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30 June 2006

heading north

shauna on top of the #C8BBF, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Here I am, triumphant, on the top of Mount Verstovia, in Sitka, Alaska. Four hours of hiking behind me, the sweat on my back starting to dry in the cool air, mountains, vast bodies of water, and eagles with six-foot wingspans surrounding me -- I am at peace with the world. And finally, after an entire lifetime of feeling vaguely crummy to downright bad, finally I feel good in my body, alive and smiling.

This photograph was taken last summer, on the one day off I had in the middle of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Every June, for the past four years, I have climbed on a plane, excited to fly north and teach teenagers how to let go and just write. This wondrous camp, in the middle of one of the most beautiful little towns I've ever seen, is one of my sacred spaces in the world. Each year, more than twenty artists come from around the country to teach music, dance, photography, sculpture, theatre, mask making, drawing, native carving techniques, filmmaking, and clowning. We gather together as artists, drawn by the same ineffable need to create, to express, and to show off (a bit). I am the entire creative writing department. And I cannot imagine a better place to write. I sit with groups of fifteen eager students, open to the experience, in a library classroom with windows that overlook Sitka harbor, the vast green-tree-lined mountains above us, and nothing but quiet coming through the window. (Except for the sassy calls of ravens, who are my favorite birds.) We talk about what creates character, and how to find the right sounds to express ourselves in poems, and the joy of simply pressing our pens upon the page. And some of these students have been coming to my classes every year for four years. I have watched them grow in summer leaps. They may be teenagers I only see for two weeks, but they are a deep part of my life. Normally, these are my favorite two weeks of the year.

But this year? While I still love the camp, and everything it offers to me, I have to admit that this year I am a little sad to go. Why? The Chef. We are so deeply in love that we cannot stand to spend a day apart. We tickle each other, talk in Muppet voices, confer on every detail of our lives, and dance with each other every chance we have. Suddenly, I just cannot stand the idea of two weeks without him. I know, I know. Everyone has told me: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." But seriously, if my heart grows any fonder at this point, it's likely to explode. And while I know that my dear friends Molly and Brandon crafted an entire love story out of being a country apart from each other, with monthly visits to tide them over, I just can't imagine the agony of it. Not when I have my honey lamb man to eat with every night. So, as much as they have both been teasing me lately, when I start to pout about the separation ("Two weeks? That's nothing."), I just can't help it. I don't want to leave him.

But leave him I must, if only temporarily. Sitka calls. And when it beckons, I listen. I climb on a plane and I go.

However, besides missing the presence of my lovely chef, I am also going to keenly miss his food. You see, as much as I love Sitka, the food experience at camp is downright wretched. Especially for someone who must eat gluten-free. Poor Alaska -- it's hard to find fresh produce or artisan ingredients there in the first place. Vegetables and fruit must be brought in by container ship from Seattle. I don't blame the place. The air, the people, the vastness -- they are worth it. But at camp, in Alaska, we a cafeteria. Several years ago, for the first night's dinner, we had deep-fried hamburgers. I'm serious. How could I make this up? It was bad enough the first couple of years, eating slightly rusty iceberg lettuce from the paltry salad bar, or eating yet another toaster pastry for breakfast, or eating more tater tots than I could count. But since last year, I can no longer eat at the cafeteria, not only because everything is breaded and fried, but also because of the cross-contamination issues.

Oh darn.

And so, I'll be snacking on trail mix and eating peanut butter with rice crackers and dipping into town for cans of tuna and lentil soup. A few times, I'll probably have to splurge and eat a real meal at Ludwig's Bistro, the only good restaurant in town, exorbitant, but worth it. (And especially after eating from cans and nibbles, that place feels like nirvana to me.) I'll try to find fruit where I can, but I can promise you this: by the end of camp, I'll be longing for vegetables.

Oh god, I'm going to miss the Chef.

Still, I'll make the best of it. After all, I have yes tattooed on my wrist. I believe, down to the bottom of my stomach, in saying yes to every moment as it arises, instead of always wishing I were somewhere else. I'll find something good to eat, good to see, good to be. And I'll appreciate the Chef's beef tenderloin tips with port/balsamic reduction sauce on garlic mashed potatoes, topped with fresh goat cheese, even more when I return home.

