I lost my gluten-free virginity at PCC.
In the late spring of 2005 good god, that’s nearly 6 years ago I wandered into the PCC in Fremont with a list from a dietician and big wide eyes. I had just been diagnosed with celiac disease that day.
Now, let me tell you, I was happy. For months I had been so ill that no one knew what was plaguing me. Some of my friends thought I was dying. Mostly, I was horrified that I was sleeping all the time, in pain, the sick girl. And I had lost my appetite for food. Me? I didn’t know who I was those months. To have an answer was a blessing.
Besides, I already knew it. Two weeks before I had my blood drawn for a celiac blood panel. I requested it. After all those scares of ovarian cancer, kidney failure, colon diseases, spleen difficulties and everything else the doctors threw at me, celiac sounded blissfully easy. As soon as those little vials of blood had left my arm, I started eating foods without gluten. Simple foods, since I had been eating mostly baby food to keep me going. Sauteed spinach. Scrambled eggs. Rice with butter. Salads. Foods from the produce section and around the perimeter of the grocery store.
However, by the time I had my results back, I was hungry for more. Much more. I wanted to cook again. I wanted meals. After two weeks without gluten in my system, I felt more alive than I had ever felt in my life. Time to eat.
The only place I wanted to go was the PCC in Fremont, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Seattle.
In that lovely store, the produce section seems to take up half the space. The red peppers and orange carrots and dark green lacinato kale and red raspberries gleam vividly. PCC works hard and well to support local farmers, not only with the produce they buy anything local is proudly proclaimed so but also with its PCC Farmland Trust. They raise money and give money to farms that are flailing, to keep the lives of organic farmers stable so they can continue growing great food for us. It’s a really incredible program.
It’s not only the produce section of PCC that drew me there when I shopped to re-stock my pantry with entirely gluten-free foods. Every single product on the shelves is chosen thoughtfully. Walk down the aisles and you find a large selection of delicious foods that happen to be healthy and good for the community too. In the past few years, PCC has undertaken a non-GMO project. They have stopped buying any products with high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient. And they do everything they can to create a green workspace.
And, something that makes me beam with happiness: “May 2010 marked a milestone for PCC Natural Markets. Our cooperative earned the nation’s first Gluten-free Retailer Endorsement from the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG), a non-profit organization that provides support for those sensitive to gluten.”
Somehow I sensed, in May of 2005, that I was walking into a gluten-free-friendly store.
That didn’t make that shopping trip any shorter, however. From the time I walked into the Fremont PCC until I walked out the door with my bags of groceries? Three hours.
I walked down every aisle, holding every can or bottle or bag of food in my hands, examining the labels. Being gluten-free in 2005 was far more confusing than it is in 2011. Back then, the few resources online conflicted with each other, told a dour tale, and scared the heck out of me. Distilled vinegar had gluten in it? That eliminated mustard and mayonnaise. (By the way, that’s not true. There’s no gluten in distilled vinegar.) I loved oats and oatmeal, but there were no certified gluten-free oats back then. And what the heck was sorghum flour?
Whenever I started to grow alarmed, I looked up to see a PCC employee coming toward me with a broad smile. They must have seen this before. I asked a lot of questions and then I threw food into my cart. I walked out the front door feeling much better about the life I was cooking up.
I didn’t know until much later that Danny was living in an apartment across the street from PCC at that moment.
I had been a regular visitor before, but now I practically lived at the Fremont PCC. When summer came, I started going to farmers’ markets, but I still went to PCC for my locally raised meat, gluten-free flours, and kalamata olives. Most of the food you see photographed in the first year of this website came from that store.
After I met Danny, we started shopping there together, stopping to enjoy the sunlight swarming through the huge windows of the produce section. Later, to my utter delight, I started teaching gluten-free cooking classes at PCC, both with Danny and on my own. I never could have imagined this would be my life.
Danny and I moved to the south part of Seattle. I still taught classes for PCC, even when I was pregnant I remember one cooking class I taught when I was 7 months along and I was exhausted but happy afterward. Before classes I grabbed food from the deli to make sure I could last the three hours. I always chose the kale and wild rice salad they called the Emerald City Salad. Anyone who has been to PCC knows this salad. Gluten-free and so damned good.
Danny and I still drove up there for groceries, since it was on the way to Danny’s restaurant in Seattle. We loved walking down the aisles hand in hand, finding brown rice vinegar to try in stir-fries or almond milk for his coffee. We may have walked more slowly, since I was pregnant, but we still enjoyed every moment of our grocery shopping.
