You, dear reader, are on a book tour.
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.