In a few weeks, it will be six years since I started this website.
Six years! Folks, I can’t believe it. This past Friday, I flew down to San Francisco and back the same day, to speak at Google headquarters about the need for increased awareness about celiac and gluten sensitivity in this culture, in honor of National Celiac Awareness Month in May. (Google! That place is a splash of color and crazy little details. I sat in a ball pit during a tour of the buildings. There were men in shorts playing volleyball in the middle of the day. One room had a lot of Astroturf, a giant play structure with swings, two people having a big meeting at the picnic bench, and an enormous statue of the Incredible Hulk. These are the people changing our world.) In the early evening, I had dinner at Contigo with good friends whom I met through this site because they write blogs I love. As we were finishing our almond cake for dessert, a lovely woman slid into the booth and sat beside me. “Are you Shauna?” she asked me. Turns out she reads this site all the time and recognized me at the table next to hers. (And hi! Thanks for stopping to tell me what this place means to you. I hope you had a good meal.)
I flew home the same night, then woke up early the next morning to attend Penny de los Santos’ workshop at Creative Live. I have a feeling that a number of you were watching on the internet because I heard from you on Twitter. I was flabbergasted to be one of the six students chosen to be there in person, to watch Penny shoot food, talk about her experiences in the world capturing glimpses of culture through her lens, and to have the wonderful pressure of shooting photos of food in front of her and the 200,000 people watching online. I’m lucky enough to call Penny a friend, and I adore her, but I still wasn’t prepared for how deeply this would affect me. (Penny too, it turns out.) All day today I felt jangly, raw nerve endings like the ragged edges of a strong rope. This weekend changed me, again.
Life can change, powerfully, in six years.
Because my career is writing here and in books, talking with people about writing and food and how to live gluten-free, I sometimes forget the days when I ate gluten. Honestly, the desire for a crusty baguette or my mother’s holiday cookies has faded away. To me, anything with gluten looks like it contains Drano. No thanks. I’ve never felt more alive, more impassioned, or more surprised by life than I have since I quit eating gluten. For me, it’s muscle memory to avoid it, like the rhythm in my hands when I pick up a knife to chop up a pile of fresh herbs. I don’t think about it anymore. I just do it.
However, recently, my wonderful friend Christi discovered she has to be gluten-free. Christi is all wisecracks and loving comments. She’s the mother of three young boys, whom Lu loves. She’s full of compassion and wisdom and funny-as-hell stories. Christi’s cool. As well, after the birth of her first boy, she never regained her energy, suffered from bodily complaints, struggled with anxiety. As I felt when I was diagnosed, she was elated to have the story of her life in full form. However, she was also overwhelmed. Where to begin?
I felt that too. It took me three hours to make my way around the grocery store for my first shopping trip. I remember how excited I was to find gluten-free pretzels at the Fred Meyer. Ta da! I wouldn’t starve while traveling. I ate a lot of bad cakes and breads just to prove to myself that I wouldn’t have to give up cake and bread.
Those first few months, I was scared, overwhelmed, elated at my new-found health, and kind of pissed.
That’s why I started writing. I wanted other people to not have to go through the confusion I found when I read the internet for answers.
One of you reading if not more of you is in that state right now.
For you, for Christi, and for National Celiac Awareness Month, we’re going to do some small pieces here for the next two weeks: how to deal with being gluten-free.
You’ve just been diagnosed with celiac, or gluten sensitivity, or you’ve figured out through process of elimination that gluten does you no good. What do you do first?
1. Say yes.
Why yes? Why not a string of expletives or sobs? Say yes because this is what is. You might like to change it, but your body cannot tolerate gluten. You could pretend it isn’t true because you are so loath to give up the life you are living (is it really that great, that life, when you feel so rotten? are those grocery store hamburger buns worth that?). You could cheat when you’re in social situations, feel like crap for days, and go back to being “good” after you have recovered. You could ignore all this because you just don’t want to deal with it.
Say yes instead.
