Longing for some Southern Hospitality, gluten-free of course

One of the reasons I was most excited to return to Atlanta, okay, maybe the most important reason, was the food.

Having spent the last 6 months living in Jordan, I had navigated one of the most amazing adventures of my life through my work, the people I met, the culture and language, and of course, the food. Hummus in the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Israel) is an entirely different experience than that which Americans and Westerners happily indulge in when they pick up pre-made, brightly-decorated plastic containers of the Middle East’s most trendy gourmet export. The hummus I ate several times a day during my sojourn in the Middle East came out of buckets, served either with a giant depression filled gratuitously with olive oil and chickpeas in ceramic bowls or in the ubiquitous falafel sandwich (of which, sadly, I never found a gluten-free option). And the serving size difference between Middle Eastern…or, real, hummus and ours? Average serving size listed on our favorite brands of hummus: 2 tablespoons. Average serving size in an Arab’s kitchen? I’ll translate it this way: how much hummus can you physically consume at one sitting? Endless servings of this unparalleled gift of the gods gives every naive newcomer, including myself, a unique insight into the Middle Eastern kitchen and the culture at large. (And, yes, my recipe for delicious, easy, authentic, guaranteed gluten-free and CHEAP hummus will be soon to follow; pre-made hummus like Sabra is gluten-free, but quite pricey.)

Roasted pepper and garlic hummus

Roasted pepper and garlic hummus, a quick, easy gluten-free fix

But enough about the Middle East.

The single biggest challenge us gluten-freers face when eating in any part of the world, be it Middle Eastern metropolis or small-town America, is the omnipresence of gluten in the obvious (bread and pasta) as well as the not-so-obvious (deli meats and soy sauce). For me, the thought of coming back to Atlanta carried with it succulent thoughts of cornbread, okra and seafood. And alongside the food, extravagant cocktails served in the outward nonchalance of a mason jar yet exacting attention to detail and tradition that makes everything oh-so-Southern. Yet all the joy that this gourmet nostalgia brought me still had its limits; I was worried that traditional Southern food, in addition to all the other types of fare readily available in Atlanta that I had craved longingly for during the past half-year, had their hidden gluten surprises. Before my recent transition to gluten freedom, I’d never paid attention to ingredient lists for wheat, barley, rye, etc., let alone known much about what gluten is or what it does internally when digested. So now, I was afraid, my once-favorite restaurants and foods would inevitably present formidable, and potentially even disappointing, dining experiences to come.

But this is not the case. After my return I dedicated myself to the task of discovering the gluten-free niche of Atlanta. What I have found in the past couple weeks is much more than a mere niche.  I am happy to say that Atlanta is one of the best places to be right now for celiacs or individuals with medical conditions on specialized nutritional plans or even those simply curious to follow what might seem to them a burgeoning gluten-free “trend.” (Many of us cringe at the mere thought of regular folks giving a half-hearted gluten-free effort in the name of nutrition à la mode…But I urge you, my fellow celiacs, Crohn’s, Colitis or anyone restricted to gluten-free, take a deep breath. And take a minute to look at the bigger picture: increasing both access and the breadth of choices of the gluten-free lifestyle, which in turn spreads awareness of both its medically-established as well as its hypothesized health benefits, is generally a good thing all around).

Grocery stores, local restaurants, farmers’ markets and bakeries have been progressing at an exponential pace during the past couple years in Atlanta towards recognition, substitution and accommodation of the gluten-free diet. What this means is that for individuals like you and me, the hours spent straining over nutritional labels and obscure medical/nutritional/nonsense internet sites that often contradict each other, gluten-free life is getting increasingly more easy to navigate.

My overall goal in sharing with you all all of the restaurants, recipes, medical news and everything else relevant to living gluten-free in Atlanta is to change one of the prevailing outlooks of gluten-freers in my community. Some of us have become used to disappointment when dinner time comes around every day. Many of us feel overwhelmingly restricted in our options when eating at home and/or eating out. We do not take eating for granted like most others, and it sometimes becomes such a tiring chore to find something acceptable to eat, forget about any notion of deliciousness. In the beginning, I admit that I even developed negative feelings toward food itself.

Yet, taken by the horns (yes, I do sometimes get a little over-ambitious with newly discovered ingredients in the kitchen or when I find a new gluten-free beer, for instance) the gluten-free lifestyle in Atlanta is something to be embraced. More and more restaurants are offering special menus or gluten-free options demarcated on the regular menu. Gluten-free substitutions for our all-time favorite recipes are popping up all over the internet as people like you and me take a stand to stop wishing we could eat something and figure a way to make it possible. I’ve tried so many new things during my experience eating gluten-free that my list of favorite foods is not just decidedly different from what it was previously, but it is also much larger, much more eclectic and much, much more three-dimensional.

So, I hope you all bear with me as I embark upon this journey. I will try to stay as focused as possible on highlighting currently available options and news as well as attempting to stay at the edge of the gluten-free movement in Atlanta by providing everything I can in regard to what we have coming our way. And hopefully I will get as many ATLiens and others (my inspiration for this project comes from countless foodies, gluten-freers and gourmet bloggers from all over the world) on board as possible.

Bon appétit…or, rather, y’all enjoy!

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