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Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef

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18 June 2005

eating gluten-free in Alaska

I finished out the school year in a frenzy of work and excitement. Thursday was the last day before summer, and everything pitched itself forward in a fever. Hard to concentrate, hard to take anything too seriously. And also hard to eat well.

Except, I refuse to give up on eating well now. In the past, the end of the school year meant a haze of wheated treats, sugary smacks, and the glazed expression of someone overloaded on chemical fixes. Everyone looks exhausted at the end of the year. But this year, not me.

I looked at photographs of myself from last year's graduation (I was downloading the ones from this year's, and happened to glance), and I nearly fell off my chair. Oh my goodness, there I am having a gluten reaction. The few times I have mistakenly eaten something with gluten in it during the past seven weeks, I have had the same reaction: headache between the eyes, dull glaze of exhaustion, a return of the neck pain, a feeling of overwhelming fullness as though I had eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and this prickly red flush across my face and neck. That last one is the same "rash" I had every day during the worst of it this spring. But it's also the same flush I have had my entire life. I just thought I ran to red. Every time I spoke in public or drank red wine or after a meal, that flush across my nose and down my cheeks, dripping onto my neck. I just thought that was me. But now, other than the microscopic gluten I have eaten by mistake, my skin is even and glowing. No flush. Just fine.

So now, I can see photographs of myself from across the spectrum of my life, and I can watch myself having gluten reactions. Over and over. I really feel like a new person now.

This was the first end-of-the-school-year in my life that I wasn't flattened with exhaustion. In fact, I felt healthy and alive.

And now, it's summer vacation. But I'm still teaching. I'm up in Sitka, Alaska, preparing to start my first day of classes at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. My favorite place on earth. (If you want to read entries about Sitka and my experience there, go to my other blog: It's magic up here.

But the food sucks.

Even before I had celiac, I hated this cafeteria. Industrialized food, produced on a mass scale. And worse yet, the fruits and vegetables up here are pretty woeful. Think about it--everything has to be brought up on a container ship. So think of canned beans and white iceberg lettuce. Usually, I just suffer through it, and eat lots and lots of veggies when I return home.

But this year, I can't at the cafeteria. Everything, everything is breaded and fried. And the cross-contamination issues are a nightmare.

So instead, I'm going to be having a picnic for every meal. I'll be traipsing to the tiny natural foods store in Sitka, just below Raven Radio, every day. Yesterday, I went for the first time, and they have Bumble Bars! And Gluten-free Pantry cornbread mix! Wow. And I'll make someone from Sitka drive me to Seamart, the biggest grocery store in town, and stock up on bananas and soymilk. And then I'll be snacking in my room.

Hilariously, one of the suitcases I put into the plane was stuffed with food. That's a first for me. And here's what I packed:

cinnamon almonds
golden raisins
Bumble Bars
Larabars (have you tried these? raw food bars from Colorado. Yum.)
Amy's soups
cans of tuna
Ener-G sesame pretzels (oh my god, I like these better than regular pretzels)
Green's and Blacks organic chocolate

And more. So this is what it's like to travel for someone who's gluten free.

But of course, there's always Ludvig's Bistro.....

08 June 2005

movement and feeling free

And this week, I climbed on a bicycle and rode it around Greenlake. Around and around in the rain, grinning all the way.

I honestly can't remember how long it has been since I was on a bicycle, pedalling without thinking, balancing in that delicate, solid way that only bike tires slapping the ground can be. I'm pretty sure that I had not been on a bike since before I lived in New York, which is over eight years ago. What? How is that possible? I didn't ride in New York, because my body felt best on the blades. And Seattle is full of hills, so I didn't buy a bike here. And then the three years of feeling low and out of myself. I just couldn't stand it anymore. My body is bursting with energy these days. I just have to move. (Unfortunately, this isn't doing anything to reduce the mound of grading I have to finish before nest week.) So I rode around in the rain.