This is your life. This is your body. This is your new reality. If you wake up and decide you’re going to love it (you have no idea how much better you are going to feel without the gluten), then you will.
Accept it. Shout about it with those string of expletives if you want. Allow yourself to grieve. But do that all with clear eyes. This is your life. Accept it.
2. Focus first on the foods that are naturally gluten-free.
See that sweet potato up there? No gluten in there. There’s also no gluten in a rib-eye steak, a peach in season, a raw kale salad with pine nuts and golden raisins, a square of good dark chocolate, roasted chicken, soft mango slices that slither down your throat, carnitas for tacos with homemade guacamole, a steaming bowl of pho, yellow lentil waat, spring rolls with Thai basil and marinated pork, mashed potatoes, crunchy cornichons, lamb kebabs with sumac and lemon zest, hummus with smoked paprika and garlic, spring vegetable soup, poached eggs on asparagus, or smoked salt caramel ice cream.
You will not go hungry. I promise.
It’s natural to focus first on what you cannot eat. It’s a human tendency. You can see it around you, constantly. However, don’t do that.
Focus first on what you can eat. I promise you everything will be better for this.
(It’s true of the rest of your life too, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out.)
So much of the food you already love is naturally gluten-free. Focus on that. Eat well.
3. It all comes down to cooking.
If you already love standing in front of the stove, listening to the sizzle of onions in the skillet and the whoosh of steam that escapes when you add chicken broth and pomegranate molasses, you’re going to be fine. There will be a little shock, at first, as you realize some of your favorite ingredients have gluten in them, but you’ll adjust quickly.
(Soy sauce, people. This is the first surprise for so many folks. Soy sauce has wheat in it. However, some types of tamari are wheat free. And guess what? They taste far more nuanced and complex than grocery-store soy sauce anyway.)
If you don’t already love cooking, I have one piece of advice for you: learn to love cooking.
Cooking is your path to healing. It will be hard, at first, for other people to cook for you, mostly because they won’t know the little places where cross-contamination happens, like their beloved wooden cutting board, or the rolling pin they inherited from their grandmother. Eventually, when you feel strong and comfortable advocating for yourself, you can give your friends a list of specific guidelines. But for now, you’re going to want to cook your own food. Restaurants might be easier than you think, but you have to know how to order and how to ask the hard questions of servers and chefs (we’ll tell you about this in a blog post soon). Honestly, you want to start cooking.
4. You’ll find your rhythm.
Even if you are wobbly at the stove or awkward at chopping or feel annoyed or pressured to be perfect when you cook? Give it time. You’ll find it.
Cooking is connection. It’s not about impressing. It’s about pausing from the chopping to lean your head down toward the board and breathe in the released smell of fresh cilantro. (If you don’t like cilantro, make it basil.) Cooking is about concentrating with an intent focus on something that’s in your hands and your heart, instead of your head. You can slip the day from your shoulders when you cook. You can let it all go. Start slicing the garlic.
If you feel like you don’t have time to cook, because your life is so busy (and believe me, we know busy), take a step back.
Eating great food that you know is gluten-free is your path to healing. Cooking for yourself or your hilarious friends or your kids is a gift you give. Sitting at the table with people is where the stories emerge, the relaxation takes place, the memories are formed. Why don’t you have time for this?
Your entire life is going to change because of this. You might as well allow it to happen fully. Arrange your life differently so you have a little time in the evening to cook.
You don’t want to miss this.
5. It’s going to be messy at times.
You’re going to have moments when you’re raw with anger that the only place to eat on that road trip with your friends is a gas station in the middle of bleak nowhere and they have nothing to eat that’s gluten-free. Nothing. And you’re hungry, and you feel isolated, and you really are tempted to crack open a bag of those inedible tiny crackers filled with salty processed cheese product.
Don’t do it. Don’t cheat.
Feel it instead. Let yourself feel lousy. (Next time, pack better snacks.)
If you ever feel like this, read this kick-ass honest post by our friend Carol. She is not a complainer. In fact, she’d be the first one to flip the bird at anyone whining too much or being all touchy-feely about their pain. But she’s human, and she’s like us: sometimes you’ve just had enough.
