I kind of wanted to punch someone last night. But he was on tv and punching the screen would have hurt.
Let me explain.
First of all, I’m exhausted. Have you ever traveled with a one-year-old? Every single movement has to be planned in advance, with contingencies in case of anything unexpected. And everything is unexpected. Like the fact that, when we reached the house in Crested Butte where the entire Ahern clan would be staying for the wedding weekend, we found that all the rooms had been divvied up already. So we three received the narrow room with bunk beds. Have you ever tried to put a squirming baby to sleep on a bunk bed? Especially one who has started doing headstands before bed, scrunching her head into the mattress and scooting up her feet until she is balancing on her skull like a break dancer? And does this again and again, giggling, until she is finally so exhausted that she flops on her back. For a moment. And then goes back to it again.
This is really quite something on a bunk bed in a room with a concrete floor.
And you really can’t plan for how exhausted this wriggling baby will be after meeting all her cousins, from the 5-year-old to the 27-year-old, and winning all their hearts with charming smiles and the monkey face. (In fact, yesterday, she stood on my legs in a narrow airplane seat and made the face over my head to 1/3 of the plane. Repeatedly. At least she made people laugh.) Nap times blew by without her eyes closing. Bed time for each day became even more of a wrestling session. And after that much stimulation, Little Bean woke up nearly every hour, on the hour, all night long. Every single night of our stay.
(Cutting a new tooth didn’t help. Neither did the altitude in the mountains. The soaring, “hills are alive with the sound of music” green-grassed mountains of Crested Butte and Breckenridge. Beautiful mountains. Very tall mountains. Make a small child and her mama feel short of breath for nearly a week mountains.)
There were so many moments of startling beauty in the week, which I will remember like slurps of ice-cold water in the midst of hideous heat. Strolling down the street in Crested Butte, looking at art in white tents, eating roasted olathe corn, sweet as watermelon. Hearing Cooper knock on our bedroom door at 6:07 a.m., then seeing his dark red hair peeking around the door, to see if Little Bean was awake. (She was.) Standing around the barbeque with Danny and his father, poking at the steaks as they grilled, catching up after months apart. Riding up the ski lift to the top of Peak 8 and watching Little Bean, strapped into the carrier on my chest, lift her head to look out at the red flowers beneath us and the valley stretching out behind us. Holding Danny’s hand as we strolled around his hometown, and took photos in front of the house where he grew up, knowing how much our presence meant to him.
And mostly, watching this father walk his daughter down the aisle, and thinking of Danny with Little Bean someday.
Still, I have to tell you, it was good to come back. Six days is a long time to live out of a suitcase, with a baby. The water lapping against the ferry boat, after we left the airport, was a mighty fine sight. Even Little Bean broke into a big grin when she saw it. She must have wondered if we were ever going home.
This is why I was so exhausted last night while I watched television, slumped against the back of the couch, stuffed up and suffering with a sore throat. I should have been in bed, of course. Little Bean was sleeping, happy to be in her own bed. Danny and I could have dropped at 7 pm. But it was Wednesday. Top Chef night.
We’re sort of addicted to Top Chef Masters around here. Reality show, it’s true. I watch Top Chef, too. But this one is much better — less personal drama, more opinions about food. The show consists of some of the top chefs in the country submitting themselves to quick cooking challenges and entire meals, pitted against fellow chefs and doing their best. We watch on the edge of our seats, especially Danny, just to see what each chef will do.
It’s chef soap opera. There you go. And in our minds, it was well worth staying up past our bedtime.
Last night, when the (vapid) female host announced the challenge, several of the chefs groaned. Why? There were food restrictions. They were cooking for a young actress, who is vegan, cannot eat soy, and is gluten intolerant. Gluten? Mentioned on Top Chef? Cool.
You see, I would like to write for weeks without ever typing the phrase “gluten-free.” Most days, as we go about our routine, I think about life without gluten in theory alone. There’s no deprivation here. Tonight, since it’s my birthday, Danny made an especially elaborate meal: rib-eyes, cold smoked and then grilled; turmeric mashed potatoes; grilled Yakima corn; chocolate cake and roasted peaches. Surely no one would feel deprived with that meal. Would you?
However, when I’m away from the routine of our lives, and in the in between places — gas stations; school cafeterias; stopping in a small town in the middle of a road trip — I remember how hard it can be to live gluten-free. Searching for breakfast at the airport yesterday, I found that the only thing I could eat was a plastic-wrapped container of fruit, mushy pieces of canteloupe and white-centered strawberries picked months ago. Everything else was breaded and fried or covered in flour. (Do other people realize that they are eating wheat with every single meal?) I resigned myself to pale green melon slices and three hours of flying before I could eat again.
Even that is temporary in comparison to the health I feel. Most times, I go back to my life and revel instead of dwelling.
Last night, however, my guard was down. After finally watching the baby drift off to sleep, I wanted to put my feet up and watch some television instead.
And so some of the chefs groaned when they found out they had to work with food restrictions. Michael Chiarello (who I hope is less of a jerk in life than he seemed on tv) spent half the episode grumbling about how hard he had to work. All he could focus on was the food he could not cook to make sure he won the challenge. “Can I use beef? NO. Great cheese? NO. Pasta? NO.”
That’s when I wanted to punch him. Hard.
Food has become such a spectacle in parts of this culture. It’s competition, entertainment, cultural benchmark, and trump card, to some. When did we forget that food is not only how we are fed, but we feel fed, as well?