Later, in the evening, Monica came over for dinner. One of my favorite former students--hell, one of my favorite people in the world--she has been living in New York for the past few months, soaking up the city, walking Central Park, gawking at people, and becoming different in the process. And just after I had been diagnosed with celiac, and feeling much better already, she called me and said, "So what did you feel like when you were my age?" I told her about my creaky joints, the low energy, the way I held weight even though I exercised all the time, the problems with depression. "That sounds like me," she said. And since her mom has celiac too, she decided to cut out gluten. Well, she clearly has this too, because I've never seen her look so good. Her eyes are clear, her body fully alive, and she exudes happiness from all her pores. She's dedicated to eating gluten free for the rest of her life, and it's easy to see why. I've always loved her, but there was a darkness, a draggedness to her. Everything hit her hard before. Now, she's lighter (literally, because she has dropped a lot of weight since cutting out gluten, like me) and alive. We were so busy chatting and laughing about everything that I nearly burnt everything in the kitchen (the hot pads on the burner, the rosemary container on another burner, a dish cracking in half in the oven). But we just laughed. We couldn't stop talking and telling stories, about movement and feeling free.

07 June 2005

life is cooking

had forgotten how much I love cooking.

For the past few years, I haven’t been able to dig my hands into the meals I make. Pain kept me on the couch, headaches sapped my energy to create new ideas, and the weight of all these injuries and fatigue made me reach, wearily, for tv dinners and bland snacks. More and more, I ate out for good food, and I drained my bank account in the process. Food tasted duller than I remembered it from years before. I used to LOVE food. But for the past three years, food has been a means to an end, instead of the joy it used to be.

But now, taste trickles along my tongue, then explodes in depth I had never expected. All I wanted was to lose the pain in my abdomen, the daily headaches, the weird rashes, the joint pain, the dozen niggling problems that have annoyed me for decades. And I have. Five weeks out, and I already feel better than I ever have in my life. But I had no idea just how much taste I would gain.

More and more, I realize that this journey is not about dealing with loss. It’s about the abundance of life that has suddenly opened up to me. I’m discovering more than I ever dreamt possible from food.

Food is the stuff of life. And we are, quite literally, what we eat. We like to forget this. We gorge ourselves on bad fast food, go hours without eating for fear of gaining an ounce, and constantly doubt our own judgments about what to eat. More and more, I realize that Americans eat with guilt, denial, a sense of shame, and a feeling that they’re putting tab A into slot B. Where is the sensory pleasure? Why do we eat while driving? While watching the television? While arguing with our families? No wonder we are all so overweight and running out of breath. We have forgotten the ineffable pleasure of simply eating.

This diagnosis has brought me food again. I’m cooking nearly every night, because the new energy surging through me keeps me dancing before the stove. I’m roasting peppers, making homemade guacamole with cumin and cayenne pepper, mixing up hummus with kalamata olives and fresh basil. On Sunday, I concocted a sesame/tamari/sherry marinade for salmon the next day. Now there was a complexity of flavors in one inhale. I baked a pan of truffle brownies (Gluten-Free Pantry brand), which rose to chewy chocolate perfection. And a loaf of bread from the Gluten-Free Pantry Country Bread and Pizza Mix. And hot damn if it wasn’t good. And I mean good. It was dense and airy at the same time, had a heft to it without feeling like a brick, and had such a wonderful crust that I knew I had real toast in my future. We celebrated in the kitchen together.

By we, I mean my friends Meri and Jessica and I. This new life of food has brought me closer to people. Jessica suspects she has celiac too, so she has stopped eating gluten too. The three of us went to the Fremont PCC together, and spent a full hour slowly perusing the shelves and savoring the smells. Someday soon, I’ll write about how much I love this chain of co-op stores here in Seattle, a simple nirvana for those of us who love organic foods and gluten-free goodies. But suffice it to say that I love Sundays now, because I gather the day around shopping, chopping, and simmering food for the week. There’s something deeply meditative about clearing the kitchen and chopping onions, washing lettuce, and putting everything into clear tupperware containers so I can open the refrigerator and throw together meals at a moment’s notice after a day at school. On a simple, profound level, I just feel good in the kitchen.

