage, I did not drink Gatorade. Nor did I eat any gels for reasons of preference, nor coffee and pretzels for obvious safety reasons [not wanting to get sick mid-race!]. 

Whether I can thank any or all of the above factors, I could deny that I felt great!!

I had energy not just to keep going, but also to keep my racewalking form looking straight and proud (for better aerodynamics, not just for show), to smile, to participate in shout-outs along the way, to sing with the crowd or Elvis impersonators, to dance to the tune of Boystown choirs, Taiko drums, Mexican mariachis and other awesome festivities... I high-fived onlookers and their portraits, or would eagerly peace-sign to the cameras! Once a little girl's sign blew away from her hands, and I was able to catch it before it got trampled, bring it back to her, and continue on my way without ever worrying about lost time! It was a fantastic feeling to not only be in the marathon but also get fully “into it” as well!

That's not to say I did great,... most professional runners in the higher corrals could get through this in three hours or less, so my performance is fairly cute and quaint by comparison. Even your seasoned racewalker can probably chew through this with a 10 minute mile pace and better! So by no means can I say I've done my very best since I intentionally capped my best possible performance for the sake of prudence.

Even so, I succeeded in doing what I set out to do, and I was surprised that I accomplished it as well as I did with such high spirits! Even as my brother and I cheered in unison as we passed through the finish line, I knew that I would want to do this again; and indeed, as of this writing, I am set to run on the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Marathon! Next time, though, I'll use what I learned to refine my techniques, improve my speed some more, and take better care of my legs and knees so that they can pull through till the better end! =)

As for food, I'll stay the course... but maybe next time I'll bring my own bananas! ;)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Walker's Marathon - Part 3

As a continuation to the second part of the story, the day of the marathon approached and while I wasn't calm about it per se, I did feel like I was fussing over the wrong things. I was worried about the technicalities of the marathon itself... the 1.5 million people, the need to go to the health expo, the specific way in which the runner's bib had to be attached, etc. I ruminated over the weight of my belt pouches, and I nagged my wonderful dietician for advice on natural substitutes for sport gels -- turns out dried apples work great (although I also included almonds as a failsafe).

But as far as actual performance expectation was concerned, that was the least on my mind. I continued practicing a little in the lead-up to the marathon, with a mile or two here and there, at different speeds and rehearsing with the attire I would bring along. Clothing was important since, racewalking or not, I was not looking forward to living out any horror stories on lost toenails or skin chaffing. I kept at a reliable 13 minute/mile pace, not record-setting by any extent in the racewalking world, but decent for a novice such as myself. And above all else, I bypassed the traditional "carb-loading" altogether; aside from having a lavishly-large dinner on Saturday evening, full of healthy fat, protein and safe carbohydrates, I mainly kept the dietary course I was used to for most of that year. I already knew what I was capable of from the 20 miler, and I wasn't prepared to introduce new variables that could've thrown me off on race day. For the most part, I planned to play it safe.

The morning of Sunday, October 9th was frigid cold for a day in early October, but at the same time it was electrifying! It was tradition to wear a jacket or sweater you were expecting to toss to the side before the race started, which in turn would be collected and given to the homeless. So I brought along a former Large-sized light jacket that, once upon a time, used to fit me a little too snugly, and which now I practically swam in. There was something metaphorical about respectfully setting aside a remnant of my past before starting something new and life-changing, especially if in doing so it helped charity. As if by coincidence, I later realized that the jacket was probably the same one I wore during the Chocolate Run!

We walked slowly towards the Starting line,... This was it...!

Now my months of training would be put to the test! My brother, a marathon veteran, was with me to help explain the subtle nuances of the event, and to offer me the kind of invaluable moral support a good older brother would share! He reminded me to conserve my strength early on, so I could perform my best during the latter half... "Slow and steady wins the race!"...

So I told myself to start off consistent and slow; in my case at a nice, comfortable, brisk racewalking pace that would at a minimum creep past 4mph. I had the map with me at all times as a kind of morale booster as well, since I don't like traveling to places I don't know the layout to, and I liked being able to calculate expected mile marker times. No unreliable GPS devices for me, I was going old-school!

The starting line was only a few feet away...

I saw people up front woosh ahead...

Would I be able to keep up? Or would I be left in the dust, a sad testament to anyone trying to WALK a 26.2 mile race?


 Original Image at:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Walker's Marathon - Part 2

As a continuation to the first part of the story, there was little doubt in my mind that I would participate in the marathon. The idea brewed in my head for almost three years since the 2013 Chocolate Run, and I was lighter, healthier and more open to new experiences than I was back then. I had already known about ketogenic athletic performance, and while I wasn't ready to be a ketogenic athlete myself, I felt I could apply some of the principles to perform well without “carbing up”. My brother and sister-n-law also had to take it easy this year, so all the more reason to accompany them enforcing a non-strenuous pace. And to be honest, ever since watching my brother's first marathon so many years ago (2011, possibly), I was hooked with the curiosity of being in the midst of all that wonderful, energetic fervor, from the hustle and bustle of the health expo, to the pulsating sidelines of cheering people along the 26.2 mile route!

My main concern was the walking part itself... I knew I could walk fast, but not at a 15 minute-mile pace, certainly not at that extreme a distance. My longest charity walk was only around 12 miles, maybe less, and that was eons ago back in New York,... so long ago, I still remember our starting point being at the old World Trade Center! So unlike the Chocolate Run, I couldn't afford any kind of ill-placed bravado here... I HAD to train and I HAD to do my research, as I set for myself a pretty ambitious challenge within relatively uncharted territory.

