The gluten-free girl.
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 haven’t always been alive. For much of my life, I felt lousy. Low in energy. Sick and sometimes depressed. I didn’t 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, I’m grateful.
And I’ve been writing about all of this from the moment I could pick up a pen and put words on the page. I’m 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 can’t tell you who it was. I’m 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 don’t 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 don’t read this website. (They’d actually rather talk to me than read the stories.)
And now, at the heart of everything I do, and the monikers of which I’m most proud? I am the wife of my tender-hearted, hilarious husband and the mother of our darling daughter.
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 don’t miss gluten at all.
Way back in May 2005….
taken on April 20, 2005 — ten days before diagnosis
taken in early June, 2005 — one month after being gluten-free
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 didn’t 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. “That’s a long shot. We’ll 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 didn’t hurt when I ate. On the second day, I didn’t 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.
I’m 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t improve — and grew worse and worse each week — she said, in exasperation one day: “We’re just going to have to call you the sick girl.”
When I was finally diagnosed, and told Dorothy about it, she said, ironically, “Oh, we’re going to have to call you the Gluten-Free Girl!”
I never thought people would stop me at the farmers’ market and exclaim, “Oh, you’re the Gluten-Free Girl, aren’t 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 one’s 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 wasn’t 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 haven’t 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. It used to be called Gluten-Free Girl. Now, you're reading Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef.
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-man’s hands, slow-braised flavors, and a wonderful practicality to everything here.
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 month’s 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 don’t want to create another dish, and be excited by it, and find I can’t share it with you. I’m just going to make everything gluten-free from now on.”
And he still does.
Oh, how I love him.
For quite awhile, I just referred to him as the Chef on this site. Some readers wrote to me to ask: “Why do you call him the Chef? Why don’t you just use his name?”
He preferred 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t writing this. He read and approved of every piece, but still. He hadn’t 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, you’re the Chef!”
He loves it.
So, the Chef it was.
After our daughter was born, and we endured the scary time in the ICU with her, and major surgery, and experienced more joy in being her parents than we could have ever predicted, it started to seem silly to refer to him as the Chef. And so, he became Danny.
But, for the record, he does have a name. Daniel Fitzgerald Ahern. But to me, he’s Danny.
He’s 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 doesn’t have to be expensive to be spectacular. Sure, I’ve 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.
It’s about the best ingredients. Food in season, in an awake moment, with the right person. That’s 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.
And the other is when we sit around the table with our toddler daughter, enjoying a meal we made together while she stood on a chair at the kitchen counter watching what we do, and we all take our first bite. Lu says "Yumma yumma!" and digs in for more. Danny and I grin at each other over the table and eat more, laughing.
In the end, that’s 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 they’d make my book into a movie, and I’d 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 — I’m not sure I’d want it now. But I can share this with you, dear readers (I’ve 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 didn’t 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. It’s the story of a love affair with food, and finding everything that I can eat, joyfully. It’s a story about slowing down, and appreciating my life. It’s a story about forging a new relationship with my body, and learning to love the life I have. It’s a story about eating local, eating organic, and eating in season. It’s a story about loving the time in front of the stove, dancing. It’s a story about developing recipes and devouring stories. It’s 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 can’t 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, that’s a lot of people!)
But I can promise you this: I am not doing this for myself, alone. Sure, I want to sell books. I’d 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. I’m not ridiculous enough to say I’m 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.
(And soon, there will be a cookbook too. More on that later.)
That’s all I need to say.
La Dolce Vita, senza glutine.
Some people ask why I don’t write in every piece here about gluten-free.
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.
Oh, and should you wish to reach us, drop us a line at
Hearing from you, in comments and emails, responses on Twitter and conversations on Facebook, is an enormous gift. We're a community here, and I'm so happy to be part of it.
I wish that I could answer all the emails I receive. I can't respond because there is a growing mound of dishes in the sink that I should probably put in the dishwasher before midnight. But just know that I read every email. And I adore you all.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
The gluten-free girl.
Posted by Shauna at 10:25 PM