feeeling the food beneath my fingers

the calm before the party begins

When we were in San Francisco a few weeks ago, the Chef and I walked into the small green room at KGO radio station. We had just come from the farmers’ market, where I had been dazzled by all the selections and fierce farmers who grow food. Everywhere we looked in San Francisco – food.

I walked in excited, because I was about to do a half-hour radio show with Gene Burns, on his food and wine show. I love doing radio. Talking? I can do. (And if you want to hear a copy of the show, click here. Oops. It turns out that I can’t make it work. Sorry. I’ll let you know if I can figure out a way.) To have the chance to discuss my favorite bites, the joyful path of healing from celiac, and my love with the Chef? Oh goodness, somebody stop me.

As we entered the green room (which are rarely green, by the way), I saw a lovely woman sitting on the short stuffed couch. After I shook her hand and introduced myself, she said, “You look familiar.”
Puzzled, I said, “Well, I’m here to talk about my book. Gluten-Free Girl?”
With a gasp, she said, “Oh yes! I’m gluten-free too! I know all about you.”

I will always be amazed by this — the way we are connected by our bodies and how they behave.

After a few moments of chatting, I asked her, “Are you a guest on the show too?”

“No,” she said, “I’m here with this woman named Judith Jones….”

I didn’t even let her finish her sentence, poor woman. I blurted out, my face already flushing, “I know who Judith Jones is!”

If you don’t know, Judith Jones is perhaps the most respected editor in the world. Many years ago, she suggested rather firmly that this little manuscript be published in the United States. Now, we all know it: The Diary of Anne Frank. She is responsible for publishing Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, and James Beard. Mostly, though, I revere her because she was the woman with courage who gave the go-ahead to Mastering the Fine Art of French Cooking.

She was Julia Child’s editor.

When the woman (whose name I forget because I was too busy hyperventilating to remember a thing) left the room to take a phone call, I turned to the Chef.
“Breathe, sweetie,” he told me, as he took me by the shoulders. “Breathe.”
I rarely lose my composure over famous people. But this one? Oh, yes. I was a blathering idiot for a minute. Especially when I caught a glimpse of her through the glass window, chatting animatedly about her new book.

By the time she emerged from the studio, I had resumed my breath. The media escort took her aside and said, “I’d like you to meet another author. Her name is Shauna Ahern.”

(The Chef always beams when he hears this.)

She stood before me, petite, her beige suit jacket and skirt perfectly pressed. I took the time to notice she had a tiny smear of green eye shadow above each eye. She looked fantastic. I hope I look half as good at her age.

She shook my hand and looked at me. Without meaning to, I blurted out, “Oh thank you. Thank you for bringing Julia Child to the rest of us.”
She laughed, and said, “Oh yes. Julia had such a lovely presence, didn’t she?”
And I rushed forward, “But you don’t understand. I remember being five years old and watching her show. And then I went into the kitchen and made grilled cheese sandwiches as I talked to the wall.”
Judith Jones laughed. “Oh dear, that’s adorable.”

I could have peed my pants.

Before she left, the media escort said, “And her book is about the allergy I have. You know? I can’t eat wheat?”
Ms. Jones looked at me, and said, “Oh? What is your book about?”
I drew in my breath and said, “It’s a book about saying yes to your life and falling in love with food.”
She looked at me with her intense, bird-like gaze, her head cocked to one side. And then she said, “That’s an excellent pitch you just gave me. Very succinct.”

After she left, I walked into the studio feeling like I could do anything.

it takes time to make a pie crust

The thing is, though, for the past few months, I’ve been having a long-distance relationship with food.

Touring around the country enlivened me, and left me with stories I will be telling for years. Better yet, the faces of all the people I have met, the bites of gluten-free cupcakes in Chicago, the three-hour meals we ate in San Francisco, the chance to sit behind a red-and-white-checked table and greet everyone who came in the door at Bob’s Red Mill, and the moment of walking into Central Park and seeing my book on people’s laps at the Imagine sign? I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world.