This is how I came to know about racewalking. Like many others, I assumed this was that powerwalking that people would often engage in to burn calories and lose weight with exercise, and indeed racewalking his very similar principles. What I didn't know was that the technique was faster and easier on the body, as unlike powerwalking it emphasized speed, which in turn minimized the use of needless, calorie-wasting movements. It was also an Olympic sport (which was both shocking and exciting for me). And in-line with my ancestral-eating habits, it's a sport that has been around for almost 200 years, and which used to be quite popular until it fell out of favor with subsequent generations of drivers and runners.

Granted it still looked a bit funny, but as if by fate this was also the year I decided to take dancing lessons to help placate another long-standing dream of mine. Sure enough, the hip-swaying movement that's so customary in racewalking (as an efficient means to maximize your range of motion) was not all that dissimilar from a Cha-Cha-Cha, a Cuban walk of a good Rumba, or one of my favorite Merengue limps. Sure enough, that experience with dancing transferred over nicely into racewalking. Good breathing was still essential too, especially when going at higher speeds; the fastest long-distance racewalkers that I am aware of can tackle a 50km race at 7 minutes per mile, so good breathing and technique must be practiced to ensure that level of speed AND endurance.

This was the year I enlisted the help of a marvelous dietician and an equally fantastic life coach, both of whom introduced me to meditation, yoga and breathing techniques that have been invaluable in this arena. Said dietician and my new functional doctor were also instrumental in fine-tuning my diet, both in covering any remaining dietary issues that were impossible to detect without tests (such as a micronutrient and food allergy panel), and in gearing my nutrition more towards sports and fitness orientation. The last stubborn 10 pounds gradually melted away, and I found myself with more and more energy even during mundane commutes.

And I can't stress enough how much actual physical practice helped play a huge rule in my training. Already going to and fro work I have lots of walking to do (at least two miles), and so these were good opportunities to push the boundaries of my fastwalking pace. But after hours, at least thrice a week I would take advantage of the bright summer evenings to practice racewalking in the neighborhood. Every other weekend I would perform long walks traversing huge expenses in areas I have always wanted to visit! My first long walk was a 10 miler stretching from my home, up to the gorgeous Ned Brown Preserve at Elk Grove Village,... and after traversing that I would enjoy a celebratory feast at Longhorn Steakhouse over in the adjacent Woodfield Mall! My last long walk was a 21 miler about a month before the marathon, stretching from Hubbard Woods, to the Baha'i temple, to Evanston, to Lincoln Park, and ending quite coincidentally at the very base of the Hancock Tower for a photo finish – and a well-deserved indulgent “victory” meal at the nearby M Burger at the Water Tower Plaza (see below, and that's a lettuce-wrapped burger, woo)!

A whole lot more happened in between, including training with the local racewalking club and help from a professional racewalking coach... but by and large I opted to integrate informal training with exploration and other day to day activities, and I had a great deal of fun with it! And as the day of the Marathon came, I was ready to put that fun to the test – I wasn't interested in going as fast as I could, this would be a pure scouting mission of sorts. If I could survive this marathon, then NEXT year I can focus on picking up the pace! :)


Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Walker's Marathon - Part 1

Hello all,

On Sunday, October 9th, I completed my very first Chicago Marathon! It was a wonderful accomplishment for me for various reasons: ranging from charity, to commemorating my recently deceased and beloved shiba inu, and even to enjoying the chance to be side-by-side with my marathon-veteran brother for an epic finish! But from a food and health perspective in particular, it was especially fulfilling as this aspect was much longer in the making than it seems!

Prior to this, my last organized “run” was the November 2013 Hot Chocolate Run which, despite being only 5K, was still a challenging experience for me as this was during my pre-wheat days (roughly five months before I accidentally discovered wheatlessness). In those days, more than at any time in my life before, I was significantly heavier, health-ravaged, physically unfit and prone to fits of unhappiness and self-doubt. I only committed to scant training for this race, knowing of course that my “amazingly-healthy” lifestyle of sludge oils and HEALTHYWHOLEGRAINS would make this simple 5K a cakewalk. I also had little motivation besides curiosity and a desire to win that chocolate trophy after the race.

Even so, I did complete that race... barely. Being a true run, the "simple" 5K tired me out quickly and seemed all but endless; by the time I crossed the finished line, I was ecstatic to have the grueling death march over with. The chocolate trophy thingy was little comfort in the presence of splitting knee (or was it shin?) pain and breathlessness. There's of course more to the story, but the short of it is: at that point I pretty much swore off running on another organized run such as this one.

While it's easy in hindsight to call this pre-wheat adventurism a veritable and humiliating failure, the truth is that it still accomplished some great things that would have important ramifications in my post-wheat life.

First, it was perhaps the second most influential personal reminder (behind my unnerving heart skips, but ahead of the ever-increasing scale weight) that something was very wrong with me. While it would be months before I took any kind of serious action to address this, it got the ball rolling as far as thinking about a new solution to my predicament since, clearly, I was getting nowhere with conventional diet and exercise.

Second, by all accounts, it was a very humbling experience. I underestimated the race, I was too willing to show off to my coworkers, I was too eager to "beat" all the participants around me, and I was inconsiderate to the state of my body at the time -- and as I result, I paid the price for that arrogance. Any future organized run I would participate in would have to address all these foundational shortcomings.

And third, it helped admit to me that I'm not, by personal choice, a long-distance runner, regardless of health or social stigma -- and that has stayed a consistent trait for me to this day. Perhaps it was the chronic asthma attacks I used to have when I was a kid, the most severe of which landed me in the hospital for days (and yielding their own array of painful memories) – but any activity that can potentially leave me breathless and gasping for air is, for me, the anti-thesis of fun. Add to that the aforementioned heart-skips I used to experience when I was obese, in addition to some other things best left unmentioned for now, and I have little motivation to tempt fate and quite a lot of incentive to follow my heart (both metaphorically and literally).

