Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"If I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood." -Rocky

Recently, I did a lot of thinking about the cultural and geographical importance of food. Where we live, who we live with and around, and what we eat help define who we are. Obviously, this takes place on a grandiose scale and manifests itself in a whole host of really awful chain restaurants and brings to light some broad ethnocentric questions (What does "Qdoba" mean in Spanish? What does the P.F. in P.F. Chang's stand for? Does everyone in Australia wear khaki?)

But it takes place on a much smaller, regional scale right here in our own backyards. What sociologists refer to as "urban neighborhoods" have defined human behavior since early civilization. In these areas, residents seek to socialize youth, maintain social control, and, more often than not, share common values, traditions, and culture, such as music, religion, and cuisine.

Philadelphia, especially, is a city made up of neighborhoods. Second only to "Eagles fan" and "Phillies fan," Philadelphians often define themselves in the context of their geographical location. "Northern Liberties," and "Fishtown," denote a much different (and often smellier) demographic than "Rittenhouse" or "Queen's Village."

I have recently myself become a "South Philadelphian," and along with a two bedroom home, walk-in closet, and basement washer and dryer unit, also adopted the cultural context, and plenty of hackneyed "Yo Adrienne" jokes which came along with my new neighborhood. I find this endearing, and have decided to fully embrace it.

How, you may ask?

Step One: Pimp my 2'x2' concrete backyard.
Well, not really "pimp" it, but at least let everyone know that I am a die-hard Eagles fan (I'm not), I bleed green (I don't) and that I would sell my kidney on the black market to sit on the 50 yard line and dump my beer on a Cowboys fan right before I beat the crap out of him in front of his kid. Or his grandkid.  

Step Two: Hit up the CVS on 10th and Passyunk and round out your collection of "Horses Thundering Across The Ocean" paraphernalia with this blanket, designed to be, what I suspect, is an exact replica of something off the set of Rocky III. It is honestly, the best $2.50 we have ever spent

This week on MTV's Cribs...

The last step was going to be a bit trickier.  

See, this is the view of Cheesesteak Vegas from our house:

Seriously. Walk out our front door and inhale and you, too, can experience the sweet smell of fried onions and tourists in the morning. Last week, we walked outside and the line at Pat's wrapped around the entire building twice. Twice! Because who comes to Philadelphia and doesn't eat a cheesesteak? And yet here I was, masquerading as a South Philadelphian, never having had one.

Honestly, I never really got too stuck on it before. I didn't really think I was missing out. In college, my roommates used to get drunk and bring back Larry's cheesesteaks at 3:00 AM, and it never really smelled like something that I wished was gluten free. The cheese wiz was all congealed and a gross orange color that even I would be questioning of, and the meat was always a curious shade of gross. I mean, with all do respect to everyone who gets wasted and craves greasy mystery meat deviously nestled in a day old bun- I'm sure the grill drippings do wonders at slowing down your Blood Alcohol level, but I just didn't feel...well, jealous.

But when you see and smell something every single day, you tend to become a bit curious. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't curious enough to take the plunge and commit glut-icide just to eat mass produced meat crap (Revelation: I think I may actually be evolving into someone with a pseudo-adult palate), but when Paesano's ran a cheesesteak special, I had to order one.

Their sandwich, the "Gizmobocuz" officially puts all of the other cheesesteaks (yes, none of which I have actually eaten, but have certainly smelled and seen smashed on my sidewalk, so I feel comfortable making a blanket declaration here) to shame. I mean, Holy. Shit. It is a rib eye cheesesteak with bits of chopped salami mixed in, slathered in garlic mayo and cheddar herb spread, warm roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions, and broccoli rabe. If that isn't enough to have you salivating over your keyboard, it is all glued together by warm, gooey, delicious melted provolone. And, it's all on a gluten free bun.

I really think that the invention of the basic principal of food mathematics which states that bread+meat+cheese = happiness was a revolutionary concept which modernized the way that man enjoyed food. And I really think because that the first bite of cheesesteak I took, when soft, cheesy goodness and the tender, salty harmony of ham and beef hit my tongue sent electric waves bouncing around my cranium was a taste bud rebirth. I have been walking around this city blind to the beauty that is the cheesesteak. And now I can see.

The garlic mayo and herb spread elevate your basic cheese plus meat equation to a level thats quantum physic-like. It adds a lucious herbatiousness that lingers with every bite, taking the grilled ribbons of meat and skyrocketing them to the top of the flavor spectrum. And the onions, with their carmely, syrupy deliciousness, are as subtle and unassuming as fried onions can be- unobtrusive to the basic flavors of the meat but bursting with mouthwatering flavor that coats your mouth as you chew.

So this is what everyone has been talking about all this time.

Some people can't believe that I have lived in the Philadelphia area my whole life and had never had a cheesesteak until I was in my 20's. I, for one, am glad that my cheesesteak exposure has been closely monitered, as I now feel that I have expierenced a cheesesteak in it's purest form, and now would be a crime to consume anything less. I don't care how drunk I am. I can say "witout" (oh, come on...I had to) a doubt, that it's just not worth it.

Really. Stop reading and go to Paesano's before they change their special.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"You can't have Thanksgiving without Turkey. That's like Fourth of July without apple pie or Friday with no two pizzas" -Joey Tribiani

Every Celiac I know has a "First Thanksgiving" story.

I know that there's a real "First Thanksgiving" Story, thank you very much. I, too, stapled construction paper feathers to a paper headband in Kindergarten and learned all about the Autumn of 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag slaughtered a turkey and sat down to celebrate the English Colonists' first successful harvest (a story which, unfortunately, ended about as well for the Wampanoag as it did for the turkey).

