Cincinnati, Ohio has always held a special place in my heart. It’s the closest major city to Miami University, where I spent the best four years of my life earning my bachelor’s degree. Growing up, it was the place where we traveled on our annual family vacation every summer. We would spend up to two weeks visiting my large extended family and enjoying all that this Midwestern area has to offer. Kings Island was where I rode my first roller coaster and is still one of my favorite amusement parks in the entire country. I also have fond memories visiting the playful animals at the Cincinnati Zoo (RIP Harambe). But my favorite part of our vacation was always spending time with my family, especially my grandmother, who I’ve always lovingly referred to as “Gram.” Gram was always so happy to see us and shower us with love and give us her undivided attention (oh, and spoil us because that’s what grandmas do).
Earlier this week I took a trip back to Cincinnati; however, this particular trip was one of heartbreak and loss. My sweet Gram passed away peacefully in her sleep last week. At 100 ½ years old, you would think that we all would have expected it at some point. And in some ways, we did. But to be honest, a part of me believed that she would live forever. I still can’t imagine my life without her. She was the most caring and loving person that I’ve ever met and will probably ever meet. She had a great sense of humor and a charming personality with bright Irish eyes and an endearing smile that could light up any room. She dressed to impress and always looked beautiful. People were always surprised when I told them Gram’s age; she was a century old and looked younger than most eighty-year-olds. She was truly someone special.
Let’s be honest, the last thing on my mind during this trip was food. But obviously, I knew I needed to eat and so did the rest of my immediate family, especially my mom who was mourning the loss of her own mother and hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days.
The night before my Gram’s funeral my mom, dad, sister, and I ate dinner at Arnold’s Bar and Grill in downtown Cincinnati. I think it was the first real meal that my mom had eaten since arriving in Cincinnati by herself to take care of matters last week. My sister (another celiac victim) and I chose this restaurant mostly based on reviews from the Find Me Gluten Free app.
When we arrived at the restaurant, we walked into a dark, dimly lit tavern and I immediately wanted to leave. I didn’t think my family could handle any more darkness this week. But I knew we were all starving, so I kept this thought to myself. Fortunately, the person who greeted us from behind the bar suggested that we sit outside. She walked us outside to the cutest little outdoor seating area lit brightly with colorful string lights. Shortly after we were seated, an eclectic group of people started filing outside, each carrying a different instrument. They gathered on a little porch area and began to play folk tunes. It was simple and relaxing—exactly what my family needed.
I ordered Missie’s Asian Quinoa Bowl and substituted the goat cheese for feta cheese (I’ve never been a huge fan of goat cheese) and opted for a vinaigrette dressing (it originally came with a spicy ginger sesame dressing but ginger isn’t really my thing). When my food arrived, I was so hungry (translation: HANGRY) that I forgot to take a picture. My quinoa salad was good—nothing too special, but overall a nice gluten-free meal. My sister and I both felt perfectly fine after eating and the ambiance made for a nice night. It’s amazing how good food and the right setting can alter a mood!
We still had room for dessert, so we drove a few streets over to the Macaron Bar, where all of the macarons are gluten free! Score! They had some pretty unique flavors like Earl Grey Tea, but I was sharing them with my sister who can be picky, so we settled for Pistachio, Salted Caramel (my fave), Madagascar Vanilla, Raspberry, Chocolate Strawberry, and Dark Chocolate. So delicious!
The next morning we laid my Gram to rest in a beautiful ceremony. Afterwards, my large extended family gathered at a country club to continue Gram’s “Celebration of Life.” My aunt had called ahead to see if the country club could provide any gluten-free options; apparently the caterers had no clue what this meant. My mom offered to have gluten-free pizza delivered to the country club for my sister and me, but I didn’t want her worrying about us. Instead, I settled for salad—both the fruit salad and the regular vegetable salad. It’s safe to say I was still hungry after this, so my Godmother, sister, and I hit up Graeter’s Ice Cream once the celebration had ended.
Graeter’s is definitely a Cincinnati tradition and my Gram always enjoyed it—she had such a sweet tooth! Many of their flavors are gluten free besides the few that contain cookies or pie crust pieces and a couple other flavors that contain wheat. All of the nutritional and allergen information is listed online, which is super helpful. They always rinse off the scoopers after scooping, and the staff even grabbed a clean scooper from the kitchen without hesitation when I told them I couldn’t eat anything that contains gluten. It’s October, so I obviously had to get the pumpkin flavor. And it definitely didn’t disappoint!
Before going to the airport the next day, my fam and I stopped to get lunch at Tom + Chee at their Newport on the Levee location, which is in Newport, KY right across the river from Cincinnati. I actually tried this restaurant out the last time I came to Cincinnati to visit my Gram for her 100 ½ birthday this past August. I remember we sat at the counter and watched them make my grilled cheese in their open kitchen because I still wasn’t entirely convinced that they were going to serve me grilled cheese that was actually safe to eat. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw them prepare my grilled cheese on a separate grill to prevent cross-contamination. I also enjoyed watching the cook yell at a lady who brought her salad that apparently was missing ingredients over to the counter where he was preparing my sandwich. There was a glass barrier between the counter and prep area, but the cook literally freaked out when she tried to get close to show him that her salad was made incorrectly. He started shouting about how he was making a gluten-free sandwich and couldn’t touch anything until he was finished. It’s safe to say they take cross-contamination pretty seriously here. I had such a positive experience and was eager to come back this time!
They have so many grilled cheese varieties to choose from, but I chose to create my own grilled cheese sandwich with mozzarella & cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, and basil pesto on gluten-free bread with a cup of creamy tomato basil soup—literally the ultimate comfort foods. All of their tomato soup varieties are gluten free, which was exciting. When the server brought out my meal, I immediately noticed a packet of crackers that were definitely not gluten free sitting next to my tomato soup. I scowled at the crackers, dramatically picked up the packet, and flung it into the middle of the table (while muttering “this didn’t happen last time” under my breath). Pretty sure the server witnessed all of this but didn’t acknowledge my dramatic behavior. They must have realized though because when they delivered my sister’s gluten-free grilled cheese and soup, they left out the glutenous crackers. I figured it was just a fluke and let it slide because the crackers were sealed and hadn’t ruined my meal. Everything tasted delicious and kept me full for my flight back home.
Although a huge part of the Cincinnati that I remember is now gone, this city will always be special to me because it holds such fond memories of the time spent with my Gram, which I will treasure forever. I will definitely return to this city soon to spend time with my extended family and enjoy some more delicious gluten free food!