By contrast, I've always loved to walk and I have never shyed away from walking HUGE distances. I've jumped at opportunities to participate in lengthy charity walks (including Light the Night on October 22nd, spread the word!), and after living in New York for so long I am quite comfortable walking FAST pretty much wherever I go, it's become second-nature. So while I was intent on never running again in an organized race such as the Chocolate Run, in me I knew I could make the exception if I could WALK it.

And so it was that the idea was planted and lay dormant for the months after the Chocolate Run while I focused on other priorities (such as not dying). Then I accidentally discovered wheatlessness, and let exercise and racing fall to the wayside for a while as I engrossed myself in books, literature and anything related to physical healing through food. My physical state improved throughout 2014, and peaked for a while in 2015 as I succeeded in losing around 70lbs, and held that loss consistently and comfortably, even though I was still about 10lbs above my supposed normal BMI. I still wanted to commit to an extra push to remove that remaining 10lbs, but it was never quite forthcoming... almost as if my body was waiting for something.

That “something” came in March of 2016 when my brother and sister-n-law invited me to join the Chicago Lights team for the 2016 Chicago Marathon. By now the idea from three years ago had sprouted into a vibrant little sapling, one ready and willing to have me properly test out my endurance and force of will. Without any hesitation or customary delay to mull things over, I happily joined the team.

I would participate in an organized run once again – and not just any run, but a full-fledged 26.2 miler,... and not just any 26.2 miler, but the Chicago Marathon, one of the largest of its kind in this country! And this time,... I would walk it!


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Thursday, October 6, 2016

Left Coast to its Own Devices - Part 2

So now that my previous rant is out of the way, let's talk Left Coast, a self-styled progressive juice bar and cafe that I visited as part of a gluten-free expeditionary task force. They pride themselves on changing the perception of healthy eating as not being "dull and flavorless" -- but they're probably not talking about me, as clearly that pork belly salad was anything but dull and flavorless. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into, so I was prepared to switch gears for maximum veg-intake.

Fortunately it wasn't an entirely lost cause as they did have SOME respect for beloved lipid-rich ingredients. The standard smoothies seemed fairly crummy, but you could create your own, and here you had the option of choosing avocado, coconut, cacao, and other useful fats, aside from a wide array of low-carb plant foods, including spinach, kale, hemp, spirulina, turmeric, cucumber, etc. I created my smoothie pretty much out of those ingredients and it did indeed taste divine, so no complaints here...

...Except one...


So why on earth they're still adding that liquid fructose to almost half their pre-made juices I have no clue, but be sure to check out the menu before you order as this stuff makes HFCS look like moderation.

I was also hungry so I queued up the fattiest gluten-free dish I could find, which was the Montecito Hash: eggs, sweet potatoes [aka, garnet yams], red peppers, kale, spinach, queso fresco, some yogurt, sunflower seeds, and a very weak hot sauce. It was decently-sized, very nourishing, and thank goodness for runny egg yolks coating every corner of the dish in golden goodness -- I only needed a tiny drizzle of the avocado oil I always carry with me to give it that extra fatty oomph! It was good, and I took my time eating it.

But I can clearly tell that it was just shy of dull and flavorless compared to other fabulous dishes I've enjoyed during my post-wheat years -- and for the price, it didn't seem like an efficient meal. I could probably veg-out MORE at a local Roti for less money, and slightly better fat options (though admittedly, Roti has no eggs!).

As for the issue of gluten-free and being catering to people with allergies/food sensitivities in general, I have a mixed opinion here.

Admittedly, my own experience was fine as I had no hassle ordering my food and having my barrage of questions answered. While they weren't allergy-conscious enough to NOT make wheat such a heavy menu staple (they still want to sell sandwiches and wraps, I guess), they were still nice enough to mark dishes on their menu as being "gluten-free" (in addition to "dairy-free" and "vegan"). The menu admits that the kitchen is not entirely gluten, dairy or nut-free, though, which seems contradictory to their mission statement of being very catering to people with allergies and food sensitivities -- I would think the owners, given their history, would go to greater than average lengths to be rather strict about this. At least I was assured they [sort of?] have separate preparation areas, and [kind of?] use different bowls if preparing a meal for a person with a major food allergy?

The staff was probably the Achilles heel since there was an overarching feeling that they weren't sure what they were talking about -- maybe it was the overall laid-back feel of such a "progressive" and "eclectic" cafe, but a lot of the fabled catering to people with allergies just wasn't there. My partner ordered the Baja Sol Tostadas... a very expensive bastardization of real tostadas... sans the nasty tofu plus some other ingredients that could cause her issues. They obliged in removing the problems ingredients, but were adverse to substituting the tofu for something safer to her personal well-being like chicken. In fact they went so far as to charge her $4 extra for chicken as an additional protein, despite leaving the tostadas devoid of a replacement for tofu. This was severely upsetting to her, and the manager had to intervene to set things right... and even then, all he could offer was substituting boiled egg in lieu of the tofu, and keep chicken as the additional protein, which she begrudgingly agreed to as the meal had already been charged by the careless employee.

And so with tax, my friend spent $16 on two measly half-baked tostadas with a small smattering of chicken and egg -- they only lasted longer than expected because she had already lost much of her appetite with the disappointing exchange and lack of consideration. I have to ask myself... what if she had a soy AND egg allergy? Would she still be penalized because they can't charge her $1 extra for chicken replacement?! [additional tofu is $3] The place is already pricey and she could have gotten much better, naturally gluten-free tostadas at a proper Mexican restaurant for half or a third of the price... could there not have been at least some effort to cater to her needs?