It’s okay to have a tantrum once in awhile. And then you move through it and go back to good food.
Expect it to not be all pretty pictures of perfectly composed food. There will be nights you come home late and you don’t have anything left in the refrigerator and you can’t order a pizza and you’re left eating popcorn for dinner. (If you do, try popping it in coconut oil with lime zest, crushed red pepper flakes, fresh cilantro, and Maldon salt. You can thank me later.)
There will be times when, in spite of all your best efforts, you will get some cross-contamination. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to feel it within 5 minutes with a headache like a bullet through the head, stomach pains a few moments later that make you feel doubled over in your seat, and then an entire night in the bathroom. Expect to spend the next day in the bathroom, repeatedly. And by the third day, you might be depressed and anxious and as bleak as a young woman in her early 20s who’s convinced that one has to suffer to produce true art.
It’s not pretty.
(Did you know that 90% of the serotonin produced in our bodies is made in our intestines? If something is wrong in your gut, something is wrong in your mind.)
Let it be messy and raw and annoying as hell. There might be months, eventually, that you go without thinking about gluten, or you revel in your new baking skills, or you realize what a gift this all is because you feel well for the first time in your life.
And then there will be this horrible, no-good, terrible day in which you just want to poke out the eyes of someone who doesn’t get the gluten-free thing and asks, “Wait, you don’t want to eat glue?” Or that arrogant waiter who brought your salad with breadcrumbs in it because he didn’t believe you were really going to be sick. Isn’t gluten-free just some celebrity diet fad? Whatever. You’re going to want to kneecap him.
Take a deep breath. It will pass.
If you expect it to be messy instead of all sweetness and light, you’ll have a sense of humor about this. Believe me, you’ll need that too.
6. Find your community.
You need people on your side. When is that not true? Well, it’s especially true right now.
Danny (the chef of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef) supports me in this. He cooks great food with me. He thinks up recipes, dices and styles the food for these photographs, and cheers me on through every step of this process. And early on, he decided he didn’t need to live in a home with gluten. There’s not a bit of it here.
I hear from some of you here, wondering how to make it work in a kitchen covered in crumbs and stocked with gluten cereals pasta breads and everything else you think your kids need. Or your husband. Or wife. How about you convince them instead to take care of you? Try making the house gluten-free for a week. (Practice your best dishes without gluten first.) No one is going to die without gluten. That way you won’t have to worry about cross contamination.
(I met a young woman with celiac at Google. Her first two months there she ate at all the cafes, the havens of free food that dot every part of the campus. In those two months, she lost 12 pounds, and she didn’t have 12 pounds to lose. She and her doctor at the Stanford Celiac Center realized that she was getting so much cross-contamination in those foods that could have been gluten-free that she was putting her life in danger. Don’t play with this, people.)
You need even more community. You need friends who understand this, families who support you, and good people who let you cry on their shoulder when your relative says, “Oh come on, it’s just a little flour. What harm could it do?”
You’re not alone in this.
And you know what? It’s going to grow so much better. You won’t believe how good you’re going to feel soon.
Go ahead. Say yes.
We love this community here. We’d love to hear from you. What advice would you give to people who are newly gluten-free? Leave a comment with as many specific suggestions as you please.
ROASTED SWEET POTATO WEDGES WITH CILANTRO AND LIME
One of the joys of cooking is that it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.
If you are just starting out, focus on simple dishes first. Everyone will be happy with this one.
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Slice the sweet potatoes into wedges (or thick rounds, if you like). Danny likes to peel them. I don’t. You decide.
Put the sweet potatoes into a large bowl. Drizzle them in a little oil, some salt, pepper, a spice like smoked paprika.
I throw the cilantro in here. Danny likes to save it for the end so it’s fresh. You decide.
Put the sweet potatoes onto a baking sheet and bake until the edges are crisp and the middle tender, about 20 minutes in our oven.
Drizzle fresh lime juice and some fresh cilantro over the top. Done.