As we sat around the long, candle-flickering table — laden with prime rib, mashed potatoes, port-balsamic sauce, and mixed green salads with goat cheese — I couldn’t stop grinning.
Ten people had gathered together to eat. In the most primal, profound moments of life, there is food. Sensory pleasure, steam rising to warm the face, memories surging from the smells, mingled moments of anticipation and satisfaction — food gathers us. It did, that night.
For hours, the Chef had been cooking, in a capacious kitchen he only visits once or twice a year. Beside him, I had whirled together a simple vinaigrette in the blender and dabbed goat cheese onto the salads. Still, I had helped him, just as he had asked me, months before. We kissed in the kitchen, sometimes stopping when someone else came in. “Okay, you two, quit fooling around!” they shouted. But they were smiling behind the statement. We kept cooking.
Only scraps of food lay on the table. Bottles of wine had been drained. For hours, I had been listening, to stories and reminiscing. Henrietta Ziggadah from Cresco. That trip to Lake Powell. The old International. The time the Chef ran the Volvo into the curb near the Eisenhower tunnel and blamed a pack of wild dogs. No one made it home with his own suitcase but the blind man. Children flinging paper clips at some poor kid. Kevin making faces behind his dad’s back, which only made Kathy laugh harder. The deep-water harbor at Le Havre. The story Pat told at the goodbye party. Rafts on the pond. Shana Louise. Cooper’s birthday photo. Avalanche control in Breckenridge. A life, condensed into flashes and laughter, over the course of an evening.
I had been silent, happy just to listen. But in the midst of a long pause, toward the end of dinner, I looked up and raised my glass. “I have to tell you all, how honored I am to be here. When [the Chef] and I started dating, only a few weeks in, he sent me a text message: ‘Will you help me cook my dad’s birthday dinner in February?’ When I read that, I knew he meant it. And now, here we are. And the reality is so much better than the imagined ideal. Thank you, everyone, for allowing me to be here.” I looked across the table and saw the Chef smiling at me, tears on his cheeks. I looked down the table and saw his father, on his 80th birthday, dabbing at his eyes with the handkerchief he had pulled from his pocket. Between them sat the Chef’s brother and sisters (all of them but one had come, but he was remembered well), grinning and nodding, smiling and teary, all of them with their glasses raised.
So we toasted to GW’s birthday, and to being there together. And then I drank a big gulp of my beer.
* * *
Beer? You may be wondering — how is it that this gluten-free girl was drinking beer at the Chef’s dad’s 80th birthday party, in Tucson, Arizona?
Two months ago, Anheuser Busch announced the sale of their gluten-free beer, Redbridge. In development for years, Redbridge is a response to the loud clamoring of those of who have to live gluten-free: we want beer! This company is smart — we are a growing consumer base, in business speak. Current statistics say that only 3% of the three million people living with celiac in this country are even diagnosed, but that is changing, on a daily basis. As awareness of the need to eat gluten-free grows (and I’m doing everything I can on that front), more products are emerging on the market.
Anheuser-Busch is the most mainstream company in America, so far, to acknowledge the gluten-free market. Beer. They made us beer.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Angie Mingis, product manager for Redbridge, and Kristi Zantop, head brewmaster for Redbridge. I’ll admit it — I had contacted Anheuser-Busch, looking for some free beer. As much as I had heard about the elixir, it hadn’t shown up in my stores yet. I wanted to try some and tell you about it. It turns out that Washington State law prevents anyone from sending beer through the mail. Hm. But, in the conversations, a lovely woman in customer service asked me if I would like to talk with this pair. Sure. Frankly, I loved the fact that I would be talking with an all-woman team.
The enthusiasm in their voices was unmistakable. One of them told me about a childhood friend who had recently been diagnosed with celiac, who was “…absolutely elated.” Another told me of a terrible irony — one of her brewing professors at UC Davis has been diagnosed. He is so happy about Redbridge that he wants to be their national spokesperson. These two women were proud of their work. They should be. Earlier versions of the beer — made with buckwheat — simply didn’t work. Even when they decided to switch to sorghum, the African grain that makes thousands of gallons of backyard beer on that continent, the earliest batches were too tart for their taste. “It was a challenge to have the perception of malted barley without barley,” Kristi told me. Of course. What they wanted to conceive — and we want to drink — is a beer that tastes like beer. Not a specialty item, or a slightly sweet substitute, but a beer.
I never was much of a beer drinker before I found out I have celiac. Whenever I drank a beer, I grew blotchy red and sleepy. Why did anyone like the stuff? But I have to admit, since I found my first six-pack at Whole Foods (a few hours after my phone interview), I have been drinking more than my fair share of Redbridge. Ay god, I love the stuff.
This is a full-bodied beer, with a little note of citrus in it. It is rich, without a hint of bitterness at the back of the throat. It flits through my taste buds. Kristi, the brewmaster, had other words to describe it: hopped; hearty; malted. I’m not enough of a beer aficionado to say what those mean. I only know this: every time I drink a Redbridge, I have a tickle at the back of my throat. It is part giggle and part disbelief. I’m drinking a beer.
When the Chef talked with his parents, the week before we came down to Tucson for the celebrations, his mother asked him what we needed. She had already purchased a flourless chocolate torte for the birthday dessert, in my honor. The Chef told her about this gluten-free beer. She bought two six-packs.
It’s amazing the ways we can make each other feel loved.
* * *
When the Chef and I were on the plane going home the next day, we leaned into each other and whispered our memories of the past three days, our verbal montage of images. Hitting golf balls into a vast expanse of green, the Santa Catalina Mountains in the distance, his dad impressed. (I hit a 5-wood 220 yards.) Rain on the roof as we all read the newspaper around the table, the last morning. Walking through the desert museum with Kevin, Patty, and Coleen, watching for javelinas and marveling at the size of the cacti. Eating the game hen with currant sauce his mom prepared the first night we were there. Looking through boxes of his old photos — man, his hair was bad in high school. Talking with Kathy about the glories of Mark Twain, in impassioned sentences in the kitchen, half an hour after we had met, and I knew we would be friends.
You see, this was the first time I had met his brother, sister-in-law, and sisters. It could have been nerve-wracking, but they put me at my ease, immediately. They are people of clear passions, smart and strong-willed, close with each other, and utterly alive. I felt grateful, immediately, to know that I will know them, for a long time.
The Chef and I laughed, on the plane, about the moment Kathy said to me, “So, do you think you could like us?” We had only been together for fifteen minutes, and I already knew the answer. Yes. “Well, go get a drink and get drunk with us!” she mock-shouted at me. I ran back to the table and grabbed my Redbridge.
Laughing about that moment, and the quiet, kind moments with Kevin, the conversation about baking with Patty, the film and music and rapid-fire talks with Coleen, listening to his father’s stories about the war, and helping his mother ready the house before the big feast — the Chef and I both felt a little tender.
Leaning over to kiss me on the cheek, he whispered in my ear, “Welcome to the family, my love.”
This time, it was my time to smile up at him, tears on my cheeks.
Thank heavens, there are other gluten-free beers on the market, besides Redbridge. I’m also fond of the Bard’s Tale beer, Dragon’s Gold. Some people prefer its lager taste to Redbridge. Me? I’m just thrilled that we have a choice, now.
Good, gluten-free beer also opens the possibilities for cooking with beer. I have my mind on beer-battered fish and chips soon. But the first food I made with gluten-free beer was this braised cabbage. A couple of heads of cabbage, some slightly malty-sweet sauce to slurp it up with, and the satisfying crunch of carraway seeds. This is comfort food, with the sigh of relief, knowing I will be safe in eating it.
1 head green cabbage
1 head purple cabbage
2 bottles gluten-free beer
1 tablespoon carraway seeds
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425°.
Cut the heads of cabbage into quarters, leaving the core on. Place them in a large pot, such as a Dutch oven.
Mix together the beer, carraway seeds, butter, maple syrup, salt, and pepper. Taste it to see if you need more sweetness or more beer. (I like this with a mild sweetness, to cut the acrid nature of the beer. Pour this liquid over the cabbage, allowing it to slither and fall to the bottom. Cover with a lid.
Braise the cabbage in the oven for twenty minutes to half an hour, or until it has grown soft without falling apart.
This dish goes well with roasted chicken, pheasant, pork chops, or even a beer-braised pork belly.