QUESTION: What's your final verdict on this place?
While the ingredients are high quality and the flavor of what I have tried was above average, this is not a trait unique to them -- other farm-to-table restaurants (and cafes) can accomplish the same or better with competitive prices. And the service, while friendly, seems [perhaps unwillingly] disingenuous in its mission statement. In trying to protect us from evil mythical saturated fat monsters, it's leaving the rest of us exposed to real and present dangers of sugar and modern grains, as well as a food allergies, autoimmune conditions and severe sensitivities.

As long as it still remains grounded in archaic notions of "healthy eating", I can only really recommend Left Coast as a fairly decent juice bar... so long as you mind that agave!  ;)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Left Coast to its Own Devices - Part 1

Hey all,

Although I consider my diet a healthy one in that it's cured almost all of my past ailments (albeit initially by accident, more on this in a future article), and continues to let me hover around the same weight for over a year, I actually don't refer to it as a "healthy diet".

On the one hand I know people's needs are different, so what might work for me might be ineffective for people with thyroid issues (and no effective treatment), or difficult for people with no gall bladder... to say nothing of people with deep-seated emotional ties to bread and beer.  On the other hand, the term "healthy diet" has long been usurped by a very mainstream conception of what constitutes "healthy" eating, which can be concisely summarized as follows:
  • Fat is evil
  • Monounsaturated fat is good for you... BUT IT'S STILL EVIL!
  • Cholesterol of any kind is evil.
  • HDL is the GOOD cholesterol... but it's a cholesterol [not really] so it's inherently evil and you must kill it with statins.
  • Toxic, hydrogenated, rancid, oxidized, trans-fatty sludge oils have zero cholesterol, and are thus lovely -- stick that bottle in your mouth and chug it all down!!!
  • Oh, but HOLD ON!! When sludge oils are used to cook, it makes food all greasy and stuff, so it must be evil! But then they have no saturated fat or cholesterol... But then... it's still a fat... But... But...
  • *brain explodes*
  • All plant foods are good for you!
  • ...Except avocados, olives, coconuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts, peanuts, chocolate, and practically all tubers.
  • All fruits are good for you, eat 250,000 servings daily!
  • ...Except avocados, olives, coconuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts, peanuts, chocolate,...
  • Eat your vegetables... like corn, tofu, Pop Tarts, Fruit Loops, Weight Watchers dinners, hamburger buns, wildly-flavored V-8's,...
  • All animal foods are evil.
  • ...Except when they're just bland, tasteless, nutrient-deficient muscle meat or dairy, in which case they're only slightly less-evil.
  • Fish is good.
  • ...Except when it's not.
  • Sugar is kiiiiinda,... sortaaa,..... maybeeee a little evil-ish?  I dunno,... since it's not a fat and all, it's so confusing....
  • Wheat is holy -- put it in everything and inject it into your bloodstream.
  • Chronic diseases are inevitable, so start stocking up on diabetes medicine.
  • And a calorie is a calorie.

It's safe to say I follow something a little more... contrarian than this, and it's worked out beautifully for me. This is in sharp contrast to when I ate conventionally and even committed to a semi-starvation diet on SparkPeople many years ago... despite doubling down on HEARTHEALTHYWHOLEGRAINS and exercising religiously, I still inflated like a balloon. So from my personal experience, it should be safe to say that my notion of "healthy eating" is completely inversed, but that hasn't stopped people from assuming otherwise.

Ergo, I end up with situations where I treat the office to some delicious Frite Street, and then have baffled looks as to how someone as "health-conscious" as I am would be sharing a dish of "French" french fries, cheddar cheese, bacon, fried egg and scallions. While it's true that buying from this place is considered an indulgence (since I'm pretty sure they cook with sludge oils), it's often hard to fathom that the food, in principle, is closer to a staple for me.

QUESTION: What does this have to do with Left Coast?

Oh whoops!  I spent too much time ranting.  :P
Tune in next time to see what I have to say about Left Coast, the little juice bar that... tries... to making healthy eating awesome!

At least... conventional healthy eating... all my daily meals are awesome. >v>

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Tweet a Treat

And just a quick FYI, Ciao Ciabatta now has it's own Twitter account as well!

I've never been big on micro-blogging since [obviously] I enjoy writing an awful lot.  But I intend to use this for what I call "#DailyCiao" posts which outline a daily accomplishment to be proud of.  Expect these to be mostly about food, but we'll see if I can throw a few surprises from time to time! ;)

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Troquet Trinket

Hey all,

I just came from Left Coast and have a few things to say about it, not all necessarily well (at least for me personally).  But given I just spent my first three reviews railing on Big Jones, I think I need a little taste of positivity first before I continue with another downer.  Nothing extreme, just a small pleasant experience at a completely random sit-down I wasn't intending to visit... 

I was on my way to a Chicago Lights meet one afternoon, was a bit hungry (having not had the chance to eat lunch), and was in the mood for something fast but light, preferably with a lot of vegetables in conjunction with a lot of fat and only modest protein.

Ideally I'd hit up my favorite Tre Soldi, but with only 50 minutes to spare that wasn't an option... you DON'T WANT TO RUSH A MEAL AT TRE SOLDI!!

Other similar locations along the way were also impacted by the time crunch, and I wasn't much in the mood for chain restaurants. Not that many of them were plentiful in the veggie arena, such as M Burger (although I WILL write about that place soon as it saved my life the other day!).

I flirted with The Kitchen, but the location was too far from the meet and I had no guarantee that the service would be fast (being the first time there)... plus adding up the menu items I was most interested in quickly priced that meal out of the "snack" range. Some other time, perhaps!