Along with teaching -- and missing great food -- I'll have two weeks to reflect on this past year of my life, 52 weeks since I stood on top of that mountain. All years are full for me, but this one has been especially rich. This has been, without a doubt, the best year of my life.

Since I found out I should no longer eat gluten, my life has been triumphant. Not everything is glorious, of course. It's still living, and there have been plenty of trips over cracks in sidewalks. But I always laugh at myself when I fall down. How can I not? Now that I'm healthy, for the first time in my life, I know how to rise up fast, instead of staying crumpled on the ground.

Everything this year has been about saying yes. Yes to writing this website. Yes to the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of you coming to this site to read my writing. Yes to the hundreds of touching emails I've received from people, thanking me for cooking and writing and taking photographs. Yes that doing what I love -- from the heart, with all my will and silliness -- moves anyone at all. Yes to dancing in the kitchen, experimenting with food, playing with spices, and closing my eyes in joy at the physical pleasure of great food I know won't make me sick. Yes to free food, free cookware, new friends, and a thousand surprises. Yes to everything arising as a surprise, teaching me again that I don't need to try to control anything.

Yes to finally signing with a literary agent, one of the best I know, a dream come true, all from writing about gluten-free living.

Yes to being on the Food Network, unexpectedly. For all those of you have asked, yes that was me on TV the past few days. The Food Network segment has already started airing, and judging by the numbers of emails that have been coming in the last couple of days, they seem to be airing it several times a day now. It's supposed to be part of a larger program called The Power of Food, which profiles people whose lives have been changed by food. However, they seem to be running a 30-second version of my segment as a stand-alone promo. Many people who have written to me seem to think it is a commercial for my website or for a cooking show I'm going to be doing. Judging by the emotional responses people have been having, it's clear there's a need for a gluten-free cooking show. But as of now, the segment is simply running on the Food Network as a little commercial for Gluten-Free Girl. Goodness. Yes.

Yes to the Food Labelling Act, which went into effect this year, so that I can pick up almost any packaged food and see CONTAINS WHEAT PRODUCTS and know I cannot eat it. My life is immeasurably better for that small act of awareness, and I'm certain that eating in Sitka this year will be much better for it.

Yes to more people being diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten intolerance and finally understanding what it is that has been causing them to not feel well for most of their lives. Yes to a growing awareness of this, so that those of us who suffer from it just don't have to feel so weird anymore.

And finally, yes to the Chef. My Danny, the love of my life, a dream come true. Every sweet little endearment we call each other is some kind of food term: pumpkin; truffle girl; honey lamb man. (And others that are only ours.) We cook together as a way of making love. We relish our time together. We are, without a doubt, going to be cooking together for a long time to come. And last year, when I stood on that mountain, I had no idea he even existed. Yes to him being in the world. I sing yes out loud, with my arms flung open and my heart spread wide. Yes, my love.

Life is good.

Much of this year, I feel as though I have been standing at the top of a mountain top, amazed with my life and the sights before me. When I was in Sitka last year, I could hardly believe that I had made it up that mountain. How much has changed since then, and all gloriously for the better. I can only imagine what this time next year will feel like.

And so, I'm headed north, up to the mountains, to the place of bald eagles and ravens, to teach, to dream of great food, to write. You might hear from me a couple of times while I'm gone. Or maybe not. But in the meantime, just know that I'll be at the top of this glorious mountain, triumphant, and smiling.


Danny's breakfast<

Before I leave tomorrow afternoon, I'm hoping that the Chef will make me this breakfast again. Last week, during a long morning together, he crafted this out of the ingredients in my refrigerator: a small piece of leftover salmon from dinner the night before; a few Yukon Gold potatoes in the vegetable drawer; chives that were starting to wilt; the last few eggs left in the carton. We seem to create best spontaneously. When he lay this plate before me, I had to run for my camera. And then we dug in.

Oh goodness. If only every morning routine could be like this. If only I could ever eat half so well in Sitka. Oh well. When I'm eating my gluten-free cereal out of a thick plastic bowl, in a dorm kitchen in Alaska, I'll still be dreaming of this breakfast the Chef made for me.

Now you can have some too.

