Gluten-Free Girl

Gluten-Free Girl cover

You, dear reader, are on a book tour.

Surprise.

It’s a virtual book tour, to be exact, for Seattle-based blogger Shauna James Ahern‘s heart-warming, honest, educational first book, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too. Shauna’s jumping from site to site this month, sharing her journey to living gluten-free through the hearts and words of other bloggers, and watching how her experiences get reflected and refracted through our different lenses.

For me, Gluten-Free Girl is a love story. It’s about saying yes to food, about finding a new way to live life, and about Shauna’s inspiring rebirth after 30 years of living in the cocoon of pain and fatigue that eating gluten caused her. The book speaks to anyone who has experienced depression, injury, disease, or frustration. To anyone who’s fallen in love. And, of course, to anyone who loves food, or fears it.

(Here’s what I wrote about the book for Seattle Weekly.)

For me, Gluten-Free Girl was a surprising education. How could I know so much about food and not realize how much some of it hurts people?

You’ve probably seen “gluten-free” on a package in the grocery store. Maybe you’ve heard of celiac disease – it’s an autoimmune disorder that affects a person’s ability to digest gluten.

But maybe you’ve dismissed it, or viewed it as a dietary choice. She’s a vegan. He doesn’t eat meat. She doesn’t like gluten. I told a friend about the book months ago – a friend who cooks, who knows food, like me. I could almost see her there, on the other end of the phone back east, raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips in disbelief. I’m sure she cocked her head to one side, then shook it slowly, the way she does. Honestly, I don’t know if I buy the whole gluten-free thing, she said.

Here’s what I learned: Eating gluten-free is not a fuzzy, fictional goal. For those with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a necessity. It’s the difference between barely surviving and really living.

On her blog, and with Gluten-Free Girl, Shauna is bringing celiac awareness to a new height. As a percentage of the population, there are as many (or according to many sources, far more) Americans with celiac disease as there are people allergic to peanuts, yet few people understand how sick gluten makes those who don’t tolerate it.

At the beginning of the book, when Shauna realizes she needs to go gluten-free, her journey starts in the kitchen. She discovers good ingredients – oils, cheeses, chocolate, grains, vegetables, fruits– that her body loves, and learns to use them well. She undergoes a culinary epiphany, and shows us that falling in love with food is really, really fun.

I went along for the ride, cheering her newfound devotion to real food, diving into what she told me about ingredients that are still relatively new to me, like quinoa and teff.

But each time I returned to Shauna’s book, to reread delicious-sounding recipes (Chicken thighs braised in pomegranate molasses? Yes, please.), an emotion peeked in through the back of my heart, from what must be the dark part.

It took a few days, but eventually I recognized it: Jealousy. I wasn’t jealous in a raging, angry way, but softly, curiously. Jealous that Shauna knows not only what causes her autoimmune disease, but also knows how to fix it. She learned to eat a certain way, and it disappeared. Now, she knows. Now, she can help the millions of others like her. She’s doing it already.

Gluten-Free Girl made me want to know what that feels like, too. It made me wonder whether I’ll ever find a solution for lupus, as it affects me. I’ve always assumed there would never be an answer. Then again, so did Shauna. She made me jealous, but she also gave me hope. And God, did she make me feel lucky. Lupus isn’t always fun, but my pain will never reach the depth and longevity of what Shauna endured. My heart ached for her.

Reading through Gluten-Free Girl, I couldn’t help but think that Shauna’s diet, on the scale of all American diets, isn’t that different from mine. As much as I yearned for boxed, processed foods growing up (and took shameless advantage of my father’s willingness to purchase them when he had grocery duties), I didn’t grow up eating brands. I grew up eating food.

I could eat that way, I thought. I could eat gluten-free. I decided to try it, not because I think I might have celiac disease (I don’t – I’ve checked), but to test my own response to dietary restrictions. Say there was a diet that could cure lupus and, over the course of months, reverse its past ill effects. My hair would grow back thicker. My steroid-soaked skin would clear. Could I follow it?

Shauna would say yes. She’d say I could.