Finally I decided to just walk towards the meet and let the Food Gods determine my fate... essentially, I'd walk and browse window menus along the way until one just kind of hit me.  That's very easy (and fun) to do in Downtown Chicago, and a great place to find new hidden gems and wheatless challenges! If I could find a place that would meet ALL requirements, I would have a quick meal and hop on over to the meet; and if not, I'd just starve, or rely on whatever finger food might be available at the meet (but then I'd be repeating myself)

QUESTION: Did you starve?

I might have from a certain point of view... nevertheless, I did find a spot after all! Enter Troquet, a quaint little French-inspired bar snuggled besides the lobby of the Hotel Felix at the corner of Huron and Clark. I had seen it before on a prior walk, only I thought it was just a typical bar, same as all the other billions of bars in the city. Stopping to actually check out the menu (and admire the cool ambiance, and the refreshing lack of customers at the time), I noticed the food was French... or at least French-inspired (make note of the absence of snails, tsk).  Be that as it may, while it didn't seem like the bastion of wheatlessness (noting the plethora of bread dishes), it was, in typical French manner, rather proud of its fat offerings. As far as its menu was concerned, it wasn't going to be bullied into hiding its pork belly and duck confit due to bogus claims about ARTERYCLOGGINGSATURATEDFAT! French or not, I salute that bravery in defense of the venerable egg, sausage and butter, among other fatty staples. 

I gushed over half the menu, especially the Duck Confit Omelette, but there would be a time and place for that some day.  For now, I needed something small, cheap, light, and full of vegetables and fats!

I don't make it a point to order JUST salads at restaurants, they're always more like side dishes... but given the specifications of the meal and the time crunch, it was the most efficient consumable at the time.  There weren't that many salads on the menu, so the process of elimination was simple....

  • Spinach Salad: it contained walnuts, a potent IgG for me, so no thanks.
  • Couscous: for those of you not in the know, couscous is just miniature [wheat] pasta, so make a guess of how I feel about it? [also the dish contained olives, another IgG]. ;P
  • Kale Caesar: actually some good options here, including poached egg and white anchovy (my favorite!); but this was already very low on veggies, and a bit too high on protein for today's foray, plus it was already straddling the non-snack price. (and as a minor niggle, it had croutons by default).
  • Onion Soup Gratinée: with sourdough bread, nuff said.  ;)

So the winner ended up being:

mixed greens, cucumber, tomato, pickled onion, and sunflower seeds drizzled with house vinaigrette.

"One of these...", I chimed to the friendly bartender/waitress. "...Topped with pork belly", I further exclaimed with a delightful glint, knowing that with a small cultural adjustment I turned an otherwise boring and mundane side dish into what I would call "health food".  After all, not only is saturated fat NOT actually bad for you, it is in fact essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in food (among other things).  Any vitamin A, D or K locked away in all those veggies would be useless without some proper fat to go with it... and notice I say PROPER fat (trans fatty sludge oils need not apply).

Sure enough the salad came (handed off by a cheery server!) with a remarkable mix of fresh greens (including dark-leaved lettuce and escarole), crunchy seeds (which beat out croutons any day!), and some wonderfully large and juicy cuts of pork belly! If you've never had pork belly before, imagine thick-cut bacon on steroids... bigger, wider, meatier, "deliciouser"!  For a modest price and above-average courtesy, I was treated to the best salad I had in years: highly nutrient dense, properly-satiating, respectably-portioned, and purely-divine to eat! I took a while savoring this French-inspired wonder-snack, and yet I still had time to spare to get to my meet!

QUESTION: Do you intend to return?

Heck yeah!  :D

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Welp, I'm on Facebook...

I know this is soooo 2008, but bear in mind that I've never been really fond of Facebook and it's been a few years since I've used it.  However, there's something refreshing about coming back here on a completely clean slate, so might as well!  Let's join the endless, suffocating barrage of Facebook posts, woo!!!

You can click on that fancy new Facebook Badge on the right of the screen, or click here if you're on mobile (or just prefer good ol' URL links):

Also, I will likely use the Facebook page to post any additional pictures that don't get posted here, so be sure to visit it for some additional content.  ;)

I guess I'll do Twitter next... heaven knows what I'll write on it since I hate text limitations...   

Maybe I'll use it for inspirational posts or something... 

That's a thought...


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Big Jam for Big Jones - Part 3

Question: So despite everything in Part 2, was the food actually good?

The short is answer... yes.  It was good, certainly above-average compared to your standard restaurant, so I give them points for originality.  But I won't go so far as to say it was exceptional, even though I perhaps prematurely expected it to be.

Think of it this way... after our entrée embargo ended and I could finally order something other than mint tea (which was delicious), I ordered the "Corn Griddle Cakes" dish for myself, plus their "Blue & Raspberry Carolina Gold Rice Pancakes" dish for the group.  This sounds redundant, but my original goal was to order multiple dishes to review -- after all, this place was in Andersonville and it wasn't likely I would be back here any time soon. Heck, my first choice was the "Simple Cajun Breakfast" which promised a little bit of everything (including some crawdad boudin!).

But despite previous assurances from the manager that almost everything on the brunch menu that wasn't already naturally gluten-free could be made so, this apparently wasn't the case in reality.  The boudin was off-limits, the french toast was not hominy-based (as I had previously read), I could not get a straight answer on how they prepare food on their griddle, and no substitutions or omissions were offered for any dish with a sauce, gravy, piece of toast, etc.
We were corralled to omelets, the gold rice pancakes, some mushroom dish, and the corn griddle cakes, leaving around 85% of the brunch menu effectively inedible (or at least a waste of money).