Three Yukon gold potatoes
Two garlic cloves, minced fine
Four tablespoons olive oil
Twenty grape tomatoes, sliced in half
One-quarter cup diced chives
Two small filets of salmon
Three slices of bacon
Two large eggs

for the bacon vinaigrette

Half the bacon fat reserved from cooking chopped bacon
One tablespoon Dijon mustard
Two tablespoons olive oil
One tablespoon red wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 425*. In a skillet on high heat, bring two tablespoons of the olive oil to heat. Sautee the garlic cloves, lightly, then throw in thick-cut slices of Yukon Gold potatoes and brown on both sides, about one minute on each side. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. When they have browned, put the skillet into the oven to allow the potatoes to roast.

In another skillet, on high heat, add in the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil, then the sliced grape tomatoes. Quickly sautee the tomatoes, until they are fully heated and start to wilt, just a bit. Sprinkle on salt and pepper. Add in the chopped chives and remove the skillet from heat almost immediately. Set aside the tomatoes and chives for a moment.

In the same skillet, sear the salmon for a few moments. (Only for a few. Really, you have no idea how much better salmon tastes when it's cooked rare, as opposed to overdone.) Set aside the salmon.

Take the roasted potatoes out of the oven. (You might want to check them through this process.) Arrange them on the plates, then arrange the tomatoes and chives on top.

Poach the eggs, according to these directions.

Chop the three slices of raw bacon into bite-sized chunks. Throw them into another skillet, on medium-high heat, and cook the bacon until the smell wafting through the kitchen is almost unbearably good. (Or, at least until crispy but not burnt.) Set aside the bacon.

Pour out half the bacon fat, then put the warmed skillet back on the heat. Add the Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil, along with a dash of salt and pepper. Whisk until mixed well.

Pile the seared salmon on the potatoes, then add the poached egg, carefully. Drizzle the warm bacon vinaigrette over the breakfast, then add the crumbled bacon.

Ah, the decadence. Heaven.

Serves two.

21 June 2006

veal goulash -- now this is a man

veal goulash, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I eat well around here these days.

Late in the evening, the Chef comes to my house, after an entire day of cooking at his restaurant. He smells of warmth and richness, the mingled scents of grilled lamb, Spanish goat cheese, and Rainier cherry ice cream. When I kiss him, I can taste everything he made that night. He tastes of great food and hard work and real love.

Some nights, I cook for him. After all, he rarely eats a home-cooked meal. He simply sips and nibbles on bits of food in the tiny kitchen where he’s producing meals for other people. And most people are too intimidated to cook for him. Hell, I’m intimidated too, because I am nothing but a passionate amateur in comparison to this man. But, then again, he doesn’t really write — we both love the fact that we have different talents. He adores the pieces I write, and I adore the food he feeds me. So I don’t need to be great when I cook for him. I cook with love, and he eats, happily. And then, after much coaxing from me, he gives me notes on how to make it better.

But most nights, to my astonishment, the Chef insists on cooking for me. With great enthusiasm and a confidence in the kitchen I only wish I could exude, he throws together something delicious for us to eat: warm salads; grilled fish; potato purees; egg scrambles with sauteed zucchini and smoked salmon. When I protest that he shouldn’t have to come here and work when he has been cooking all day, he looks over his shoulder at me as he stands at the stove, and says, “I’m cooking dinner for the woman I love. This isn’t work.”

And so I sit at the table in the little kitchen nook, my feet propped up on the kitchen counter, regaling him with stories and grinning at him, adoring, as he cooks.

The Chef had a rigorous training in traditional French cuisine, and he has been cooking all his adult life in good restaurants in Seattle and Colorado. However, when he cooks in my kitchen — quickly becoming his kitchen — he enjoys simple food. Foods that are perfectly seasoned and in season, but simple, nonetheless. Foods that a mother might make — apple crisps; roast beef; chicken pot pies. Goulash.

The first time the Chef was in my kitchen, we cooked together. We stood in front of the stove and talked, both our hands chopping vegetables, the rhythm of our conversation matching the rhythm of our knives. He ate my roast chicken and ran around the room. I ate his mashed potatoes with roasted yellow peppers and yelled out a little hallelujah. We danced together. It was a beautiful meal. But the next time he came over, on his day off, he wanted to do everything for me. He wanted to make me something he remembered eating at his mother’s table. He made me goulash.

