I’m in Portland as I write this, sitting in my minimalist room in an overly funky hotel. (I’m not hip enough for this place.) Much as I miss the Chef, I am feeling in bliss at the moment. I just finished a beautiful meal at Clyde Common with two incredible women who help run one of my favorite online magazines. Today, I spent hours at the mecca of whole grains, Bob’s Red Mill, signing books and meeting people who walked through the front doors to find me. (And there were also gluten-free corn muffins and brownies on the table. That might have enticed people to stop and talk.) I sighed happily into the hours there as they disappeared. I even met Bob!
And last night, I met more extraordinary people at Andina, where we shared shrimp and mango ceviche, soft polenta with tomatoes and goat cheese, and some incredible cocktails. At the end of the night, the “mama” of the restaurant, the wonderful Doris, took my hand and thanked me for honoring them by having the party there. They are avid supporters of the gluten-free community. I am the one who felt honored. (I’m telling you go to that restaurant when you are here.)
I am feeling extraordinarily blessed.
But blessed with lots of extra time to put up new essays here? Not tonight.
However, I have read so many beautiful emails today, from those of you who are new to the site, through the virtual book tour, and now from reading the book. In the last few days, many of you have been asking about my past, and how I started the blog, and I realized that most of you might not know the entire narrative (without reading the entire blog, and I really don’t recommend you do that in one night!). Also, when Kaytlyn re-designed this site, we put in a page called About Gluten-Free Girl. It’s here. You can find it by clicking on the photo of us to the right. But most people don’t seem to know that, yet.
And so, tonight, I thought I’d share the entire story, here.
(If you have already found it, and you don’t feel like reading this again, hang tight. Perhaps I’ll have new material tomorrow?)
Hi. My name is Shauna James Ahern. I am alive.
I have been alive since August of 1966. Or, should I say, I have been on this earth since then. I havent always been alive. For much of my life, I felt lousy. Low in energy. Sick and sometimes depressed. I didnt know why.
Still, I survived. And I laughed deep from my belly, in most moments of the day.
(Well, except for those six months in the seventh grade I was so embarrassed of my loud laugh that I forced myself to let out only a tiny heh.) I adore being here. I am constantly amazed by life and frequently struck by the absurdity of it. Mostly, Im grateful.
And Ive been writing about all of this from the moment I could pick up a pen and put words on the page. Im a writer. I write about little moments of being awake in the world. Sometimes, I write to remind myself to wake up.
For much of my life, I was a high-school English teacher, first on Vashon Island, in Washington state, and then in Seattle. Between those two teaching times, I lived in Manhattan, tutored child actors, ran a screenplay-editing business, and rollerbladed on the streets to work. (That was dumb.) For a time, I lived in London, where I edited a book for a famous person. (I cant tell you who it was. Im contractually obligated to remain mum on this one.) Everything I have ever done for money had to do with words and helping other people with their words. (Okay, those eight weeks I was a terrified waitress dont count.)
Now, I am writing, full-time. My dream came true. (And my fingers are tired from all the typing.)
I am the daughter of two incredible people, the sister of a remarkable man, the sister-in-law of some phenomenal women and men, and now the aunt of a line of kids ranging from three years old to a married 25-year-old. (There used to be just Elliott, but getting married meant I inherited cool nieces and nephews too.) I am blessed with friends who make me laugh, tease the hell out of me, feed me in every way, and mostly dont read this website. (Theyd actually rather talk to me than read the stories.)
And now, at the heart of everything I do, and the moniker of which Im most proud? I am the wife of my tender-hearted, hilarious husband.
Oh, and by the way, like millions of humans in the world, I have to live gluten-free. I have celiac disease, although I chafe at the word disease. Being diagnosed with celiac changed my life, in ways that I could never stop listing. Now, I am no longer low energy, prone to falling ill, or depressed. Now, I am free. Now, I am alive.
And I dont miss gluten at all.
taken on April 20, 2005 ten days before diagnosis
taken in early June, 2005 one month after being gluten-free
Way back in May 2005 .
In the early spring of 2005, I was terribly ill. My body required 18 hours of sleep a day, my stomach ached all the time, and I could barely move without hurting. Doctors ordered one medical test after another, and none of them yielded answers. (The low point is when I endured a colonoscopy and endoscopy on the same day. Bleh.) All I could eat was soft bread, chicken noodle soup, and crackers. No one understood why I was so ill.