There are worse places though so we soldiered on... and lo and behold, we got some amazing-looking dishes within reasonable wait-time.  The stack of golden-rice pancakes were tall, full of cream and topped with berries; and as far as taste is concerned, they are fluffier and more flavorful than conventional pancakes.  But this is not hard to do if you're familiar with proper gluten-free flours and binders, or appreciate the fat-embracing principles of your average Paleo-esque diet; nor can I claim these to be the best restaurant-made gluten-free pancakes.

As for the corncakes... yes, they were indeed hominy-based so I was quite happy to eat something with a familiar flavor of nixtamalized corn or masa.

If anything, perhaps it felt TOO familiar...

It was topped with a mild cheddar cheese, some savory black beans, two farm eggs, a tomatillo [green tomato] sauce, diced avocados and a bit of cream... I also requested chaurice as an add-on which, to my delight, reminded me a lot of chorizo.

A bit TOO much...

So I'm eating some corn thing that reminds me of tamales (or maybe sopes), the Creole version of chorizo, some avocados that were only a few mashes shy of a guacamole, eggs, beans and cream...


What they call heritage Southern cooking in need of preservation, I call my Tuesday breakfast!!

So yes it was delicious and amazing, and for palates not used to the flavor of hominy or spicy sausage it would be an out-of-this-world experience. But when these are your every-day staples, it's hard to call it impressive,... if anything, the flavors were a lot tamer than what I'm used to from our traditional Mexican dishes of comparable nature.  

Could my opinion have been different if I had gone with the crawdad dish?  WHY SURE IT COULD HAVE...!!!

...If we could resolve the little inconvenient problem that they couldn't give it to me.  ;)

Question: Is this entirely a lost cause then?

Now I don't want to completely rail on Big Jones since, by my own admission, the food is superb, they do select very high quality ingredients, and they do support local farmers.  If you're in the area, or want to patronize a place that at least tries to conserve some of this country's oft-overlooked culinary traditions, you can't go wrong here.  I won't say you'll be disappointed by their impressive menus and flavors.

But my only suggestions to improve your personal experiences here are...

a) don't make a reservation,


b) be VERY wary if you have Celiac's Disease, a gluten allergy or are hugely wheat-intolerant, since they don't seem as serious about taking care of you as they claim to be (or used to claim to be).

The last part is unfortunate since, seeing the connection to my own traditional foods, there are many missed opportunities for offering a wealth of naturally gluten-free dishes that could be just as historically-relevant to their mission. But it is what it is, so it will have to be a concern until it becomes prudent for them to make some improvements.

Although I won't be returning, I appreciate the lessons learned, the food, the history, the attempt to protect us from a large majority of their dishes, and the opportunity to appreciate our collective culinary heritages as we clearly have a lot in common!

Next time I need to patronize a restaurant that has a creative and diverse menu, uses high quality ingredients, supports local farmers, and seeks to preserve a bit of culinary tradition... while simultaneously offering superior customer service, a more practical reservation system, a more accessible location, and real gluten-free accommodations, and all at comparable prices... Tre Soldi will be there for me.

And when I'm just in the mood for some good heritage Southern cooking, I guess I'll just eat breakfast on Tuesdays. ^^

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Big Jam for Big Jones - Part 2

Question: Based on your reply in Part 1, is this why you wanted to try out Big Jones?

Yes, it can be said I was taken in by the restaurant's interest in preserving Southern heirloom cooking, it's embrace of heirloom grains, and its claim to adhere to traditional farming practices. The place had also received some fairly good reviews on, although that had to be taken with a grain of salt since the reviews were oldish, short, and specifically targeted only to naturally gluten-free items such as corn bread (which the restaurant DOES make with traditional hominy). As an extra bonus, there was an old 2013 article that espoused the virtues of the restaurant's brunch menu for those wishing or requiring to eat gluten-free, and it was honestly quite inspiring to read!

Even from the start, however, there were some warning signs.

First and foremost was an absence of a gluten-free menu or any indication on the standard menu that an item contained [or did not contain] wheat. While this is no requirement for a great dining experience (a dedicated and knowledgeable staff can compensate for this), more often than not the absence of such a menu (or menu markers) has lead to trouble for my group in the past, either due to ill-prepared servers or equally ill-prepared kitchen staff. Perhaps this was a decision to preserve the historical integrity of the menu since food allergies/sensitivities were hardly a consideration back then – or maybe they just hate the term “gluten-free” (in which case, I sympathize). But is it worth risking someone's health or even life for what amounts to historical roleplay if that were truly the case?

Secondly, the over-abundance of flour or bread-based dishes, paired with the often obfuscated descriptions of the dishes, made the menu a veritable minefield of wheat-exposure. How should I know the boudin had flour in it when, traditionally, I should be expecting it to have rice instead? For that matter, if these are heritage grains, is their flour milled from proper heritage wheat (I would respect a good spelt, or just heirloom Triticum aestivum), or do they use modern mutagenic wheat flour expecting it to be the same thing? If the latter, that could potentially [and unintentionally] damage the historical integrity of half their dishes!

Perhaps the biggest warning sign was that this restaurant was not in the “South” at all, so at best it could offer me its own interpretation of traditional American Southern food – and sadly, despite its efforts, this interpretation could be influenced as much by supply-and-demand and marketability as it might be to concerns for historical-accuracy, creativity, pragmatism, and hospitality.

Question: What do you mean about hospitality?