Before this, I had never eaten veal before, at least not consciously. I’m certain that veal stock lurked in sauces over which I swooned in top restaurants around the world. Now that I’m learning how much Dan uses it to infuse some of his dishes with surprising richness, I’m realizing I’ve been imbibing veal for years. But for nearly a decade, I was an ardent vegetarian. The thought of eating that meat made me a little sick. These days, I’m much more adventurous than I was in my twenties. (God, growing up is good.) And with the Chef, I just want to play, savor new tastes, and experience everything I can. So, when we stood in front of the cases at Don and Joe’s meats in Pike Place Market, the Chef gestured with his head at the ground veal. Would I try it? Why not? I trust him.

(Sometimes, now, I tease him: “Aren’t you glad I’m not a vegetarian anymore?” And he exhales, and admits, “Oh yes. Thank god.” This is a man who loves to cook duck and sweetbreads. I’m in for more surprises.)

Danny cutting tomatoes

So he stood in my kitchen and made me a meal. And simply watching him chop tomatoes he had blanched fascinated me. I have been wielding this Wusthoff knife for months, but it sits better in his hands. I feel sloppy in comparison. But that encourages me, too, because I have so much to learn about food and how to create it. He’s teaching me, every day. Seeing him chop anything entices me to wander over closer and watch his technique. Sometimes, I lean down as he is mincing garlic finely and take in a whiff, of spiciness and familiar warmth, clarity and head rush, and I love him even more.

When he starts to really cook, we don’t talk. We have music on in the background. The sun is shining through the skylights. I might do some dishes behind him, in a futile attempt to keep my kitchen clean. But mostly, I just sit and watch him, as he bends over and listens to the food in the skillet. As he pinches salt between his fingers and dashes in far less than I would, until the flavors start to sing. As he pays attention, deeply, to the textures and colors and smells and flavors, a little smile upon his lips. As he plates up our food, his face wide with excitement, because he knows how much I’m going to love this food he has made with his hands. Food for me, and I will show him, in a dozen ways, just how much I love that he does this for us.

That night, the goulash was a revelation. I remember eating goulash as a kid, but it didn’t taste like this. Such fresh tastes. The veal had a vibrancy to it, different than everything before it, evocative of every other kind of meat. The melted pecorino knocked me back in my seat with its softness. And of course, the pasta was gluten-free, so I felt even more loved than I would have if a man had made me dinner just two years before.

We both slammed our forks into the goulash and moaned. “Oh man, this is good,” the Chef said, and I grinned to hear him say it. That is the highest praise he will ever give himself. If you compliment him on his food, he will say, “Oh, I just throw crap into a pot.” Don’t believe him. This man can cook. Let me assure you — this dish is good.

Made on a Monday night, reminiscent of mothers and comfort, with a twist of culinary adventure — soft, rich, and memorable — this is the perfect meal for new lovers.

Veal Goulash

veal goulash II

This morning, the Chef and I sat at the kitchen table in our boxer shorts and concocted this recipe. I have to admit — I adore being part of a foodie couple. Never in my life, not even in my most daring dreams, could I imagine feeling this comfortable in the kitchen with a man. Two cups of coffee, the remnants of breakfast between us, and my pen darting across the page of my orange notebook, full of food notes — we are completely absorbed in each other and the process.

And what we have found, over and over again, is that food is foreplay, food is fuel for our relationship, food is one of the languages we speak together. When we visit spice stores, his eyes grow wide as he asks me to smell Vietnamese cinnamon, then puts a bit on his lips and tells me to kiss him. I taste its warmth and my eyes grow wide. While most people regard going to the grocery store together as drudgery, we linger in every aisle and sniff everything we can. We shop with our arms around each other, hands tucked into the other’s back pockets. We only remove them to grab something else from the shelf.

We are a couple everywhere we go, but where we are most alive is in the kitchen, in the morning, after being together all night. Sleepy and happy, we stumble in for coffee and sit down to talk about food. The morning after he made this goulash, we had leftovers for breakfast. Let me tell you — oh my god.

