Updated: November 5, 2013 1:04AM
Gloria Irwin says Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant in Merrillville is the best eatery in Northwest Indiana for gluten-free diets.
So that’s where we met when I asked her if I should try a gluten-free lunch, a first for me.
“Oh, absolutely,” replied Irwin, who doesn’t need to eat gluten-free but often does anyway.
Irwin’s 16-year-old daughter, Gina, was born with a life-threatening allergic reaction to wheat, as well as to barley and shellfish. “Gluten free” has been the family’s daily mantra for her entire life, since Gina was diagnosed while Gloria was nursing her.
Cooper Hawk’s gluten-free menu is as impressive as its regular menu, loaded with creative meal options. The place even served us gluten-free bread as an appetizer which was, admittedly, not as tasty as its usually delicious pretzel bread.
“You can taste a difference, right?” Irwin asked, already knowing my reply.
Gluten-free eating is all the rage these days, often for dietary health reasons, but Gina’s body simply can’t tolerate any form of wheat, not even touching it.
“This place does it right for gluten-free diners. Other restaurants in this region can take lessons from here,” Gloria told me while perusing the menu.
Irwin could be the poster child for the old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
The Schererville mother of two has just given birth to a new website, GlutenFree219.com, launched on Gina’s 16th birthday last month. The site offers visitors an interactive map of dining choices, in addition to recipes, books, member samplers and what it’s like to live a gluten-free lifestyle.
“Back then it was much harder to find gluten-free items than it is today and we are thrilled to see that the market has exploded with so many interesting choices,” the site states. “Sadly, this explosion is due to the thousands of people who have discovered they are suffering from a serious condition, celiac disease.”
Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. Essentially, the body is attacking itself every time a person with celiac consumes gluten, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
“This onset of celiac disease has caused an explosion for gluten-free foods, which has helped Gina and her food options these days,” Irwin said while eating a steak salad.
“That’s another reason we created the website. We want to make it easy for people who are looking for gluten-free meals without having to worry about it beforehand,” she said. “We want to help educate and inform our website members.”
When it was time for Gina to start school, Irwin found herself explaining to the point of exhaustion what it means to be allergic to wheat, she said. (To watch a video of Irwin’s explanation, read my column online at the Post-Tribune website or my Facebook page.)
“People just didn’t seem to understand that wheat flour is in just about everything, even something like Twizzlers licorice,” she noted. “You have to learn how to read the labels and ask a lot of questions.”
Years ago, Irwin and her daughter wrote a little story about it in booklet form to help educate teachers, friends and even family who couldn’t fathom why a young Italian girl shouldn’t eat bread, pasta or pizza. It seemed sacrilegious at first, especially to the girl’s Italian grandmother, nicknamed Nonna.
“There were so many times I had to explain how Gina was deathly allergic to those foods,” Irwin recalled. “No one else in my family has any other allergy problems so I had to literally stop Nonna from feeding Gina home-cooked Italian meals.”
“Just a little bit,” Nonna would beg.
“No, Gina will die!” Irwin would reply.
Irwin also had to explain that cookies, crackers and cupcakes were not allowed, prompting people to think Gina was the “unluckiest little kid on the planet.” But these days, with gluten-free diets now considered much healthier, Irwin finds herself wondering if Gina is the lucky one.
“Gina doesn’t feel she’s missing out on anything because it’s all she has known,” Irwin said after praising our server on her training with gluten-free orders.
“Our chefs and kitchen help know how to prepare most any kind of meal for gluten-free customers,” the server replied. “I’ve never seen anything like it at any other place.”
Irwin noted, “I think a gluten-free diet is preferable because it also cuts down on a lot of processed foods that so many of us eat on a daily basis. I’m constantly experimenting with new meals.”
Gina can’t tolerate even coming into contact with gluten or wheat in any form. Once while ordering a Happy Meal at a fast food drive-thru, Gina ordered a hamburger with no bun but it came with trace amounts of a bun that was obviously just removed.
Gina immediately began experiencing breathing problems.
“It’s not that Gina just gets sick,” Irwin said. “It’s that she will have a life-threatening reaction. It’s very serious for us.”
Same goes for their new website, which offers a smorgasbord of related resources, including the opportunity to add to its online directory of restaurants. It currently ranges from Subway and Smoothie King to Café Borgia and House of Kobe.
For more information on Irwin’s website, email info@GlutenFree219.com or call 669-7500.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.