My First Thanksgiving has less historical importance, and certainly much less ethnic diversity, but it is, nonetheless, something I think about religiously every November.

I mean my first Thanksgiving after my diagnosis.

For Celiacs, the cultural significance of food will always be a struggle. The table is a mecca for family, friends, laughter, tears, celebrations, and, of course, holidays. Each one of us has unique, individual ways of celebrating Thanksgiving. Some dust off the good China and dress up in their Sunday best and crowd around a beautifully decorated table. Others pile their paper plates until they sag in the middle and file into a basement or garage filled with folding chairs. Some only eat cranberry sauce out of a can, pull the wishbone after dinner, watch a football game, pray, dance, or play drunk charades. But all of these celebrations typically revolve around a table filled with a cornucopia of gluten, and often, the first one we experience after Celiac doesn't always give us that warm, fuzzy, Thanksgiving-y feeling.

For me, that first November, my diagnosis was fairly recent. It was hard for me to wrap my own head around the idea, much less explain or expect my family to understand. To be honest, I don't think anyone even stopped to think how a holiday centered around food might be at all problematic for me. I remember my heart sinking as I stood in front of a delicious buffet, the warmth of the oven and smells enveloping the kitchen in homey warmth and holiday cheer, and came to each gut-wrenching realization, one by one. All I needed was a Sarah McLaughlin tune humming softly in the background to complete my sad little montage of food that I would not be enjoying that year. Cue the music: The turkey was stuffed. With bread. The mashed potatoes were from a box, which someone dug out of the trash and announced had wheat starch in them. The Brussels Sprouts had bread crumbs. The gravy was thickened with flour. The dinner rolls and stuffing were obviously, out of the question. As was my grandmother's pumpkin pie. And her apple pie. And pretty much all pie moving forward. It was absolutely crushing.

I walked back to my seat at the table, my gold trimmed Lenox China Plate piled to the top with the only thing I could eat that year: peas. I decided once and for all that I hated Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, unless you are one-quarter Wampanoag, it's hard to boycott a holiday that your entire family insists on celebrating. And my dad, so wracked with guilt about the sad little sight of his favorite (sorry, Catherine) daughter sitting hunched over a chair pushing peas around her empty plate, vowed to never let me experience another disappointing Thanksgiving again. And so, first, we learned how to scrape together a mostly-edible gluten free dinner with boxed and pre-purchased products from Whole Foods. Then, we learned how to make pretty decent gluten free food from scratch. And now, thanks to almost ten years of trial and error product testing, some amazing recipes, and, of course, the help of Aaron's culinary skills, the gluten free Thanksgiving that my family has managed to create is something that I genuinely look forward to for eleven months out of the year.
So, Aaron and I put together some tips for a delicious gluten free Thanksgiving.

  • We do NOT stuff the turkey any more. You can tell the rest of your friends and family to quit bitching because it dries the turkey out anyway.
  • When translating a regular stuffing recipe to a gluten free stuffing, you need to increase the amount of liquid by 10%-15%. Gluten free bread absorbs significantly more liquid and has a tendency to dry out. Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse makes a toasted gluten free stuffing mix, or you can dice one loaf of Schar Bread and transpose it to your favorite stuffing recipe.
  • Mashed Potatoes are made from scratch, or, use Betty Crocker Potato Buds. ALWAYS check the label of any boxed mashed potatoes, as wheat flour, starch, and other glutonious evils often hide out there.
  • Aaron's Brussels Sprouts prove once and for all that if you put enough bacon in anything, you do not need bread crumbs. He slices them in half and adds them to a pan of rendered bacon fat (just cook bacon, remove, and keep all the juicy love thats left). He adds shallots and apple cider vinegar, removes them from the pan, and transfers them to a baking sheet. He roasts them for five minutes and tops them with the crispy bacon.
  • Aaron also makes Creamed Pearl Onions that I literally begin dreaming about sometime around August. He sautees peeled onions in that glorious rendered bacon fat (are you sensing a trend?) and olive oil at medium-low heat until they start to carmelize. He adds heavy cream, nutmeg, chives, and finishes with crispy bacon. Seriously, I would go gluten free for this dish.
  • For gravy, mix about two tablespoons of all purpose gluten free flour with a quarter cup of ice cold water.  Whisk the mix into one cup of the simmering turkey drippings. Finish with your favorite herbs like fresh chopped thyme, rosemary, and a tablespoon of heavy cream. Trader Joe's also makes a gluten free gravy that you can pour right out the box (way more my style)
  • Pies are no longer out of the question. Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse makes an amazing frozen pie crust that you can dethaw and fill with your favorite pie filling. It is flaky and delicious and the texture is just right. My dad makes a killer pumpkin pie using the recipe from Libby's Pumpkin Pie mix. I also make (that's right, I am officially using the words "I" and "make" in the same sentence) a Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Pecan Shortbread Crust. For the bottom, I crush an entire box of Pamela's Pecan Shortbread Cookies with a two teaspoons of butter and bake for 10 minutes.Then, I fill the pan with Betty Crocker's Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe (omit one egg for a denser cheesecake)
Above all, make sure you talk to your friends and family about the importance of incorperating gluten free recipies into Thanksgiving. Understand that the first Thanksgiving, well, it will probably suck. Don't get discouraged, even if you expierence your own version of what I like to call "The Year of The Peas." And just remember, it gets a lot better for us than it ever did for the Indians.