And then Lucy arrived. And then we moved to our island, a 15-minute ferry ride away from the city. I stopped teaching cooking classes since we were writing a cookbook. We stopped going to PCC as often, and then not at all.
We love the grocery store on our island. It’s a very urbane store with plenty of selections. For corn’s sakes, the other day I saw five different kinds of coconut oil in that aisle. We’re not lacking.
But a couple of weeks ago, we stopped into the Fremont PCC, spontaneously. There was that sunlight coming through the produce section window, weak as it was in January. Lu ran around, giggling, practicing her jumping, refusing to ride in the cart. Danny and I picked up some local lamb for a shepherd’s pie recipe we were working on, a tub of olives, a bar of dark chocolate from Africa. As we moved through the aisles, we threw more and more into our carts.
You see, after becoming parents, and being a freelance writer and chef, we loved PCC but sort of cringed at the prices. Everything is just a touch more expensive there than it is in a more standard grocery store. We pinched pennies. Now, we’re still not rich, but we’re a little more comfortable. Or more we just trust the process more. Because, walking through the Fremont PCC, gathering ingredients for that Emerald City salad, we were both struck by how much it felt like home.
And with food the bulk of our budget these days, we decided to put our money where our beliefs are. Local, organic produce. Locally raised meats. Foods we can trust to be free of GMOs and high fructose corn syrup. Real food, as close to the source as possible. The money we spend on this is worth it to us, x 10.
At the check-out counter, Lu danced. Danny put food on the belt. He leaned back to me, laughing, and whispered in my ear. “You’re going to love the tattoo on our check-out person.”
I leaned forward to look. She had breathe tattooed on her too. Just as I was about to say something, she looked at me, held out her hand, and said, “You’re Shauna James Ahern.”
I didn’t even know what to say. Turns out that she’s a big fan of this site. So was the woman in line in front of us. So was the check-out person to the left of us. I felt sort of swarmed with love and laughter, conversations about great food, and a wonderful feeling of life coming full circle.
There I was, standing no more than 50 feet from where I had stared at jars of food in consternation and fear, wondering if I would ever eat again. And here was a young woman telling me how much she loves the recipes I write with my husband, who lived across the street from that store and I didn’t know him then.
Life continuously amazes me.
EMERALD CITY SALAD, adapted from Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods
In these dreary grey days of winter, my favorite way to find color is on the plate. Purple cabbage, red pepper, dark green kale, pale fennel everything blends into a riot of colors. Add to that the fact this salad is ridiculously healthy and you have our favorite salad of January.
We found the recipe for this salad in a really lovely book by Cynthia Lair called Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods. She makes great food, not kid food, not dumbed-down food, not separate meals for everyone in the family. She shows folks how to enjoy their time in the kitchen with the kids and spouses. She speaks our language.
This salad is so wonderfully adaptable that you could make it every day for a week. Replace the lacinato kale with red kale, the red cabbage with green, the fennel with celery, the wild rice with brown basmati, the parsley with basil a different taste each time.
Cynthia Lair’s recipe calls for a simple lemon-garlic vinaigrette, which is great. We happened to have some apple cider vinaigrette in the refrigerator, which is why we used this here. I’m thinking about a vinaigrette of pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, pepper, and walnut oil for the next one. (You’ll have vinaigrette left over, so use it on other salads through the week.)
Just be aware of this: you’re going to be addicted to this salad. Quickly.
For the wild rice
2 1/2 cups water (or vegetable or chicken stock, depending on your taste)
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup wild rice
For the vinaigrette
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
cracked black pepper
¾ cup olive oil
For the salad
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1 cup lacinato kale, stems removed and chopped
1/4 large red pepper, diced
1/2 cup finely sliced fennel bulb
1/4 cup Italian parsley, leaves removed
1 ounce French feta (optional)
1 ounce sunflower seeds (optional)
Making the rice. Set a large saucepan over high heat. Pour in the water and bring it to a boil. Add the butter, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the wild rice. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low. Cook until the wild rice has absorbed all the water but is not bone dry, about 60 to 70 minutes. (When you think the rice is done, tip the pan to one side to make sure there isn’t any water pooled on the bottom.)
Making the vinaigrette. Combine the apple cider vinegar, mustard, remaining 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt, pepper, and olive oil in a jar. Put on the lid and shake it all up. Vinaigrette is done.
Finishing the salad. When the rice is warm to the touch but not steaming, combine all the vegetables together in a large bowl. Toss in the rice. Dress with a few tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Toss the salad. Taste. Season with more vinagrette, salt and pepper, a little lemon juice, or whatever your taste says the salad needs. Crumble the French feta onto the salad, along with the sunflower seeds, and toss before serving.