We have eaten in more world-famous restaurants in the past three months than I ever expected to hit in my lifetime. We have eaten like gluten-free kings and queens. Tasting menus at Gramercy Tavern, a late-night dinner at Zuni Café, an extravaganza of desserts at Sens – these meals will always be in our minds. Every meal we ate in a restaurant lingered in the mouth for long moments afterwards, enough for us to moan and mention our favorite flavors.

Please don’t think me ungrateful when I say this – after awhile, we both grew tired of restaurants. Go to one every night and it starts to feel like performance. The Chef felt inspired – with some bites, his hands twitched until he could write down the ideas springing from his brain – and he is certainly grateful. (Our bank accounts are not.) I sat astonished, in every place, that I could eat so well, and safely. It was all worth it.

But the fact is – we missed our home. We missed our kitchen.

• • •
I love the sweet anise smell of fennel just cut into a bowl, and the way black lacinato kale crinkles like the furrowed brow of a confused child.

I didn’t realize this, entirely, until this past week. It took getting sick to make me slow down and pay attention again.

For the past ten days, I’ve been battling a nasty infection. It’s on the wane now. But being forced to lie down in bed (and watch re-runs of America’s Next Top Model) and heal has given me plenty of time to think. This week, I’ve led a much richer internal life than my outward life has been.

The past two months have been a whirlwind. And my brain has been doing the tilt-a-whirl as well. I found myself awake at 3:43 in the morning, checking my email while the Chef slept in the bedroom. This is the recipe for unhappiness for me. When I was home, the house fell apart. Walking from the bathroom to the kitchen required cat-like agility to negotiate the obstacle course of boxes of books, stacks of newspapers, and assorted clutter that could not be categorized. And I went months without cooking.

This hasn’t been good.

The fact is – and I am so happy that I know this now – unless I feel food under my fingers as I am shaping it, every day, I’m not happy. That’s a hell of a discovery from someone who used to be an intellectual. The Chef has always known this. He has never worked another job in his life besides making food. It’s part of the reason he’s one of the most grounded men I know.

Falling in love with food is never over. There is so much to discover.

I love the crunch of quinoa, the tiny grains sticking between my teeth after I have eaten. When I feel the solid squelch of an egg yolk in the palm of my hand, the cold egg white falling from my fingers into the sink below, I know that I am here. Oatmeal has more angular edges against the teeth than Cream of Rice. As I am slurping up rice noodles from a steaming bowl of pho, I can feel the slippery shimmers in my mouth. In those moments, nothing makes me happier.

I love watching finely grated cheese melting into a pile of gluten-free pasta, the red sauce lightened by the parmigian. When I order sushi from my favorite Japanese restaurant in Seattle, I sit at the bar and stare at the translucent pink of the salmon, and the dark-maroon tinges of the tuna. Hot chocolate made from real cocoa powder and whole milk heated on the stove has a thick, foamy head. As I peer into the oven and see the top of that gluten-free loaf of bread browning evenly, I feel successful.

I love the salty remnants on my fingers from kernels of popcorn. When I taste the sharp tang and sweetness of a kumquat, I am taken back to the first high school English class I taught. Avocadoes taste like heavy cream and Brussels sprouts. As I run my tongue along the edges of the Brie spilling out of the rind, I sigh with the memory of this decadence before me.

I love the smell of garlic slowly simmering in a saucepan. When I catch a whiff of the high harmonies of molasses and ginger in my favorite cookie, I know it is Christmas again. Fresh ginger has such a different scent than the dried powder that it might as well be called two different words. As I lean my head down to the cutting board and absorb the essence of an orange cut open, I feel clean and alive.

I love the sizzle and pop of onions in oil. When I hear the crunch of apples in someone else’s mouth, I know that it is fall. A covered pot with boiling water and jasmine rice makes a little squeaking noise along the lid. As I listen to the sound of a jar of apple butter pop open, I feel love for the dear friend who stood in front of the stove and spooned it into the jar for me.

How could opening a package or putting something in the microwave ever compare to the sensory richness of cooking our own food? How could the high drama of a meal at the best restaurant in the world ever be as satisfying?