While Big Jones is not the only restaurant I've been to that has had a strict reservation policy (waiting for x number of attendees to arrive before seating), I have to say that Big Jones was perhaps the most inflexible and borderline unreasonable.  Even as a table for four people was left unused and empty, an attendee and I were still forced to sit in the bar area to wait for the other attendees, and this continued even as a third attendee arrived only to find us in a very uncomfortable and crowded spot, and the last had to call in late.  Prior to this I only had similar unpleasant reservation experiences at Little Goat Diner and Summer House Santa Monica, and even they were relatively quick to set up alternative arrangements that served as a good compromise. Many other restaurants were okay receiving half the attendees, or simply were more than happy to give us the table from the get-go, sans disruptions or mood-spoilers.

This continued for a while, more so due to the fact the receptionist was also the manager, and only ended as we were starting to discuss leaving, having grown tired of the crowded condition of the bar area.  The fact that one of my guests used a cane and had no place to sit might have also been a defining factor. Ultimately there was little point keeping us unseated if we would still have used up most of the four-person table; after all, it's not like it was being used by anyone in our absence.

We were seated only upon condition that we could not order entrees (another first for us at a restaurant), and if not for the need to evaluate this location's gluten-free offerings, this experience would have been grounds to truly find a more inviting place to eat.  Whether the food justified the hassle or not, I couldn't help but wonder if the notion of "southern hospitality" was also a stereotype, or just regrettably-absent in their recreation.

To be continued... 

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Big Jam for Big Jones - PART 1

Question: Do you miss Southern Food?

I'm guessing you mean Southern AMERICAN food... because if you meant southern Mexican food, I practically eat that every other week. I understand why the question is asked since, at least in the modern-day food scene, Southern food is a virtual assault of flour. Imagery of Popeye's fried chicken comes to mind, with their thick crunchy breaded coatings replacing their [far more nutritious] real chicken skins. Shrimp, catfish and crawdads aren't spared this deep-fried entombment either, with an additional insult to injury if they're sandwiched between two french rolls for a quick po' boy. Virtually all commercial corn bread is actually some mutant hybrid of wheat-based flour with perhaps a smattering of corn for the flavor (and usually a load of preservatives, additives, flavorings, sweeteners, etc). And my former IHOP breakfast staple of country fried steak drowning in country fried gravy flanked by two country fried biscuits [and maybe even some country fried orange juice] can basically be broken down as: flour, flour, flour, flour, flour, flour, sludge oil, flour, flour, flour, sugar, flour, flour, and something vaguely resembling ground meat, potentially possum.

Of course I'm being stereotypical... if that were my world view of American Southern food, I'd be no different from the millions of Americans who conceive of Mexican food as Taco Bell burritos and fajitas [flour-based, of course, loaded with ground beef and American cheese], with perhaps the most exotic of our native foods portrayed as the almighty churro. These are simply cheap, mass-market, imitations of Southern “comfort” food; and while this used to be “my” world view in the past, I was still aware that there existed non-wheat staples such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and okra. You know... the stuff on the fringes of the side menus that we'd almost never order – and when we did, surely the restaurant found some way to wreck it (country fried collard greens, anyone?).

Nowadays, though, it's the outliers that interest me – the medley of collard, mustard and turnip greens sauteed with butter, the succulent okra in a proper roux-less gumbo, the steamy butter beans, and the chicken, spared of de-skinning and appreciated for its dark meat, pan-fried in lard to a comforting but natural crisp. And there is historical context to this interest since flour wasn't as readily available in the Old South as it is today, or at least not inexpensive enough to use in virtually everything... corn bread WAS proper corn bread (hominy-based), gumbos weren't obligated to have a roux, and there was a much better appreciation for other grains besides wheat (including the hearty sorghum, whose sweet variant oozed out an amazing maple syrup substitute). The more I learn about how American Southern food used to be, the less I'm convinced I have any reason to miss it – quite the contrary, I feel compelled to learn more about it as surely it can offer a wealth of alternative traditional recipes nearly lost to time. There are still plenty of once-staple ingredients that are no longer commonly associated with our modern notions of Southern food, such as goat and filé powder, and I feel more compelled than ever to try them.

In short, I don't miss Southern food, since I've only just begun to truly discover it!

And somewhere in my search I came across Big Jones which offered the promise of helping me with that discovery...

To be continued...

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ground Rules,... er, Guidelines

Hey there,

This was a very busy and unusual week for me (for instance, I never expected that taking an electroencephalogram (EEG) mid-week would be so surreal), so while I rushed to get Ciao Ciabatta up and running, and gushed over the Under Construction page for days, I was predictably not sure what to write about.  Actually that's only a half-truth... I had a very unsavory visit to Big Jones in Andersonville last week that I absolutely MUST talk about at some point, but I didn't feel like making it my first post.  I needed something smaller, more transitory, neutral and pleasant.  Maybe something that could control the pace of this blog writing from here on out....

A few days of sleep deprivation and additional food topics (e.g., gluten-free Domino's Pizza) later, and I can say with certainty that I want my first official blog post to lay some quick ground rules.  I feel that's the best way to go rather than just jump right into the fray, as I rather work within a set of guidelines even if they'll end up being rather loose.  ;)

So then, here's rule #1:

RULE 1: There are no rules.

I will break rules anyway, so let's just call them guidelines,... this blog is more for pleasure, not work!  [I already have enough of that as it is!]

Let's try again...

GUIDELINE 1: Try to frame your writings around responses to questions.

I have a lot of trouble thinking about things to write with no context... unless these are responses to questions or are aligned to a specific context, in which case then I can write for eons.  Unless I am sufficiently inspired, a lot of these blog posts will be answers to questions... and if no questions are made available, I might come up with my own.  The short of it is, I ADORE answering questions, though of course I ask quite a bit of my own as well.  ;)

GUIDELINE 2: Limit your blog posts to 1000 words per article.