But I haven’t found that diet yet, so I tried hers. Just for kicks.

I started on Sunday night. That’s right – last Sunday. All the recipes on Hogwash this week have been gluten-free.

You haven’t noticed, have you? Neither did my husband.

That’s because eating gluten-free doesn’t preclude eating deliciously – it just means eating carefully.

I’ve been gluten-free, on and off my site. No bagels or bread for breakfast, no sandwiches for lunch. No pasta, no flour tortillas, no baked goods containing gluten. I ate eggs many wonderful ways for breakfast, and moist, hearty pork enchiladas from my freezer. I went out for Vietnamese food, and went to a cocktail party and found gluten-free foods. I drank wine instead of beer. I had black bean soup for lunch, and we had friends over for dinner, who loved my moist, mushroom-studded quinoa, cooked risotto-style. The car needed an oil change, and I chose a garage next to a gluten-free bakery. I used homemade chicken stock, and checked the ingredients on everything I thought about buying at the grocery store. Yes, I learned. It’s possible.

But there were mistakes, to be sure. I tried to start on Sunday, but I topped my soup with bleu cheese, which is inoculated with a form of bread mold that has traces of gluten in it. When I was mixing the spices for the pumpkin seeds, I added soy sauce the first time, and had to start over, because soy sauce contains wheat. My dog eats a food that has wheat in it, too, and I must have gotten a wet smack on the lips at some point this week. I forgot to check the ingredients in my toothpaste. We brewed beer on Thursday night, and my husband spilled roasted barley on the counter, and we didn’t sterilize it. And halfway through the week, I realized I had a story on Seattle bakeries due – I had to eat something from four different places. I tried everything I needed to taste, but took only one bite of each: One bite of shoofly pie. One bite of adorable red velvet cupcake. One bite of pumpkin bread. My neighbor got box after box of pastries that looked like they’d been tested by a very picky mouse.

These bites, these mistakes, would have sent Shauna into days of writhing pain. (I love the encouragement she gives to those with celiac disease who are tempted to cheat and eat gluten: You wouldn’t “cheat” and drink some Drano, would you?) But my transgressions drove the point home: for those with serious celiac disease, eating requires mindfulness. I have a newfound respect for her, and all those who suffer from the disease, and hope I can help spread the word. I’ve added a “gluten-free” category for my recipe collection here on hogwash.

But oh, I fear I’ve been too meticulous. Too serious. Too strict. Too focused on avoiding.

Did I just mention suffering? No. Shauna doesn’t suffer. What Gluten-Free Girl also makes clear – with equal importance to her discussions of celiac disease – is that eating requires joy. Shauna tells us that each bite taken should be taken with care, respect, curiosity, interest, and playfulness. She teaches us that the food we eat – whatever it is – sustains us as much emotionally as it does physically, and that no person should live without a constant, conscious love for it.

And for that, I thank her.

Here’s Shauna’s blog, and her book. Oh, and if you’re on your way to the University District farmers’ market this morning, like I am, she’ll be there, too.

Wild Mushroom Quinoa “Risotto” (PDF)
Recipe 293 of 365

Cooking risotto has a comforting pattern: first you sweat the onions in butter or olive oil. Then you add the grains, often toasting them just a bit, then wine or stock, and whatever vegetables you’re using. Then the whole thing gets impregnated with butter and cheese, so that when the grains hit your tongue, they slide across each other, rich with flavor.

Here’s a version made with quinoa – it allows you to skip the stirring part of risotto, but adds protein, and still provides the unctuous mouth feel that makes mushroom risotto, made with fragrant wild mushrooms, such a cornerstone of fall food.

TIME: 25 minutes total
MAKES: 4 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound wild mushrooms, such as chanterelle, oyster, or porcini, cleaned and chopped
1 cup raw quinoa
2 cups homemade chicken stock
2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter. When the butter has melted, add the shallots, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the olive oil and mushrooms, season again, and cook for another five minutes, or until mushrooms have begun giving off their water. (You can prepare the dish up to this point and set aside for an hour or two, or refrigerate overnight.)