And now, on Sundays, I’ve invited friends over to help me. We buy vegetables and fruit, split them up, and cook food together. We support each other, laugh as we chop, listen to Stevie Wonder and move our hips. I feel like I have this community of women, who have always been near me, now working together to make food. Once again I realize that the old ways are the best. And over and over, I’m realizing that I’m not really on a search for the closest substitutes I can find to the old foods. Instead, I’m realizing just how many of the foods I already love are naturally gluten free. And I revel in them, fully.

I was reminded of all this (and thus thinking about it all day) from a wonderful cooking class I took last night at the PCC in Greenlake. Gloriously Gluten-Free, it was billed, and that it was. Fifteen of us gathered at low tables already outfitted with plates and glasses. And we watched in the mirror above the burners as Yvonne cooked us food. If you don’t know her already, Yvonne is the founder of Glutenfreeda, one of my new favorite websites. I’ve been cruising through it for weeks, and I subscribed to it the first time I saw it. You should too.

But I didn’t know that she was going to cooking for us. I learned so much that I cannot possibly encapsulate it here. But here are the main highlights:

--She suggested to us that we use the Gluten-Free Pantry country bread and pizza mix as our basic flour. After years of experimenting and mixing her own flours, she has decided that this is the only flour she needs. All throughout the class, we kept peppering her with questions: can you use it for gravy? pie crusts? birthday cakes? Yes, yes, yes. And she’s right. She made (and we ate): bruschetta on homemade crostini with tomato and basil; salmon-filled ravioli with roasted-pepper cream sauce; wild green salads with balsamic varnish; and flaky cornet cookies with whipped cream and fresh berries. YUM. Can I say it again? YUM. It’s far deeper than “It tasted just like regular flour.” It tasted better.

--I really loved being around other people who are eating gluten free. All the people there were open, talkative, kind, and alive. There were no pretensions or walls up. These were just good people, eager to share themselves and their experiences.

--I left the store at 9:30 pm, bouncing with energy and smiling wide. I adore how life evolves, constantly. You can never, ever predict where it’s all going. Two months ago, I had never even heard of celiac disease. And now, it’s guiding everything I do.

Life is good. Who needs gluten?

04 June 2005

making gluten-free bread

4 June 2005

I’m only starting to walk down this path, but I already feel as though I have done a lifetime’s learning. I feel thankful to everyone on the forums on, the delphi forums on celiac, and the braintalk community. Without commenting, I’ve been reading and learning from these disparate people, spread throughout North America, asking about particular brands and sharing their stories.

Stories are the best of us. We put our efforts into tangible goals, faster cars, bigger houses, or even better ways of being. But in the end, I believe, all we have to give is ourselves. That’s why I love hearing people’s stories, and telling my own. Because there’s an open vulnerability to this, and a wonderful confidence at the same time.

So here are some more stories, this time of trying out gluten-free products.

When I was first diagnosed, my mind jumped to two places: oh thank god; and “But I’ll never have bread again?” Life without bread is just fine, but in that moment, I tried to take scope of my entire life, imagining myself at eighty, having endured over forty years without a baguette. Fairly quickly, I was able to rein in my thoughts, because trying to look through the prism of anything forty years ago gives me the heebie-jeebies. Life changes so enormously, in ways that I can never predict, that I’ve pretty much stopped trying to think about the future. (Years of meditation and a near-death experience in a car accident will do that to you.) But when this bread issue arose, there arose the old demon “...the rest of my life.”

I know what to do when my brain goes into to spin cycle: do something my hands. So I started making bread.

I hadn’t made bread in years. In my mid-20s to late 20s, I lived on rural Vashon Island and imagined myself a country girl. I bought a battered copy of Laurel’s Kitchen at a garage sale and started making dishes with lentils. I became a vegetarian, carefully combining my proteins. And I made bread by hand nearly every week. It was never especially good, but it was heartfelt. I loved the work of kneading and pushing that dough around, really working my muscles into it. That was my meditation then.