It had been a hard few years. In the winter of 2001, I suffered pneumonia for the sixth time in my life. In the beginning of 2003, I required emergency abdominal surgery for a fibroid tumor that had grown to the size of a grapefruit. In the winter of 2003, I was t-boned by another car, in a terrible accident that changed my life. My body reminded me, every day, how lucky I was to be alive, with pain from the injuries that didnt go away. Just as I was starting to recover, I fell into that crisis of 2005.
It started to feel like I would never be well.
After all those tests, and no answers, I started to despair. A friend of mine who had been a nurse all her life confided in me later, I thought you were terminal. So did I.
Then, a friend of mine called me from Maine, to say she had just heard a story on celiac disease, the most under-diagnosed disease in the States. It sounded like me. I googled it, and found myself in the symptoms. Two years before, in an effort to find my energy, I had given up wheat for six weeks. I felt fantastic, but I slipped back into it. Remembering, my body jolted. What else could it be?
And why had I never heard of this before?
My gastroenterologist refused to test me for it, even though it only required a blood test before I could stop eating gluten. He refused. Actually, he had his nurse call me. Celiac is really rare, she said on the message. Thats a long shot. Well talk about it during your follow-up in two weeks.
Heck with that. I knew my body, exhausted as it was. At this point, I was down to eating a jar of baby food a day. I wanted to start living again.
I went to a naturopath, who did the blood test. I stopped eating gluten.
I have never gone back since.
At the end of the first day without gluten, I felt some energy. My stomach didnt hurt when I ate. On the second day, I didnt need a five-hour nap. On the third day, my brain fog cleared, as though my contacts had been cleaned for the first time.
When I received the official diagnosis you have celiac I clapped my hands and said yes! The naturopath was a little surprised to see my celebration.
The gastroenterologist was even more surprised, the next week, when I showed up for my follow-up appointment in great health, blood test results in hand. He confirmed it I have celiac. And he left the room, embarrassed.
Im not the only one who had to fight her way through the medical system to receive the correct diagnosis and become healthy for the first time in my life. Americans have to wait an average of 11 years, and many doctors, before finally being diagnosed. It is estimated that 1 out of 100 Americans has celiac disease. Only 3% of us have been diagnosed.
We have to change this.
After I was diagnosed, I felt reborn. I became a self I had never been before.
And I started writing about it. About amaranth and quinoa, ume plum vinegar, how to braise a lamb shank, and the life of food I began to live. I wrote to teach, to lead other people to the awakeness I was feeling. I love the fascination of the human body; I dissected cadavers in high school. (It was for an advanced biology class.) And yet, I had never heard of the condition that had been commanding me all my life.
I did the only thing I knew how to do. I began to write.
And thus, this website was born.
Gluten-free woman just doesnt have the same ring.
When I had been so sick, my friend Dorothy came over, many times, to bring me food and commiserate. When I just didnt improve and grew worse and worse each week she said, in exasperation one day: Were just going to have to call you the sick girl.
When I was finally diagnosed, and told Dorothy about it, she said, ironically, Oh, were going to have to call you the Gluten-Free Girl!
I never thought people would stop me at the farmers market and exclaim, Oh, youre the Gluten-Free Girl, arent you? I certainly never thought I would see that phrase on the cover of my first book.
I just liked the alliteration.
Focusing on the food.
When I first started eating hot food again, I was moved to tears by the physical sensation of it sliding down my throat. It had been so long since I had been able to take pleasure in food.
I have always loved food. Every story I share with my dear friend Sharon seems to involve food, of some kind (and falling down). Even though I ate a requisite number of processed foods when growing up (I was born in the late 60s remember, so I was raised on Wonder Bread), my mother was a good cook. She could bake like no ones business. And over the years, I started going to farmers markets, cooking with good olive oil, and eating food from recipes that originated from outside the boundaries of the United States.
But it wasnt until I was diagnosed with celiac that I truly started focusing on the food.
Food is the path to healing in celiac. There is no pill we can take, no surgery we can endure, and in fact, no cure other than living on an entirely gluten-free diet. Some find that distressing. I find it a blessing.
In order to be well, I have to eat well. I have to feed myself. I have to live in food.