Add the quinoa and the chicken stock, stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook at a bare simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter (you can skip this, if you insist) and the goat cheese until both have melted, season to taste, and serve hot.

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13 Comments

Filed under gluten-free, media, recipe, side dish

13 responses to “Gluten-Free Girl

  1. stephanie

    Wow! I also have Celiac disease and can’t wait to get the book. Thank you for your review, it was a pleasure to read.

  2. Pingback: Haily Day Soup « hogwash

  3. Hi, Jess. How did you _feel_, eating gluten free? I mean, did you notice any differences in the way your body functions?

    I am considering starting the same experiement, because I notice I feel very differently depending on which foods I eat. Sometimes I just feel bloated and heavy and tired, without any particular reason. At other times, I find myself avoiding bread, thinking it would be ‘too heavy’. Also, I’ve always been a rice girl, rather than a pasta girl. Of course, all this doesn’t have to mean anything, and if I am gluten-intolerant, than it’s probably only very slightly… hm… maybe I should just go and see a doctor, just in case… confused…

  4. That’s a good question, M – I was wondering the same thing, wondering if eating gluten-free might help me in some way, even though I tested negative to celiac disease.

    Truth is, I didn’t feel much different. I felt like I was eating “better” because I think I consumed fewer calories, but no physical difference. But a) I know that for some people with gluten sensitivities, they don’t notice the difference until gluten is out of their system, which can take weeks, not 6 days and b) it’s different for everyone. I’d say give it a try, especially if you’ve noticed yourself leaning away from wheat-based foods naturally already!

  5. Sarah

    Maninas & Jess –

    There are plenty of people who are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive, but do not have celiac disease. Most people who fall into this category end up with a diagnosis of IBS.

    I have celiac, while my mother is gluten intolerant. Although she does not have celiac, when she avoids gluten, she feels significantly better than when she does not avoid gluten.

  6. Thanks for your answers, ladies!

  7. Susan

    I have rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease, and I have found a lot of relief from avoiding gluten. Within four days I felt a LOT better, but for some people it can take up to six months.

    There are other options out there. I run an autoimmune diet community where I post information on what I find. Leaky gut syndrome is another possibility for people who find themselves bothered by more than just gluten. I am now looking at digestive enzymes to help with this since I’ve noticed that many foods affect my arthritis.

    There is a small band of doctors who believe in this — it’s called Environmental Medicine. Their site is aaemonline.org for those interested. I can’t get into these doctors on my current insurance, but it’s always good to explore options if you can!

  8. Hmmm… interesting. I may have to check out her book. I have celiac, and I unfortunately happen to have a rather violent reaction if anything is even prepared in the same FACTORY as something else as gluten (traces). I can’t eat ANYTHING packaged, and have to cook it all myself. In fact, today I cheated, and am now incredibly sick and hoping I don’t pass out. So it gives me hope that there is more awareness coming too the world. It’s embarrassing and difficult going out with friends and trying to explain that a little bite of their food, even if it doesn’t have ‘wheat’ in it, could be contaminated…so hurrah for awareness!

  9. Hi, I had that check up, and while I’m ok for celiac, I was discovered a nasty bacteria, that while it’s easy to get rid of, if not cured can get nasty. anyhow, thanks for all the advice.

  10. Josephine

    Susan (and everyone)
    there’s also a large group of doctors who are experts on this – they’re called Naturopathic doctors. They are licensed as general practioners in many states (and more each year)- famly doctors – and yes they can even prescribe drugs, but do so cautiously, using diet, herbs, and natural compounds like digestive enzymes which work more gently and more effectively with the body not against it! It’s amazing medicine, especially for increasingly common problems like food intolerances and autoimmunity.

  11. Interesting post. Not all blue-cheese contains a mold started on bread, BTW- actually, that’s a very old fashioned way of starting the mold and modern cheesemaking tends to use synthetic starters. There’s also an argument the mold would not contain gluten in the long run anyway.

    -Sea

  12. Pingback: life, gluten-free, with a little help from our friends

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