When I returned home from school today, I found a message on my machine, in a sweet, little voice: “Happy Berfday.” In the background, I could hear my brother say, “Tell her it’s your birthday. Tell her how old you are.” And then, Elliott said: “I am free!”
Today is my nephew’s third birthday. Three years ago, this little reddened force of life entered the world. I remember being in the waiting room at the Ballard Swedish hospital, watching Steve Martin deliver the opening monologue of the Oscars, listening for foosteps down the hall to signal that the baby had arrived. Soon enough, there they were. My sister-in-law was wheeled down the hall on a gurney and my brother appeared with a blue bundle in his arms. What? How was it possible there had been no baby and now there was a baby? My brother put the blue blanket in my arms, and I looked down, expecting to cry. I cry at certain Sex and the City episodes, so how could I be expected to live that monumental moment without crying? But to my surprise, I didn’t cry. Instead, I just looked into the wide-open eyes of this squirming, physical presence, mesmerized. Now, I know that babies have a short-lived awareness, a fierce attention, just after birth. But then, I was simply amazed. There he was. All of him there. Elliott.
He is alive, this kid. When I race up the steps of my brother’s house and open the door, I find Elliott’s face waiting to see mine. He squeals and bounces up and down on his knees, lifting his arms to the ceiling so I can scoop under his arms and twirl him around and around. He throws back his head and laughs, his face the only constant in a dizzy, spinning world out of focus. We splash in puddles on our walks through the forest, his yellow boots bright against the dark muddy water. We play hide and seek for at least an hour of every visit, he doggedly determined to hide in the same place — under the covers; behind the door; in the closet — every single time, announcing it to me, because he knows that I will wonder aloud where Elliott is hiding, then throw back the covers with a flourish and say, “There he is!” And he will laugh with delight, bright peals of giggles rising against the darkness outside.
Every time I see him, he has a new verbal habit. Lately, when he wants my attention, he says, “Know what? Guess what?” And this is usually followed by a call to play with diggers, or to dance to the Wiggles. He “reads” books to me, carefully mimicking the story of Cowboy Small, which he has heard a hundred times before. Or, he asks if I will read a book to him: “Will you talk those words on that page to me?” When we reach the page where it says, “Flippity Flip!” he nearly throws himself off the couch laughing. When we play with the decrepit cowboy doll from his mother’s childhood — the one who has lost all his limbs but one leg, so we have dubbed him “Hopalong” — Elliott imitates my father’s silly voice and says, “I am CON-fused.”
Luckily, Elliott has all his limbs, swinging free and striding forward.
Now, I could write about this hilarious little guy for pages, but I won’t. After all, this is a food blog. And, I have written about him before. And again. I could tell you about his new habit, when we are “sniffing” food in the pantry, of asking for the Dagoba hot chocolate tin, then fishing out the little “rocks” of clumped-together chocolate, carefully cutting each one in half with a table knife, then wetting his finger to grab the chocolate pebble and put it in his mouth. Or how grateful he is for food, when we eat together, and always says, “Thank you for cooking dinner, Daddy.” Or how he likes to look at this website on the computer when I come to visit, and points at the pictures to say, “You have brought us food.”
Lately, though, I’ve been realizing that food will be a problem for me with Elliott, soon. Not his enjoyment of it, his discovery of it, or his appetite for it. But, specifically — gluten. I mean, how do I explain to a three-year-old, when he offers up his crumb-encrusted face, that I need to wait until I’ve washed him off before I can give him a kiss, or else I might grow sick?
At his birthday party recently — his parents took him to California to visit relatives for his real birthday, and thus we had to celebrate early — Elliott was packed high with elated energy. Every person whom he loves in the world, all in one room. When I arrived, he turned his attentions to me. Quickly, he asked if I could cut him another piece of cake. (Sneaky little devil.) I did, put it on his plate, then went to wash the flour off my hands. When I returned to him, he was ensconced in his treat, his mouth full of sweetness, happily chewing. He looked up at me, spread his arms wide, and said: “I love cake!” His enormous enthusiasm made me laugh, as always. I agreed with him — cake is good. Then, he leaned his fork into the cake, cut a bite, and lifted it toward me. “Do you want some of my cake, Shauna?” Of course, I said no, told him, “That’s yours, Elliott.” I’m sure he wasn’t upset — more cake for him. But I was upset. Sad to have to turn down such sweetness.