“What I love most about cooking is being in the moment of it. The chopping, the stirring, the checking of the recipe, the smelling of the rising steam, the first exquisite taste — it’s a deeply meditative act for me. It’s about being present. When I’m cooking in my kitchen, I’m not thinking about anything else.”

I wrote this in September 2005. I have an entire chapter in my book about the beauty of truly tasting our lives. Why do I have to keep learning this? Why can’t it stick to me like hot lemon curd on the back of a spoon?

• • •

On Thanksgiving morning, I rose early to work with gluten-free pie dough. I had played with a new recipe: 2/3 of my new favorite mix (sorghum, brown rice, sweet rice, potato starch) and 1/3 teff. When I grated frozen butter onto the pile of gluten-free flours, I laughed at how much it looked like soft shreds of Monterey Jack cheese on top of nachos. I plunged my fingers into the cold mass and worked it into a dough. Just before I put it in the refrigerator to chill, I patted it like a soft baby’s bum.

Pie dough takes time to create, more time to chill, more time still to press into the pan patiently, more time to chill again, more moments to pre-bake, and more time to bake with pumpkin filling. You’re not done yet. That pie has to sit in the refrigerator before it becomes congealed enough to eat.

And in a moment, it’s gone.

But I will always remember the early-morning preparation of this year’s pie, in a terribly messy kitchen, as I looked at the dough through smeared glasses.

That pie tasted good.

Time and human hands make food taste good.

• • •
On Thanksgiving afternoon, the Chef and I stood in my brother’s kitchen, preparing food. My parents and brother were in the office, playing Wii. (It’s damned fun, by the way. But walking in later and seeing my brother and husband mock box each other as they faced the television screen, both of them sweating with the intensity, was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen.) Elliott stood on a chair next to me, helping to fold in the dough for gluten-free biscuits.

As he dipped and tasted, for nearly half an hour, he looked as absorbed in his small work as I had been in mine that morning. We didn’t talk that much, the three of us. Elliott had announced at the beginning of the afternoon: “I’m a good cooker now, Shauna.” And so we all stirred and watched the windows steam up with the work.
Out of nowhere, Elliott turned to me and said, “This is what Thanksgiving is all about.”

(If you don’t remember, he’s only four years old.)

The Chef and I looked at each other, trying to hold back tears. We didn’t want to freak him out. But we loved watching him fall in love with food in front of us.

“Yes,” we said together. “Yes, Elliott. It is.”

potato lollipops

Mustard sauce

Yesterday, we had a potato party. Having been gone, off and on, for months, we hadn’t seen some of our friends in far too long. We love potlucks — our friends love the feeling of food beneath their fingers too. And this time, we had a theme: every dish must somehow contain potatoes.

We had potato galettes, potato pancakes, and a chocolate mashed potato cake. (yum.) There was even potato vodka.

Our friend, Jess Thomson, won the intangible prize for most clever potato dish. And the simplest. She roasted tiny potatoes (sold at the University District farmers’ market as Spud Nuts), dipped them in mustard, and speared them with lollipop sticks. Potato lollipops.

Jess Thomson, you rock.

I’d make these potatoes any day. But if you feel like spending just a bit longer in the kitchen, you can try this mustard-cilantro sauce. The Chef served it last month with roasted chicken. Me? I’d eat it with nearly anything, including just spooning it into my mouth.

1 tablespoon garlic, fine chopped
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons mustard
2 bunches cilantro
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Emulsify the sauce. Place the chopped garlic, egg, egg yolk, and mustard into a food processor. Slowly, drizzle in the canola oil, until the liquid has become thick and emulsified.

Make the sauce more lemony. Add the cilantro and lemon juice. Blend until incorporated. Add the salt and pepper, and taste. Stop when you feel it’s done.

Thin out the sauce. Pour in ¼ cup of water, little by little, until the sauce is thinned to your liking.

Serving suggestions. Drizzle this over roast chicken, pork chops, sautéed salmon, seared white fish, or steamed carrots. Beyond that, try it with any food that feels familiar to you.

(You should know that this sauce contains raw eggs. Consuming raw poultry products can lead to food-borne illnesses. Use fresh eggs from a source you trust.)

25 comments on “feeeling the food beneath my fingers

  1. Jules

    Hey Shauna! What an exciting post!

    I was thrilled to see you’d made it over to my blog (you commented on the post about my “Favorite Things” and the Transit Maps of the World book review I left on Amazon).
    Come back anytime. Mi casa es su casa.
    Sincerely,
    Jules
    House of Jules

  2. Anonymous

    I’m new to your blog and I’ve been enjoying reading it. Is it just my computer or is the link to the radio show missing?

  3. Diana

    What a wonderful experience! It must have been a treat to bump into such an interesting, accomplished woman. That certainly doesn’t happen every day.

  4. Diane

    Great post! I too would have gotten all fan-girly over Judith Jones.

    I know what you mean about needing to cook (not wanting — NEEDING). I travel a lot for work, and after a while, if I have a few days without cooking I feel like I am living a fake life. I get grumpy. No restaurant can make up for the restorative power of some good chopping.

  5. jennsquared

    What a interesting and fantastic experience!!!

    I tried your gluten free pie crust recipe and I didn’t have soghum flour and couldn’t find it, so I used topioca flour instead. It turned out so great! Thanks so much for such a wonderful recipe!

  6. Emily

    Wow…thank you for writing the way you do. The passion you have for food is absolutly inspiring. It’s so easy to become frustrated and down about having Celiac, but honestly, I can come here and read one of your posts and I’m back to loving this life I get to lead…gluten free. Thank you again.

  7. Wicked Good Dinner

    Your writing is just lovely. I’m thrilled you were connected with someone you so highly regard and admire!

  8. Ladyv

    Shauna
    Your book (and your blog too) were just mentioned on a radio program about celiac disease on CBC radio up here in Canada! (and they said they’d link to your blog on their website http://www.cbc.ca)

    Word of your book is spreading like wildfire!

  9. melissa

    I don’t know how, but you did it again. I teared up reading your post. probably three times. you’re a writer (woman, human) after my own heart — someone who really feels things, deeply, fully. I always make jokes about how I cry at everything. but isn’t that a good thing? doesn’t it mean we are really fully living when things touch us and move us that often? yes.

    oh and your exchange with judith jones left me both laughing out loud and utterly thrilled for you.

    but this was my favorite part:

    The fact is – and I am so happy that I know this now – unless I feel food under my fingers as I am shaping it, every day, I’m not happy. That’s a hell of a discovery from someone who used to be an intellectual…

    Falling in love with food is never over. There is so much to discover.

    I have just recently had this epiphany. it made my heart swell to realize I would rather cook than eat out, that if I go even a couple of weeks without being in the kitchen, I don’t feel as peaceful or balanced.

    I am a recovering intellectual (heh) and part of what I enjoy so much about learning to cook is that is exhilarating and meditative and creative and complex — and I don’t have all the answers for once. instead it is something that I learned, and am still learning, entirely on my own, basic step by basic step. it’s awesome. it’s what life was meant to be about.

    sorry to ramble, your writing just does that to me. ;)

    I would love to read about where you will be in LA. I may have to make the hour drive. :)

  10. swirlingnotions

    Oh there’s so much I want to say “yes, yes, yes!” to in this post. You have such a gift for articulating your experience with–and your love of–food. I can’t wait to read your book.

    Two weeks ago my family all gathered in Illinois for my grandmother’s memorial service and I designated myself the cook (with my cousin’s permission to take over her kitchen). I knew that no one would be comfotable tackling meals for 15 people several days in a row, and that they’d opt for pizzas and Chinese take-out and God knows what else and, to me, that just wasn’t sustenance enough, whether they realized it or not.

    I wanted people to be gathered around the kitchen to the rhythm of a knife on a chopping block, to be soothed by the scent of something simmering all day long. To me, that was as much a part of coming together to heal as was the service itself.

    The cool thing was, as my cousin and I chatted while I chopped (“how did you cut that onion?” she asked, “you did it so fast?”), and as my aunt watched on while I sauteed (“you mean broccoli can really taste like this if you don’t steam it?”), and as our kids tilted their heads up for for tastes of this and that, the importance–and the enjoyment and relative ease–of cooking a meal became apparent to all. Hallelujah for being hands on in the kitchen!

    Thanks for stopping by Swirling Notions, Shauna. I’m looking forward to continued conversations both here and there!

  11. C'tina

    As diana commented earlier, “It must have been a treat to bump into such an interesting, accomplished woman. That certainly doesn’t happen every day.” Yes, I’m sure Judith Jones recognized the same when she heard your ‘excellent pitch’ :)

  12. terry

    smiling, as always, as i read this…

    guess what? my company christmas party is at sens! i thought of you immediately.

  13. Shauna

    Hi Shauna! It’s Shauna, the interloper that posted before you on Orangette. :) I laughed when I saw that and thought it might be a nice excuse to de-lurk myself–I’ve always loved your writing!

    And I’m pretty sure that I would have totally peed my pants if I had that encounter with JJ…I got chills reading that story! That is so big time.

  14. Ricki

    Hi Shauna,

    As ever, I love reading your beautiful, evocative writing! I could taste the quinoa, feel the egg, smell the cheese, and chocolate–and the garlic!–oh, it’s just all good. I’d love to hear your interview, but I think anonymous was right, and the link is missing. And will we ever get the recipe for the chocolate-potato cake??? I’m familiar with the choc-beet cake, but not one with potato. Must be incredibly moist. Yum!

  15. aubrey

    how kind of you to stop by my blog! i visit orangeatte frequently and know exactly who you are, so i feel honored that you stopped by. what a gorgeous post you wrote. so much of how and why i enjoy eating is through the various textures of food. sounds silly, but your post reminded me of that. brought it to life for me. i would love to hear the link as well..

  16. Ann

    Oh my… this post started me off with laughter, then had me nodding with agreement about missing the kitchen, and then had me teary-eyed over your quiet Thanksgiving afternoon. Such a pleasure to read. Thank you.

  17. Jean Layton-GF Dr. Mom

    Shauna,
    Once again you convey the richness and joy of food and living life to its fullest.
    Amazing!
    So glad to here that you met JJ. I would have been right there with you in the pee the pants feeling.
    Love the potato pop sickle idea. I think that is the perfect way to bring hor douves to my next potluck.

  18. Gluten Free in the Greens

    Wow, meeting Judith Jones! Thanks for the lovely thoughts. I know completely what you mean about missing cooking. I just had a baby, and our friends came out of the woodwork with so many gluten-free meals that our freezer is still full two months later. After a few weeks I just wanted to stand in the kitchen and chop and mix my own food.

  19. Anonymous

    I love your blog-it inspires me every day to be in the kitchen more-you see I love to bake and cook and used to bake everyday for my kids before my diagnosis-you are incouraging me to get in there again!!!! Carrie(Calgary)

  20. Vegeyum @ A Life (Time) of Cooking

    Great post! I enjoyed reading it, and really appreciate your relationship with food. You write so well. I laughed at parts and nodded in agreement in others. What a story teller you are.

  21. Laura

    I had just found your blog when I heard you on the Gene Burns show — it was great to listen to you. I kept jumping up and saying ‘yes’ to everything you were saying. Although not celiac we are pretty gluten intolerant and the diet has still completely changed our lives. I call it the slippery slope to health — soon you are cooking healthier in all areas. Looking forward to hours of good reading as I go through all the older posts!

  22. Lael

    Shauna, you have such a beautiful gift of drawing the reader in so that I feel like I could bump into you at the farmers market and if I actually had the nerve to giggle a hello you would embrace me in such a way that we could carry on a lovely, comfortable conversation.
    I read an editorial in my school newspaper this morning by a gluten-free girl on campus. She was expressing her frustrations and I was so tempted to paste her email address into a letter so I could tell her about this gluten-free girl I know about who has found freedom in the disease. You are inspiring!