But the move to New York City knocked the Berkeley-hippie-girl ways out of me. Not the ethos, but the actions. Everything gleamed bright there, and there was just no time for homemade bread. Sadly, it’s hard to find truly great bread in New York City (I know, I was surprised as well), so I learned to eat other things. Like meat. I dreamt of chicken every night for a week, and I gave into the craving for Tandoori chicken at my favorite Indian restaurant. And never looked back. Of course, I gorged on bagels every Sunday, and somewhere in between as well. I never lacked for bread products. (I shudder to think of it now, how long I’ve been feeding my body gluten, without ever knowing that it was hurting me.) But I stopped making my own.

And then I moved back to Seattle. And here, we don’t lack for truly great bread. When I lived in Capitol Hill, I walked down to Pike Place Market often for long, crusty baguettes, freshly baked, from Le Panier, the gorgeous little French bakery just down from the original Starbucks. And when I moved to Queen Anne, I started visiting Macrina Bakery--forty yards from my front door--on a nearly daily basis. Oh, the whole-wheat cider bread is enough to make anyone stop talking. One of my best friends insists that I bring her a loaf whenever I visit her. And the olivetta, a soft, flat loaf studded with green olives? Give me a break. It’s so damn good. Why would I ever need to make my own bread?

Well, now I do. And writing all this, I realize that I will miss these experiences, the taste of them on my tongue. There’s a certain amount of sadness in my stomach. But it passes. This is one of the quiet magic passes to life: feel what you feel. And then watch it dissipate as soon as you fully acknowledge its presence. Besides, I’d never willingly eat those delicacies again, knowing in my body what damage they would do to me. It’s like looking back at a bad relationship: there were some passionate moments, some sweetnesses you’d like to savor, but you know you have to go.

And writing about bread is almost as good as eating it.

When I finally received my diagnosis, I felt elated. My naturopath doctor looked surprised. She had never seen someone so happy to hear she had celiac. But I knew in my body that this was it. (And I was jubilant to finally know what the hell was wrong with me.) And just after that appointment, I drove to the PCC in Fremont and bought every gluten-free product I could find.

It amazed me to see how many there are.

Clearly, the word was out there, long before I started writing. It felt good to know that other people spoke my language.

I ordered a bread machine off Amazon the day I stopped eating gluten, somehow knowing this was it. I felt vaguely guilty for giving in to a machine, but I didn’t have the strength then to knead dough. I could hardly stand up without swaying. Wonderfully, it arrived a few days after my diagnosis. So I read all the instructions, set everything up, and opened my package of Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free bread mix.

I love Bob’s Red Mill. If you don’t know about them, you should. They’re made in Oregon, and they make the best steel-cut oats I have ever eaten. Of course, that’s gone now too (at least for awhile). I adore their simple packaging and their ethos about the world. And mostly, I love supporting local businesses who are trying to break free from the monolithic corporate structure of food. So their bread mix was the only one I wanted.

I mixed everything together, carefully. I love to cook, and I rarely use a recipe anymore. But now, I’m back to basics. Besides, I had never used a bread machine before. So I poured and mixed and dutifully made a well in the dry mix to pour the yeast, and plugged it all in. I loved watching the machine twirl and chug, kneading the dough. And quickly, the dough began to rise. Because it was late in the evening, I used the quick-bake cycle, so I could see the bread before I went to bed. The loaf rose, a little lumpy on the top. But who needs perfection? This was bread! I wasn’t going to miss bread anymore!

After an hour, the timer beeped. I ran to the machine, and was surprised to see a blowsy top of the loaf, like a cauliflower on speed. Oh well. I opened the top . My nose recoiled at the smell. That didn’t smell like bread. Oh well. Maybe I’m just not used to the machine smell. I lugged the loaf pan out, dumping the monstrosity onto a wire rack. Except it wouldn’t come out. I had to nudge it, then kick it, with a knife, before it finally emerged, misshapen and sagging, onto my counter. Steam rose, and the strange smell with it. Still, it kind of looked like a loaf of bread. I let it set for ten minutes, and then I hovered over it with my bread knife. Finally, the first slice. I took one bite, and.....

It was awful. Oh god, I thought, am I going to spend the rest of my life eating this?