When I met Danny, he impressed me no end, but not with his menus of foie gras and champagne. Instead, he told me, when I asked him why he is a chef: “I like to give people joy in the belly.”
Those of you who groan when you hear your guests cannot eat certain foods, because you will be put out and have to work harder to put together a meal? Why are you throwing a dinner party in the first place? Because you want to impress everyone with your selections?
And anyone who caters weddings and insists you cannot accommodate any food restrictions at all, because you don’t want to have to work that hard for two or three guests? Why did you go into this business? To dispense three carrots and a piece of salmon the size of a spoon to make a profit on food costs?
Why isn’t the work of feeding people a thoughtful joy instead of competition and cost?
Why should those of us who are trying to keep ourselves healthy and enjoy a meal with our friends be made to feel like the last kid picked for the kickball game?
I’m pretty good at kickball, it turns out.
And it turns out that the actress who did not eat meat, dairy, gluten, or soy was so overjoyed by the meal she ate that she nearly cried on the show. She liked Chiarello’s pasta best, even though it didn’t match his ideas of a good meal. (And the quinoa pasta he chose clumped up. There are better pastas than quinoa out there.) I haven’t eaten pasta in such a long time, she said. I feel like I’m home.
Michael Chiarello, if you are reading this (and I know there’s not much chance of that) — I hope you somehow take in the fact that the meal you disparaged because it wouldn’t make you look good? It made that young woman feel joy in the belly. You, sir, have a lot to learn.
Chiarello could learn a lot from my friend, Lorna Yee. Passionate about food and not restricted in anything she eats, Lorna is a force of nature. Her blog, The Cookbook Chronicles, has become meteorically popular as she recounts testing recipes for her upcoming book, visiting the best restaurants in Seattle, and learning how to take better photographs of food. You wait and see — Lorna will be on tv one day, talking with others about the meals we eat. That woman can do anything.
Including make a gluten-free birthday cake for me, Danny, and Little Bean, a couple of weeks ago. That’s the photograph you see above — a lemon cake with Pierre Herme lemon cream in the middle and a raspberry-cream cheese frosting on top. Lorna (like Danny, like so many other chefs, including Rick Bayless last night) found cooking gluten-free an exciting challenge, rather than an onerous task. She likes to feed people.
She certainly fed me, happily. This is the best birthday cake I have ever tasted.
Last night, when I wanted to punch Michael Chiarello in the face, I just remembered Lorna’s cake, the lemon tang, the sweetness of the raspberry frosting. And mostly, how Lorna fed me. How much she made me feel loved.
Remembering that, and being able to share that with you? Better than any tv show, to be sure.
(But seriously? I’m good at kickball. Don’t get in my way.)Lorna’s Lemon-Raspberry Birthday cake, reprinted with permission from The Cookbook Chronicles
This is Lorna’s recipe and writing. She was inspired by the recipe for carrot cake that Danny and I have created for our cookbook, as well as some of the lessons I have learned about baking gluten-free. Lorna told me she does not mind that I share the recipe with you, here.
However, you should keep looking at her website, The Cookbook Chronicles, for more recipes and stories to inspire you. Seriously, Lorna amazes me, every day.serves a happy, cake-loving crowd
Ingredients: 1/2 cup each of sorghum flour, white rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato starch (all available at Whole Foods!) 3/4 tsp guar gum 1/2 tsp kosher salt 2 tsp baking powder 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened 2 cups granulated sugar 5 eggs 1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice 3 tsp lemon zest 1 vanilla bean, scraped (or 1 tsp vanilla extract) 2 tsp Cointreau 1/2 cup sour cream
Method: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, guar gum, salt, and baking powder.
In the bowl of your electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2–3 minutes on medium-high speed. Lower the speed to medium, and add the eggs one by one, mixing until combined after each addition. Add the lemon juice, zest, vanilla, and Cointreau. Beat in the dry ingredients, and then beat in the sour cream until the batter is combined. (Don’t worry if the lemon juice has caused everything to look a little curdled–this will happen.) The texture of the batter at this point is runnier than a traditional cake batter, and that’s exactly right!
Grease and line two 9″ cake pans and divide the batter between them evenly. Bake the cakes for 30–35 minutes, until the tops are lightly browned. Let cool, then unmold. The cakes need to be completely cooled before filling and frosting.
For the lemon cream, I use Pierre Hermé’s lovely lemon cream recipe. A half-recipe is all you need to fill the cake, and then the rest is leftovers for you to spoon into your mouth. Don’t be put off by the lengthy directions in this recipe–I never strain the zest out (though I use a microplane so the zest is extremely fine), and I don’t use the blender to whip extra air into the cream. Instead, I keep it in a bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisking ever 1–2 minutes as I clean up the kitchen. Incorporate the butter into the hot lemon mixture bit by bit, whisking after each addition. (This is the more traditional way of making lemon curd, and it works for this recipe.) It’ll thicken after about 15–18 minutes. But if you’re up for the task of doing it PH’s way, it will turn out perfectly as well!
For the raspberry cream cheese frosting: makes enough frosting for one 9″ cake Ingredients: 4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened 12 oz. cream cheese 1 1/2 cups icing sugar 1/4 cup raspberry jam 1/4 cup fresh raspberries 1 tsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice 1 tsp Cointreau
Beat everything together until smooth, and apply liberally over the entire cake.