I have fabulous news: I do not have celiac disease. I feel I can say this with about 95% certainty. I haven’t had an intestinal biopsy, but I tried eating gluten-free for long enough that I feel I should have seen results if it had been the right thing for my body. I can eat any baguette. I can gorge on Bolognese. I can shove embarrassing handfuls of Cheddar Bunnies into my mouth as I run out the door. I can be my very own Marie Antoinette, anytime I want: Let me eat cake!
This isn’t neenerneener to those who aren’t so fortunate. It’s a reminder. These last couple of weeks, I’ve needed it.
If you’ve been following my medical saga – which I hope to leave behind here, very soon, but for now, it’s a huge part of my life, so you get it – you’ll remember that I’ve had a problem with appetite. It’s been down, and when I don’t eat well, I’m not happy. When eating gluten-free didn’t change things, I went to more doctors.
Here’s the short version: My lupus has moved to my kidneys. I have Class IV and Class V lupus nephritis, which, if you aren’t interested in a deeper medical explanation, basically means my kidneys have a Prius problem: they’re goinggoinggoing, working themselves into a frenzy for no real reason, overworking to the point of danger. I spent part of last week in the hospital for a kidney biopsy, which revealed I needed immediate treatment. I spent four days shuffling back and forth from the hospital, getting intravenous medications. And on Sunday, I started (among many others) a drug called CellCept, a type of what they call “induction therapy.” You could call it chemo lite, I guess, but thus far it has not been all that. Thank goodness.
I spent a few days last week hosting a very private pity party. Then we needed help. Our nanny was out of town, and friends unfurled big, strong hands from every direction. Our son went to a friend’s house during the biopsy, and for a few doctor’s appointments. My sister essentially lived at my house for the week. My mother came into town. Friends brought my favorite neighborhood soup, and a few meals for our kid. And at the same time that the reality of a stressful health situation set in, we were blanketed with the calm that comes with knowing we’d be able to get through it.
Earlier this week, I met with another food writer and blogger named Jessica, who also has lupus nephritis. (I know. There are two of us. It’s weird.) You might already know her as SodiumGirl. On her blog, she chronicles her life cooking sodium-free, and teaches people how to function in normal society without salt in their diet – and treats her kidneys more gently along the way. She also happens to be unfailingly positive, charming, hilarious, silly, and completely energizing to be around. We’d never met, but when I thought I spotted her across a hotel lobby, I galloped over the way I greet my college friends, all squealing and loopy. Only now does it occur to me that the Four Seasons probably doesn’t get a lot of gallopers in its lobby.
We sat down for coffee, and I wondered if the waitstaff wanted to eavesdrop. Our conversation ricocheted from her wedding registry to chemotherapy to astrobiology, and back to plasmapheresis. We giggled about IV line bruises and vowed not to let steroids deprive us of our favorite jeans. She taught me how she teaches restaurant chefs how to prepare her meals without salt, since sodium is strictly off-limits for her diet (and may someday be for mine). We bitched a little, the way people bitch about their shoes getting scuffed or their purse getting caught on their jacket, but agreed that any real negativity is boring and useless and a total waste of time. She made me feel like a completely normal person.
At the end of the meal, I asked her about a necklace she was wearing. It showed three small rings, slightly different sizes, welded together at the center, and somehow, I knew it symbolized something.
“It stands for my circle of friends,” she explained simply. She didn’t have to say more. She survives, like I do, because there are always good people around to help. Sitting there with Jessica, with the sun glinting off Puget Sound, I wondered how many people – as in what actual percentage of the human population – are able to say that they know they’ll have back-up when life’s road hits a hairpin. Maybe ten percent? Fifteen?
But I know just what she means, because I have a circle, too. And as I bounce from appointment to appointment, from needle to needle, I’m thankful for it.
The medications will have side effects as I begin taking them in stronger doses. Already, I’m really sore in weird places. There’s been some nausea. For the next few months, I’ll have to be really careful not to get sick, because my immune system will be completely obliterated.
And, probably because of the steroids, I’ve been eating again. Eating and eating and eating. And I love it. Wardrobe willing, I have a feeling this will be a very delicious period in my life. Clearly, I’ll have to watch it at some point, but for now, I’m bathing, again, finally, in the enjoyment of food.
Mostly, I’ve had an insatiable sweet tooth. I’ve been making nutella tartines, big slabs of toasted baguette slathered with creaminess and spotted with banana slices. I’ve been chowing fruit. I’ve been eating ice cream before bed again, which I haven’t done in months. I’m tasting faint flavors in food in a way I couldn’t for a while, teasing out spices and herbs with whatever sense this lack of appetite thing stripped off my tongue. And every single day, I want to cook or bake.
This recipe started with eight orphaned egg yolks. I wanted a dessert so sinful it hurts—one that makes you think twice about eating it the moment your lips hit the spoon, and not a second after.
It worked. It was supposed to be a mint-infused mousse, only somewhere along the line, I decided to skip the mousse part, because mousse sounded too light. The result? A spoonable dark mint chocolate bar, cute as can be in tiny little cups.
It’s also salt-free and gluten-free. In case you’re sensitive about those sorts of things.
Fresh Mint Mud (PDF)
Like a deep chocolate mousse with a weight problem, these little pots o’ bliss are not for the weak. Infused with real mint leaves, they’re little mint-chocolate bombs, best eaten with the tiniest spoon.
TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 serving
8 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/3 cups heavy cream, lukewarm
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
6 ounces high quality dark chocolate (70% cacao), finely chopped
Whisk the yolks and sugar vigorously together in a large, stainless steel saucepan until the yolks become thick and pale. Add the cream and mint, whisk to combine, and cook the mixture over very low heat, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula, until the mixture measures 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, but not over. (It should be steaming, but you don’t want the eggs to curdle.) Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a mixing bowl, and stir until the mixture cools to 150 degrees. Add the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is completely smooth.
Pour the chocolate mixture into very small cups (such as espresso cups), and refrigerate overnight, until firm. For the best mint flavor, let sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving.