Here I am, triumphant, on the top of Mount Verstovia, in Sitka, Alaska. Four hours of hiking behind me, the sweat on my back starting to dry in the cool air, mountains, vast bodies of water, and eagles with six-foot wingspans surrounding me — I am at peace with the world. And finally, after an entire lifetime of feeling vaguely crummy to downright bad, finally I feel good in my body, alive and smiling.
This photograph was taken last summer, on the one day off I had in the middle of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Every June, for the past four years, I have climbed on a plane, excited to fly north and teach teenagers how to let go and just write. This wondrous camp, in the middle of one of the most beautiful little towns I’ve ever seen, is one of my sacred spaces in the world. Each year, more than twenty artists come from around the country to teach music, dance, photography, sculpture, theatre, mask making, drawing, native carving techniques, filmmaking, and clowning. We gather together as artists, drawn by the same ineffable need to create, to express, and to show off (a bit). I am the entire creative writing department. And I cannot imagine a better place to write. I sit with groups of fifteen eager students, open to the experience, in a library classroom with windows that overlook Sitka harbor, the vast green-tree-lined mountains above us, and nothing but quiet coming through the window. (Except for the sassy calls of ravens, who are my favorite birds.) We talk about what creates character, and how to find the right sounds to express ourselves in poems, and the joy of simply pressing our pens upon the page. And some of these students have been coming to my classes every year for four years. I have watched them grow in summer leaps. They may be teenagers I only see for two weeks, but they are a deep part of my life. Normally, these are my favorite two weeks of the year.
But this year? While I still love the camp, and everything it offers to me, I have to admit that this year I am a little sad to go. Why? The Chef. We are so deeply in love that we cannot stand to spend a day apart. We tickle each other, talk in Muppet voices, confer on every detail of our lives, and dance with each other every chance we have. Suddenly, I just cannot stand the idea of two weeks without him. I know, I know. Everyone has told me: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But seriously, if my heart grows any fonder at this point, it’s likely to explode. And while I know that my dear friends Molly and Brandon crafted an entire love story out of being a country apart from each other, with monthly visits to tide them over, I just can’t imagine the agony of it. Not when I have my honey lamb man to eat with every night. So, as much as they have both been teasing me lately, when I start to pout about the separation (“Two weeks? That’s nothing.”), I just can’t help it. I don’t want to leave him.
But leave him I must, if only temporarily. Sitka calls. And when it beckons, I listen. I climb on a plane and I go.
However, besides missing the presence of my lovely chef, I am also going to keenly miss his food. You see, as much as I love Sitka, the food experience at camp is downright wretched. Especially for someone who must eat gluten-free. Poor Alaska — it’s hard to find fresh produce or artisan ingredients there in the first place. Vegetables and fruit must be brought in by container ship from Seattle. I don’t blame the place. The air, the people, the vastness — they are worth it. But at camp, in Alaska, we eat…at a cafeteria. Several years ago, for the first night’s dinner, we had deep-fried hamburgers. I’m serious. How could I make this up? It was bad enough the first couple of years, eating slightly rusty iceberg lettuce from the paltry salad bar, or eating yet another toaster pastry for breakfast, or eating more tater tots than I could count. But since last year, I can no longer eat at the cafeteria, not only because everything is breaded and fried, but also because of the cross-contamination issues.
And so, I’ll be snacking on trail mix and eating peanut butter with rice crackers and dipping into town for cans of tuna and lentil soup. A few times, I’ll probably have to splurge and eat a real meal at Ludwig’s Bistro, the only good restaurant in town, exorbitant, but worth it. (And especially after eating from cans and nibbles, that place feels like nirvana to me.) I’ll try to find fruit where I can, but I can promise you this: by the end of camp, I’ll be longing for vegetables.
Oh god, I’m going to miss the Chef.
Still, I’ll make the best of it. After all, I have yes tattooed on my wrist. I believe, down to the bottom of my stomach, in saying yes to every moment as it arises, instead of always wishing I were somewhere else. I’ll find something good to eat, good to see, good to be. And I’ll appreciate the Chef’s beef tenderloin tips with port/balsamic reduction sauce on garlic mashed potatoes, topped with fresh goat cheese, even more when I return home.
Along with teaching — and missing great food — I’ll have two weeks to reflect on this past year of my life, 52 weeks since I stood on top of that mountain. All years are full for me, but this one has been especially rich. This has been, without a doubt, the best year of my life.
Since I found out I should no longer eat gluten, my life has been triumphant. Not everything is glorious, of course. It’s still living, and there have been plenty of trips over cracks in sidewalks. But I always laugh at myself when I fall down. How can I not? Now that I’m healthy, for the first time in my life, I know how to rise up fast, instead of staying crumpled on the ground.
Everything this year has been about saying yes. Yes to writing this website. Yes to the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of you coming to this site to read my writing. Yes to the hundreds of touching emails I’ve received from people, thanking me for cooking and writing and taking photographs. Yes that doing what I love — from the heart, with all my will and silliness — moves anyone at all. Yes to dancing in the kitchen, experimenting with food, playing with spices, and closing my eyes in joy at the physical pleasure of great food I know won’t make me sick. Yes to free food, free cookware, new friends, and a thousand surprises. Yes to everything arising as a surprise, teaching me again that I don’t need to try to control anything.
Yes to finally signing with a literary agent, one of the best I know, a dream come true, all from writing about gluten-free living.
Yes to being on the Food Network, unexpectedly. For all those of you have asked, yes that was me on TV the past few days. The Food Network segment has already started airing, and judging by the numbers of emails that have been coming in the last couple of days, they seem to be airing it several times a day now. It’s supposed to be part of a larger program called The Power of Food, which profiles people whose lives have been changed by food. However, they seem to be running a 30-second version of my segment as a stand-alone promo. Many people who have written to me seem to think it is a commercial for my website or for a cooking show I’m going to be doing. Judging by the emotional responses people have been having, it’s clear there’s a need for a gluten-free cooking show. But as of now, the segment is simply running on the Food Network as a little commercial for Gluten-Free Girl. Goodness. Yes.
Yes to the Food Labelling Act, which went into effect this year, so that I can pick up almost any packaged food and see CONTAINS WHEAT PRODUCTS and know I cannot eat it. My life is immeasurably better for that small act of awareness, and I’m certain that eating in Sitka this year will be much better for it.
Yes to more people being diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten intolerance and finally understanding what it is that has been causing them to not feel well for most of their lives. Yes to a growing awareness of this, so that those of us who suffer from it just don’t have to feel so weird anymore.
And finally, yes to the Chef. My Danny, the love of my life, a dream come true. Every sweet little endearment we call each other is some kind of food term: pumpkin; truffle girl; honey lamb man. (And others that are only ours.) We cook together as a way of making love. We relish our time together. We are, without a doubt, going to be cooking together for a long time to come. And last year, when I stood on that mountain, I had no idea he even existed. Yes to him being in the world. I sing yes out loud, with my arms flung open and my heart spread wide. Yes, my love.
Life is good.
Much of this year, I feel as though I have been standing at the top of a mountain top, amazed with my life and the sights before me. When I was in Sitka last year, I could hardly believe that I had made it up that mountain. How much has changed since then, and all gloriously for the better. I can only imagine what this time next year will feel like.
And so, I’m headed north, up to the mountains, to the place of bald eagles and ravens, to teach, to dream of great food, to write. You might hear from me a couple of times while I’m gone. Or maybe not. But in the meantime, just know that I’ll be at the top of this glorious mountain, triumphant, and smiling.
SEARED SALMON AND ROASTED POTATO BREAKFAST
Before I leave tomorrow afternoon, I’m hoping that the Chef will make me this breakfast again. Last week, during a long morning together, he crafted this out of the ingredients in my refrigerator: a small piece of leftover salmon from dinner the night before; a few Yukon Gold potatoes in the vegetable drawer; chives that were starting to wilt; the last few eggs left in the carton. We seem to create best spontaneously. When he lay this plate before me, I had to run for my camera. And then we dug in.
Oh goodness. If only every morning routine could be like this. If only I could ever eat half so well in Sitka. Oh well. When I’m eating my gluten-free cereal out of a thick plastic bowl, in a dorm kitchen in Alaska, I’ll still be dreaming of this breakfast the Chef made for me.
Now you can have some too.
Three Yukon gold potatoes
Two garlic cloves, minced fine
Four tablespoons olive oil
Twenty grape tomatoes, sliced in half
One-quarter cup diced chives
Two small filets of salmon
Three slices of bacon
Two large eggs
for the bacon vinaigrette
Half the bacon fat reserved from cooking chopped bacon
One tablespoon Dijon mustard
Two tablespoons olive oil
One tablespoon red wine vinegar
Preheat oven to 425*. In a skillet on high heat, bring two tablespoons of the olive oil to heat. Sautee the garlic cloves, lightly, then throw in thick-cut slices of Yukon Gold potatoes and brown on both sides, about one minute on each side. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. When they have browned, put the skillet into the oven to allow the potatoes to roast.
In another skillet, on high heat, add in the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil, then the sliced grape tomatoes. Quickly sautee the tomatoes, until they are fully heated and start to wilt, just a bit. Sprinkle on salt and pepper. Add in the chopped chives and remove the skillet from heat almost immediately. Set aside the tomatoes and chives for a moment.
In the same skillet, sear the salmon for a few moments. (Only for a few. Really, you have no idea how much better salmon tastes when it’s cooked rare, as opposed to overdone.) Set aside the salmon.
Take the roasted potatoes out of the oven. (You might want to check them through this process.) Arrange them on the plates, then arrange the tomatoes and chives on top.
Poach the eggs, according to these directions.
Chop the three slices of raw bacon into bite-sized chunks. Throw them into another skillet, on medium-high heat, and cook the bacon until the smell wafting through the kitchen is almost unbearably good. (Or, at least until crispy but not burnt.) Set aside the bacon.
Pour out half the bacon fat, then put the warmed skillet back on the heat. Add the Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil, along with a dash of salt and pepper. Whisk until mixed well.
Pile the seared salmon on the potatoes, then add the poached egg, carefully. Drizzle the warm bacon vinaigrette over the breakfast, then add the crumbled bacon.
Ah, the decadence. Heaven.