I started taking photographs of my foods as soon as I was diagnosed. Having been so weak and in pain, I had not been able to write. I needed that creative outlet. But more than that, being able to eat again after at least six weeks of eating bananas and baby food made me see. Food is so beautiful. The vivid oranges of baby carrots, the fuzzy hair on a soft peach, the little white rings on red quinoa in a skillet, the crumbling flakes of dark chocolate on a cutting board everything attracted my eye.
I began taking photographs of my meals. I havent stopped since.
From May 2005 to July of 2006, I took photographs with my little Nikon Coolpix.
In July of 2006, I switched to a Fujifilm Finepix.
And in the winter of 2007, I bought the body of a Nikon D-100, and a 2.8 35-70mm lens. It has a wonderful macro capability, which is why I bought it from a professional photographer in Seattle, who needed to move to a different system. That lens has been around the world, taking photographs of people living with AIDS in Kenya, and women singing in Morocco.
This camera has good karma.
And then there was the Chef.
When I was diagnosed, I had a visceral understanding that I was now a self I had never been before. And I needed some time to myself. I decided to take a year off from dating at all.
Four days to the year, I met the Chef.
I knew, at once. This is the love of my life. But I held off for six weeks from writing about him on this site. I had to be sure. I knew that once I began writing about him here, everything would change.
Oh boy has this site changed.
From the first post I wrote about him (Meet the Chef), until the post about our honeymoon (la luna di miele), there has not been a single piece I have written here without his influence infused into the words. He lends tender-heartedness, a ribald sense of humor, real working-mans hands, slow-braised flavors, and a wonderful practicality to everything here.
The name of this site is still Gluten-Free Girl, but this is our website now.
This man makes me feel alive. He makes me laugh, teases me, feeds me, listens to me, wakes up in the morning with me and says, I love you, sweetie.
He is also the most talented chef I have ever met.
Within a few months of our falling in love, the Chef started changing his menus. He always found a way to feed me safely when I went into his restaurant. He understood the details of living gluten-free, immediately. The Chef loves and lives in food like no one else I have ever know. For him, cooking gluten-free was a compelling challenge, a chance to discover foods he had never eaten.
But one day, I looked up after typing up the next months menu, and said, Hey honey. I can eat everything on this menu.
I know, he said.
What have you done?
And he said, quite simply, You are my muse. I dont want to create another dish, and be excited by it, and find I cant share it with you. Im just going to make everything gluten-free from now on.
And he still does.
Oh, how I love him.
Some readers have written to me to ask: Why do you call him the Chef? Why dont you just use his name?
He prefers it that way.
When I first met him, I refereed to him as the Chef when I talked to my friends. After so many bad experiences with dates, I didnt want to trust and even say his name. This only lasted about a week he walked right into my heart but the name stuck.
And when I first began writing about him, I wanted to somehow maintain some anonymity for him. He wasnt writing this. He read and approved of every piece, but still. He hadnt originated this. And really, it was the only way to represent him. He is, in his heart, a chef. He lives in food. He works crazy hours. His hands are covered in burns and scars. And he expresses his love for humanity through his food.
He cooks because he can give people joy in the belly.
And really, it just stuck. When people come into his restaurant after reading this website, they often shriek a little and say, Oh, youre the Chef!
He loves it.
So, the Chef it is.
But, for the record, he does have a name. Daniel Fitzgerald Ahern. But to me, hes Danny.
Hes my husband, and I love him.
How we eat around here.
Anyone who thinks that living gluten-free is deprivation? Come on over here for dinner.
We live in food. Food, to us, is sensuality and texture, kindness and laughter, being alive and in love. Roasted potatoes with sea salt. Cinnamon-walnut scones. Crispy pork belly. Mixed green salads with champagne vinaigrette. Pizza with prosciutto, chanterelle mushrooms, and goat cheese. Fig cookies. Scrambled eggs with truffle salt. Sauted black kale. Shaved fennel with lemon. One crisp apple.
Food doesnt have to be expensive to be spectacular. Sure, Ive eaten foie gras a few times in the past year, and I love truffles after being in Italy. But one perfect peach, in late July, is true richness to me.
Its about the best ingredients. Food in season, in an awake moment, with the right person. Thats great food.
We shop at farmers markets as much as we can. We know the men who sell us fish by first name. We look for truly great olive oil. We allow ourselves to be surprised by good food. We feel fresh to it, every day. We like great spices and creamy butter and gelato in Italy (but not anywhere else). We eat the best food we can find in the places we find ourselves. We love to share.
