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, Im here to talk about my book. Gluten-Free Girl?
With a gasp, she said, Oh yes! Im 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, Im here with this woman named Judith Jones .
I didnt even let her finish her sentence, poor woman. I blurted out, my face already flushing, I know who Judith Jones is!
If you dont 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 Childs 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, Id 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, didnt she?
And I rushed forward, But you dont 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, thats 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 cant eat wheat?
Ms. Jones looked at me, and said, Oh? What is your book about?
I drew in my breath and said, Its 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, Thats an excellent pitch you just gave me. Very succinct.
After she left, I walked into the studio feeling like I could do anything.
The thing is, though, for the past few months, Ive 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 Bobs Red Mill, and the moment of walking into Central Park and seeing my book on peoples laps at the Imagine sign? I wouldnt 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 dont 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 didnt 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, Ive been battling a nasty infection. Its on the wane now. But being forced to lie down in bed (and watch re-runs of Americas Next Top Model) and heal has given me plenty of time to think. This week, Ive 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 hasnt 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, Im not happy. Thats 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. Its part of the reason hes 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 elses 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 cant 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 babys 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. Youre not done yet. That pie has to sit in the refrigerator before it becomes congealed enough to eat.
And in a moment, its gone.
But I will always remember the early-morning preparation of this years 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 brothers kitchen, preparing food. My parents and brother were in the office, playing Wii. (Its 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 didnt talk that much, the three of us. Elliott had announced at the beginning of the afternoon: Im 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 dont remember, hes only four years old.)
The Chef and I looked at each other, trying to hold back tears. We didnt 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.
Yesterday, we had a potato party. Having been gone, off and on, for months, we hadnt 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.
Id 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? Id eat it with nearly anything, including just spooning it into my mouth.
1 tablespoon garlic, fine chopped
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 its 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.)