At some point, I’ll have to explain it to him, or else he’ll be disappointed that I don’t want to share in his treats, confused that I turn down his gifts. He’s too young, now. He just wouldn’t understand. Hell, it’s hard enough for me to explain it to adults, much less someone who has just turned three. But I know what I’ll call it when we do explain it to him.
A few months ago, my brother, sister-in-law, Elliott, and I were in their car, driving toward the community sing-a-long for Christmas on Vashon Island. I was sitting next to Elliott, who was humming in his car seat, but talking to Andy and Dana in the front seat. Someone who reads this website had written to me, asking if I ever had gluten nightmares. I do. It’s a strange phenomenon, but just after I was diagnosed with celiac and stopped eating gluten, I had nightmares of eating bagels. In the middle of a dream, I’d catch myself eating a pretzel and wake up in a cold sweat. The worst one, I told them, was on a night I had been staying at their house, on the blue couch in the study. I dreamed so vividly that there was gluten stuffed between the cushions of the couch that I woke myself up by crawling off it and running toward the window. We all laughed, then went on to another conversation. A few minutes later, Elliott started giggling. We stopped talking. I turned toward him, and said: “What’s so funny, El?”
He giggled hard, almost to the point of incoherence, as he said, “You woke up and walked because there was glupit in the curtains!”
We all laughed too.
He refers to this, once in a while, in unexpected moments. “Glupit in the curtains!” he’ll shout, probably because he knows I’ll laugh so hard. We’ve taken to calling it glupit as well. Maybe I should just change the name of this website to Glupit-Free Girl.
So, someday, I’ll have to explain to Elliott that I cannot have the warm cookie he helped to make, the one he’s holding up to me, because it has glupit in it. I’m sure he’ll understand, eventually.
But in the meantime, here he is. And it gives me more happiness than I can ever convey — just to be with him. At his birthday party, as one toddler friend after grandparent after friend had to leave for the ferry, he looked sad for a moment, then said: “But Shauna will stay.”
Yes I will, little guy. Here I am.
Happy Berfday, Elliott. You are free.
FRUIT SALAD FOR A LITTLE GUY
A few weeks ago, when I was on Vashon with the little guy, he looked at me and said, with real glee: “Let’s make fruit salad!” Apparently, he and his mom have been cutting up fruit and throwing it into a bowl, and calling it fruit salad. This entices Elliott to eat more fruit — it’s mixed up together! So I stood in the kitchen with my brother, and Elliott standing on a chair, cutting up fruit into uniform pieces and putting it all in a large, plastic bowl. Andy and I both cut, quickly. Elliott’s sole contribution was to reach into the bowl, grab a piece of banana or orange, and say, “Can I eat this?” By the time we were finished, we only had half a fruit salad, because Elliott had eaten the rest.
When I lived with the CFP in London, we ate lavish fruit salads nearly every day. Even in the dead of winter, mangoes arrived in a black cab from Harrods. Extravagant, and a bit ridiculous, these fruit concoctions were still wonderfully satisfying. The real secret was a Tahitian vanilla bean, stripped of its innards and snipped into pieces. All of it went in with the fruit, then sat in the refrigerator, marinating and slithering into all the slices, until the fruit salad tasted richer than it actually was. Winter, spring, or summer — this secret makes every fruit salad decadent.
Of course, you could use any combination of fruit you have on hand for this. It will all taste divine.
two Minneoloa oranges, peeled (try rolling the oranges before peeling)
two ripe bananas, peeled
one ripe mango, stripped of its skin
one pint strawberries (when they are in season), leaves topped off
one-half pint blueberries, ripe and juicy
three kiwis, peeled
juice of two limes
zest of two limes
one vanilla bean (Tahitian, if possible)
two tablespoons organic cane juice
one teaspoon nutmeg
° Cut all the pieces of fruit into uniform size, about one-half-inch cubes (or small enough bites for a child). As time-consuming as this might seem, the uniformity of size will make the differences in textures even more interesting. Put the fruit into your favorite bowl.
° Cut down the center of the vanilla bean with a small, sharp knife, then peel back the bean’s skin. Carefully, scrape the gritty innards of the vanilla bean into the bowl. Next, snip the vanilla bean into the tiniest pieces possible, using your best kitchen shears.
° Add the lime juice, lime zest, organic cane juice (or regular sugar, if you wish), and nutmeg to the fruit. Stir it all up, gently.
°For the fullest, richest taste, allow this concoction to marinate in the refrigerator overnight before serving. If you wish, fish out the bits of vanilla bean before serving.
° Wait for your guests to rave. If you truly want to be kind, top the fruit salad with a dollop of creme fraiche.