With all due respect to my dear Bob’s Red Mill, this bread sucks. I looked at the package again, and noticed that they use garbanzo bean flour and fava bean flour, along with the six other kinds of flours. Um, okay. So that’s why my bread tasted like beans. I really don’t want my bread to taste like beans. Or to congeal at the roof of my mouth when I eat it. For the first time since I stopped eating gluten, I started feeling depressed. Is this what eating would be like for the rest of my life?

Well, no. Because I had, of course, forgotten how much I love foods that never have gluten in them: copper-river salmon with garlic and meyer lemon oil; omelettes with fresh basil and goat cheese; enormous salads with twelve crunchy greens and lemon-tahini dressing; homemade hummus with sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives; that one fresh peach in July that dribbles juice down your chin as you sit grinning in the summer light. There is more to life than bread.

Still, I wasn’t ready to give up. (I did throw that beany loaf away the next morning, however.) The next week, my first online order from the Gluten-Free Pantry arrived in the mail. Later, I realized that every one of the products were sitting on the shelves of the PCC or Fred Meyer, but no problem. On Sunday, I made their Sandwich Bread. This time, I gave the machine the full cycle. This time, I used a mix that didn’t include beans. And at the end of the three hours, the kitchen smelled like bread this time. And when I tapped the loaf pan, the bread fell out without a struggle. And when I took my first bite?

Not bad. It doesn’t taste like real bread. But it doesn’t taste bad. I ate an entire slice with peanut butter. And I had one with jam on it the next day. It kept for a couple of days, and then the rest of the loaf hardened into an impenetrable mass, which I had to throw away. From now on, I’ll give half of it away to friends immediately.

More to the point, I feel like this is just the beginning. Now that I have my strength back, partly, I can start kneading the bread myself. I’m determined to find my own recipe, instead of buying mixes. (There are lots of them out there, including some on the forums I talked about before.) Before my diagnosis, I would have NEVER made something from a mix. I’m a cook, not a mixer. This summer, when school is done, I’ll be experimenting wildly, and sharing the results. And mostly, this is an ever-expanding adventure. I’m grateful for the length of the path.

01 June 2005

enough energy to rollerblade

I went rollerblading around Greenlake today.

Okay, you may be thinking that I have plummed new depths of mundanity now. Why is this a notable sentence? Well, here’s some background for you: I haven’t been able to rollerblade at all for two years. Two years of pain and lassitude, two years of headaches and back pain, two years of joint pain and brain fog. And actually, even before that, since it’s clear that my surgery in January of 2003 is what triggered the celiac the first time.

What a long, strange time this has been.

Wednesdays are my early days at school, so I was home by noon. It has been raining for days, after the sentient sunlight of this weekend. I was prepared to fall into bed for a nap, watch a little tv, work up the energy to do the dishes. Or think about it. You know, my typical afternoon for the past nine months. Along with the longing for more energy and clarity. Except, when I returned home, singing from the day and the easy banter with students, I realized I wanted more than a nap and a little tv. The sun had broken through the clouds, and I could feel the light in my body as well. Time to go.

Back in February, in the ten-day period of feeling okay I experienced before I plummeted into the celiac downward spiral, I went shopping at Value Village and found a pair of rollerblades. Six bucks for a brand-new pair. How could I resist? I had to think about it, though, because I already have a pair. I bought my first and only pair of rollerblades in the fall of 1997, fresh to New York City and eager to fly. Having wobbled down a sidewalk path only once before, I walked by a sporting goods store on 6th Avenue and 4th Street, then walked right in. Maybe it was the sun shining on my head, or the freedom I felt in my body at being in my new home, across the country from everyone I had ever known and still doing okay. I don’t know what made me buy them, but I’m certainly glad I did.

