Coast to Coast - Gluten Free in the USA Part 1
On the 26th August 2019, my new husband and I embarked on the most epic trip we have ever set foot on as a couple; and as people. Coast to coast across the southern edge of the United States in just under three weeks was going to be incredible. Planning for the unexpected with any big trip was one thing. Adding a food intolerance to a pure road-based experience for two self-professed foodies made for an even more interesting challenge. Here is part one - fabulous Florida, the Sunshine State.
I had visited Florida as a kid, having experienced the amazing home of Disney World. Long before I realised I had a gluten intolerance, and recalling feeling pretty poorly after copious amounts of donuts, burger buns and ice-cream cones. This time would feel very different as a now, very sensitive coeliac. 20 years of dietary progress for me, and the place I had fallen for all that time ago was an exciting and daunting prospect.
East coast eats
Landing in Orlando, we decided to make the Coast to Coast official, and drove to Cape Canaveral. We picked up a shell, and chose to eat our first meal at Grills Seafood Deck and Tiki Bar. With a totally dedicated gluten free menu, and more options in seafood, veggie and meat varieties than you could wish for, this was a flying start to our culinary journey.
It appears that as with many popular beach resorts, the menus on the coast line were plentiful and considerate for the tourists they would likely be serving. There were no concerns in relation to cross contamination at this point, and staff understood the stark difference between gluten free as a lifestyle choice, and being a coeliac.
Desperately seeking gas stations
Hitting the road to cross the state of Florida to the west started getting interesting. Of course, we wanted to head straight to a gas station and check out the eats and treats made purely for the road. It quickly transpired that unless you wanted to consume a calorific king size chocolate bar or family sized potato chips, you would be eating nothing. Most gas stations had self-serve nachos with cheese sauce, bread crumbed chicken wings, or crispy skin fries that were all swimming with wheat flour. Fresh fruit and healthy snacks were hard to find, and as we were residing in hotels and motels, we didn't have the facilities to create a custom picnic of sorts. I had to rethink my original plans, deeply inspired by the all-american road trip epics I had lovingly witnessed up until this point.
UK snack attack
Luckily, I had sort of thought ahead, with a couple of packets of granola from home, and if the motel had a jug of fresh milk (which wasn't always the case), I could fashion my breakfast bowl without too much trouble. Keeping the serving bowls away from the wandering crumbs of close by blueberry muffins and croissants was a bit of a gamble mind, and as soon as we found a Walmart, I knew what was required in the shopping trolley.
By the Sea Motel, Panama City
Gluten free go to's
Heading to a shopping mall or business centre with various fast food restaurants was a good shout when the road didn't produce any eateries, and Jacksonville offered the healthier fast food addition called Fla Juice and Bowl. Brimming with fresh vegetables and salad, and staff checking the ingredients of the dressings and condiments created hope for any future towns along the way. Panama City once again felt pretty orientated to visiting tourists, and had loads of choice on the GF front. Shame we were only visiting for a couple of hours and had just eaten a very UK breakfast!
Fla Juice and Bowl, Jacksonville Florida
Fast food no no's
McDonalds and Burger King were especially disappointing with their gluten free options; even worse than in the UK's efforts. From two of the country's biggest exports, I began to get a feel for the lack of acknowledgement there seemed to be for dietary intolerance. I was well prepared for the fact I may need to consume meat on the road in order to be able to eat, but even this was not an apparent option without wheat or barley involved. This is not a reflection on Florida, however. This state was one of the kinder states to me, and thankfully, a cracking start to a varied culinary adventure.
Staying in motels, you need to be super organised and have snacks and non-perishables with you at all times. Hotel stays are better, with fresh fruit and yoghurt on offer, as well as some supplying gluten free bread. This has to be requested however, and beware of toasting facilities. Like many worldwide hotels, your GF variety shares a conveyor belt with the very wheaty kind, and toaster bags are a great shout for your hand luggage.
Looking back, having collapsable bowls that you keep and wash throughout the trip may also be a good shout, so you don't have to worry about sharing the glutenous crumbs on the self-serve breakfast receptacles.
Not having the familiar cross grain symbol we rely on so much in the UK to guide us to 100% safe eats became very apparent very quickly during the first leg of our journey. I had to rely on the more approachable and accommodating staff in stores to check ingredient lists. I did have a lot of puzzled looks from folk at times, and we chose to move on swiftly when this occurred!
Coffee shop regulars like Starbucks did have some packaged options dependent on the size of the store, which were also handy to save for a 'rainy day'; which could be any day, of course. Not being afraid to enquire when entering said establishment was the main learning curve. If you don't ask, you're very likely to not get.
Starbucks, Panama City Beach
Go indie if you can
Independent businesses in the more populated towns were the best bet for any dietary requirements, and couldn't be more helpful. This was hard to plan for when on the road, as sometimes we were short of time before getting to the next town, or sometimes Google was just not playing ball. Sometimes, they just didn't exist, and you had to be inventive. On a selfish and very British note, you are also more likely to grab a very decent cup of tea in one of these wonderful establishments. This was also something that very often overshadowed my gluten free needs during our trip. Understandably, a hot, well-stewed english breakfast with cold fresh milk is not on the top of a cafe's priorities in the Sunshine State.
When you find a Walmart, stop! Even if you don't think you need anything, you will at some point and keep it in your immediate reach. The amazing and daunting thing about a road trip across the US is you never quite know what supplies are going to be available and when the next gas station is. So be prepared.
Florida, you were kind to me, and also taught me some very vital initial lessons about what was to come travelling and eating across the USA. Some key themes were starting to emerge, and I was looking forward to one of our most anticipated and upcoming next stop. The incredible New Orleans. So long Sunshine State, and Bonjour beautiful bayou....
Panama City beach