There is so much to learn. When do I salt the food? How much vinegar should I use? What does a cross between a peach and an apricot taste like? Where do I find the best locally raised, grass-fed lamb? How would those brownies taste with sorghum flour instead? I love this.
We love the people who grow our food.
And one of my best accomplishments is when we are home, late at night after his shift at the restaurant is done, and the Chef eats the first bite of the dinner I have made for us. He pounds his fist on the table, grunts a little, and digs in.
In the end, thats all that really matters.
As a kid, I always dreamed of being a writer. One of the literary kinds. Not the one whose books would be produced in thick, cheap paperbacks that fall apart halfway through the read. No, as much as I thrilled to the sound of The Beatles “Paperback Writer,” I had higher aspirations.
After all that reading, all those books or actually, after reading my first book, long ago, before I had the words to say it I knew that I wanted to write. And not just write. I was going to write the books that transported everyone else away. And theyd make my book into a movie, and Id never have to borrow books from the library again.
I have no idea if they are going to make a movie out of my book, and frankly Im not sure Id want it now. But I can share this with you, dear readers (Ive read Jane Eyre more times than I can count. And, dear reader, I married him.). Holding the book in my hands?
Well, that little girl is cheering, right now.
This has been a journey, a story of transformation. I loved food, from the moment I could eat it. But that food didnt always love me back. Throughout my life, I was frequently sick, mostly fatigued, and sometimes at war with my own body. After I was diagnosed with celiac disease, and I stopped eating gluten, I finally learned to find food that would feed me.
This book is a love story. Its the story of a love affair with food, and finding everything that I can eat, joyfully. Its a story about slowing down, and appreciating my life. Its a story about forging a new relationship with my body, and learning to love the life I have. Its a story about eating local, eating organic, and eating in season. Its a story about loving the time in front of the stove, dancing. Its a story about developing recipes and devouring stories. Its a story about finding the self I never was, for the first 38 years of my life, and reveling in that self.
And of course, it is an actual love story as well. It cant surprise anyone to know that the last chapter of this book is about meeting the Chef.
And so, in all those ways, this is the perfect subtitle (or perhaps, even the real title): How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back.
Filled with funny essays, tempting photographs, and readable, easy-to-follow recipes, Gluten-Free Girl will break down the mysteries of the kitchen and teach its readers to find themselves, laughing, in the process.
Of course, I intend this book to help everyone who cannot eat gluten. I hope that you all will find it essential. But it is also a book for anyone with food allergies, anyone who wants to become more comfortable in the kitchen, and anyone who loves food. (Hopefully, thats a lot of people!)
But I can promise you this: I am not doing this for myself, alone. Sure, I want to sell books. Id like to keep living this life with the Chef, loving each other, eating well, and writing about it. And of course, that little girl who is still with me cannot wait for the book tours and media appearances. Im not ridiculous enough to say Im not enjoying this.
But I wrote this book, and I am going to be marketing it, for one urgent reason.
I want to help everyone to finally recognize his or her own story.
That little girl who read books on hot days, alone? Who dreamed of being plucky and stalwart and published in a magazine some day?
She cannot thank you enough.
I hope that you buy it. I hope that you enjoy it.
If nothing else, I can promise you this: if you buy my book, you will be reading my heart.
Thats all I need to say.
La Dolce Vita, senza glutine.
Some people ask why I dont write in every piece here about specifically gluten-free food.
I am alive. That life involves being gluten-free, but there are so many more parts to it:
funny stories, exhilarating travel, tender moments with my husband, discoveries in mouthfuls, falling down and laughing at myself, and learning how to live in the moment, every moment I am alive.
When we were in Italy for our honeymoon, we were both astonished to discover how easy it was for me to eat gluten-free. All I had to say was “Io sono celiaco.” Waiters and chefs understood. They pointed out the dishes I could eat, and then brought me plates of black-truffle risotto, or sizzling beefsteak, or a saucer of perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes so vividly colored that I had to blink twice before looking at them. And that was it. No explanations or apologies. I simply ate gluten-free and went onto other conversations around the table.
The sweet life. Italians call it la dolce vita. And in order to remain well there, sometimes I simply said senza glutine (without gluten).
That’s what I’d like to bring here. La dolce vita, senza glutine. I want to show you a vibrant life, filled with hilarious adventures and quiet contemplation. Stories of saying yes to life.
All of it, gluten-free.