The first time I took my rollerblades to Central Park, I forgot to check the positioning of the brakes. I just took them out of the box, strapped them to my feet, and started to glide. Only problem is that the path in Central Park near 101st is steep and curvy. And my brain panicked, and then my feet, and I took a tumble into the grass. I stood up uninjured, leaving my dignity behind me. But that didn’t stop me. I stumbled and fell, learned slowly to glide back and forth without thinking, and eventually started to feel as though I had been born with blades on my feet. I bladed down the Hudson, starting at Chelsea Piers, and gawked at the blue water, the hundreds of people dotting the path, and the majestic ugliness of the World Trade Towers. (When they went down, that horrible September day, one of the first images in my mind was gliding past them on a late September day in 1998, looking up and seeing them soar, and feeling a part of it all.) For six weeks in the summer of 1999, I became one of those ridiculous people who bladed on the streets, swerving in between cars, wearing shorts and too much bravado. (Now that I’ve survived the car accident, I can hardly imagine the stupidity of it.) And mostly, I glided around and around Central Park. I lived on the seventh floor of a building on 101st and Broadway, and I rode down the elevator a full foot taller than I had been in my bedroom. On those blades, I felt powerful, balanced, delicately bounded to the floor beneath my feet. The elevator opened, I waved hi to my doorman, and I walked down the stone steps to the street. And I began flying, down 101st, turn right at Amsterdam, turn left at 100th, glide past the fire station, fly past the library, gaze up at the Frederick Douglass housing units, 25 stories above me, then grin as it came into sight. The entrance to Central Park. I’ve been inside that park a thousand times, and it still strikes me in the heart with its magnificence.

I don’t even want to write about those rides around Central Park: no cars to bother me, passing street musicians and children with balloons and sleek bicylists, the ugly black Trump Tower, then shallow pond with small sailboats as I approached 5th Avenue, past the zoo, then the Metropolitan Museum to my right, and the Guggenheim farther on, then the Latin American men playing soccer on the dirt field, the long passage down down down at the top of the park that always reminded me of the curve of road on Vashon, the swath at the top where I could see Harlem poking through the trees, and the long hill down to the place where I started. It’s mythic in my mind. I miss it so much.

When I moved to Seattle, rollerblading grew harder. I could no longer leave my front door with my blades already strapped on. I resented the loss of mobility, the same way I missed being able to walk out my front door and stepping into humanity teeming on the sidewalks. But I was learning to enjoy my new, quiet life too. I drove to Greenlake, and bladed around and around and around. I missed the Met, the feeling of flying in the center of the world. But I liked the faces I passed on my journey, and the breeze blowing my hair as I glided. And there was the beach at Alki, for the wide-open spaces and the grandeur of sky and mountains I never had in New York. I was starting to feel at home in my blades again.

And then I had surgery. I lost my energy. And then I survived the car accident. I thought I would never stop having headaches or thinking of death. Last May, I tried on my rollerblades and stumbled down 100 yards of sidewalk, but my back started to flinch and ache, and I had to admit defeat and walk back to the car in my socks. And this winter, of course, I was struck by lightning for the third time, with pernicious virus, and then the celiac diagnosis.

But really, it has all been a blessing. Because finally discovering this gluten intolerance has made me feel better than I have in years. Maybe in my entire life. Since I was ten years old, I’ve had bad knees. I could always tell when it was going to rain by the aches in my joints. But now, there are no aches in my joints. They’re gone. I haven’t had a headache in a month. I’m sleeping deeply, dreaming sweetly. Gone is the exhaustion, the nausea, the brain fog, the heartburn, the skin flares, the sore throats, the stuffed nose, the bone-tirededness, the lassitude, the easy bruising, and the confusion of feeling that I would never be well again. I’m a changed woman, and I still have six months to go before everything is fully repaired.

Watch me fly.

And so, today, I threw the blades in my car, no longer caring that I couldn’t just leave my door already rolling. I’ve given up the need for life to be the way it was. Now, it just is. I sang in the car. I found a parking place. I put on my helmet and strapped on the wrist guards. And I was fully expecting to stumble and hesitate, perhaps even fall. It had been two years, after all. And I didn’t need to be good. I was just there. So I started down the sidewalk, drifted onto the path at Greenlake.

And then I started gliding. And flying. The feeling of solidity and lightness at the same time came back immediately. My body remembered, even after two years. And I was going fast, out of breath, actual sweat streaming down my face, in just a few moments. After a lifetime of playing softball, soccer, walking, biking, lifting weights, and doing yoga, I have spent the last two years in perpetual stillness. Oh god, I’ve missed moving. I could feel my heart beating, and it felt like joy.

And I was home.