But all kidding aside, if left unchecked, I can write myself out of house and home.  This is more for your protection, as well as my own, as interest wanes fast (on both ends of the spectrum) when walls of text are ever-present.  1000 words is generally around 3-4 pages of regular 12pt font or less, so it's definitely reasonable, and chances are some blog posts may be significantly less than that.  If I wish to write more than 1000 words, I'll either specify the exception (as in the case of this first article which is going to be HUGE), or just do a multi-part post that can span two or more days. 

GUIDELINE 3: Post when inspired.
I could commit to a schedule (something like once a day/week/month, but historically I seem to rebel against my own goals.  So ironically, I'll probably commit to no commitment, as I much prefer to under-promise and over-commit rather than the latter. This also means that there may be some dry spells between articles, interspersed with blog dumps occurring one after the other if there's tons to write about! :D

GUIDELINE 4: Integrate social media modestly.
People who know me know that I DESPISE social media and have stayed out of that world (with some exceptions) for quite some time, not wanting to splurge every detail of my private life for the entire world to see.  But the equation changes if I'm not "me" but rather "Ciao Ciabatta", in which case I'll be amenable to returning to the social media landscape (including  in due time... look for some accounts set up on Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest, etc in the near future.  That will also include G+ (for you detractors :P ), as well as Youtube if I make audio readings of these blog posts for the visually-impaired (or just for those who prefer audiobooks).

GUIDELINE 5: Focus mostly about food.
This seems self-evident, but I don't want to be a one-trick pony. Sometimes I'll have the urge to talk about something else... certainly everything written above is not food-related, for instance.  But I will keep at least a substantial portion of my writings here about food, food products, food restaurants, food articles, books, games or movies, food gurus, food healing, food philosophy, or just plain growing food. 

GUIDELINE 6: Be mindful of my food limitations.
Again, a little self-evident given the subtitle of this blog, but there's a little more to it than just avoiding wheat. At some point I'll write about the origin of my wheatless diet since it had a rather unconventional and accidental beginning. But just to clarify here and now, my medically-verified problem with what is not with the gluten protein (which only rates at a light-to-moderate sensitivity), but rather with wheat bran (which I'm HUGELY intolerant too)!  This is an important distinction since the industry loves to throw around the term "gluten-free" and everyone seems to just kind of eaten it up. However, I've always seen it as a strawman argument since there's plenty more that's wrong with modern wheat than just it's gluten... it's like saying the only problem with cigarettes is its nicotine, and thus all is well if you can make a nicotine-free smoking apparatus. Gluten is just one piece of a bigger problematic puzzle,... wheat germ agglutinin, Amylopectin A and glyphosate are a few others.

Another medically-verified food to avoid permanently is shrimp, which is [thankfully] the only food I have IgE antibodies to, and it's not life-threatening at least so long as I don't abuse.  And then it's not like I'd want to anyway... shrimping is hugely unsustainable, and shrimp coming from the BP-destroyed Gulf Coast or Fukushima-contaminated waters probably wouldn't be good eats anyway.

Then we have other major IgG intolerances that are nearly as bad as wheat bran, which include:
  • alfalfa
  • bean sprouts
  • black pepper
  • cinnamon
  • coffee
  • mushrooms
  • nutmeg
  • oats
  • olives
  • sage
  • sesame seeds
  • walnuts
Coincidentally, these are foods and spices I used to eat quite frequently during my pre-wheat days, so I can't help but notice a connection. There's a few more that also fit the pattern (such as peppermint and ginger), but these are very low on the scale... once my gut heals properly, I should be able to consume many of these foods safely again!  We'll see when I retake the test in December/January.  :)

Lastly, we have foods I avoid for dietary considerations.  Soy is medically-safe to eat from an allergen standpoint, but good luck trying to get me to willingly eat it... same goes for table sugar, artificial sweeteners and a whole host of unfermented grains.  I also despise fake, trans-fatty, hydrogenated, omega 6-heavy, rancid, oxidized, ironically-heart-harming vegetable oils which I affectionately call "sludge oils"; these include such gems as corn oil, canola/rapeseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, or a combination of them.  Bottom line is: if you need a mega-factory, industrial solvents and deodorants to produce these unnatural sludges to use as cooking fat, expect your insides to get unnaturally "sludgy" as well.   

That's not to say I won't ever eat these... I evaluate plenty of gluten-free junk food as a service or out of curiosity, and many contain a lot of very questionable ingredients in an effort to be "low-fat"... in doing so, they replace one kind of toxin for another.  But as long as this remains the occasional junk food and not a common dietary staple, I feel my gut's strong enough now to take it.  ;)

Now that I've splurged half this article on the food guide line (no surprise there!), let's end this with the final guideline...

GUIDELINE 7: Have fun!
How cliché! But it's important nonetheless because I can find ways to turn a fun hobby into a chore, and I want to avoid that with Ciao Ciabatta as much as possible.  I will keep this fairly open and free-spirited, and not be overly-mindful with trivial details or writing in any kind of professional manner... this is pure, unadulterated free-association writing [or at least as much as I'm comfortable divulging to the public anyway]!  I won't get too nuts on graphics either, at least for now... many of the illustrations posted here come from Pixabay and are royalty-free (thanks to those generous artists!), but I may be inspired to draw my own in time and host them on Pixabay to return the favor.  I was thinking even of getting a little photo tent so I can shoot proper product images as I can see myself writing about specific foods, plants or products in the near future.  And as I mentioned earlier, I still want to try and create "audiobook" style renditions of these articles just to make use of that Samson microphone I have just lying around.  XD

But I'll worry about that in due time, for now, I'll follow the KISS principle:

GUIDELINE 7b: Keep It Simple & Sane!

^ That works for me!

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