One pound ground veal
Two tablespoons olive oil
One-half large yellow onion, diced small
Two tablespoons garlic, finely minced
One tablespoon each of chopped thyme, rosemary, and sage

One package gluten-free pasta of your choice (I prefer Bionaturae fusilli these days)

Six ripe-as-possible tomatoes, medium-sized, any color
One yellow onion, chopped, finely
One tablespoon garlic, minced
Two teaspoons smoked paprika
One tablespoon basil, cut into chiffonade
One-half teaspoon kosher salt
One-half teaspoon cracked black pepper
One stalk celery, chopped small
One-half medium-sized carrot, peeled, chopped small
One-half pound pecorino fresco (fresh pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk) or fresh mozzarella

Heat the olive oil on medium in a skillet. Add the ground veal and cook it until the meat is browned. Strain the cooked meat and set it aside. Sautée the onion, garlic, and olive oil until the onion and garlic are translucent. Add the fresh herbs. Cook them for two to three minutes. Add the veal back to the pan and set it aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. (Throw a small handful of salt into the water before boiling. Taste the water to make sure it’s not too salty.) Take the top off each of the tomatoes and remove the tomato’s core. Turn the tomato upside down and score a small x on the bottom of each tomato. Place half the tomatoes into the boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil and let the tomatoes stay until you can start to slip the skin off them. (This will only be five to ten seconds — don’t let the tomatoes stay in the water for much longer, or you will start to cook them.) Remove the tomatoes from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl of ice water. Let the tomatoes stay there until they are cold. (This should be about two or three minutes.)

Remove the skins from the tomatoes, which should slip off fairly easily. Cut the tomatoes in half and remove the seeds. Chop up the tomatoes. Then, repeat this process with the other three tomatoes.

Cook the gluten-free pasta according to the directions. Drain and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Sautee the onions, the garlic, celery, and carrot until they are soft, with the smoked paprika in there too. Add the basil, then add five of the chopped tomatoes. Cook for ten minutes or so, on medium heat. Puree the tomatoes and vegetables in a blender. Pour it back into the saucepan and season it with salt and pepper.

Add the tomato sauce to the cooked veal. Bring the mixture to a boil. Season to taste. Put the last, chopped tomato to the sauce to give it a slightly chunky texture. Mix in the gluten-free pasta.

Pour the sauce, ground veal, and pasta into a casserole dish. Layer thick slices of the fresh pecorino or mozzarella on the top of the casserole. Cook in a 500° oven for about ten minutes, or until the cheese has melted and become brown.

Crack open a good bottle of wine, sit back with your love, and enjoy.

09 June 2006

Meet the Chef

Danny in the kitchen III, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

“You taste like truffles,” he told me, when he came up for air after kissing me. We were standing on the end of a pier in Seattle, golden light bouncing off the grey water, at sunset.

We had been at a wine tasting, on a rooftop deck overlooking Puget Sound. The first sunny Seattle day, and tables of free wine. We meandered through the afternoon, slowly, laughing and talking. And after an hour and a half, just after telling me how much he loved reading this website, he leaned over and kissed me. We ran across the street, holding hands, skipping in the sunlight, suddenly children together, happy and laughing. At Union, we ate perfectly sauteed branzino, some gorgeous soft cheese with fig marmalade, and dishes of fabulous food I just don’t remember. I don’t remember because he kept leaning in for kisses, playful and affectionate, at the table, with his hand on my leg. I don’t remember the food.

We walked down to one of the piers, with that golden light bouncing off the water, and kissed and kissed and giggled. We looked each other right in the eyes. We were so comfortable with each other that it felt as though we had known each other much longer. We talked, a lot, about nothing much at all. And at one point, he reached out his hands, and pulled me into him, and started dancing with me. No music. Just dancing. I was happy to let him lead.

We walked up the Harbor Steps, holding hands, in the moonlight, kissing at every new level. He walked me to my bus, and he held me. He didn’t hug me. He held me. And he said, once again, breathlessly, “You taste like truffles.” “But I haven’t eaten any truffles,” I said. “I never have.”
“Oh, we’ll have to take care of that,” he told me. We both grinned. Somehow, we both knew. We were in this, together, for a long time to come.

Those of you who are regular readers may have noticed that I haven’t been posting much at all this spring. Well, there’s a reason why. Certainly, the end of school precludes writing here often. The Food Network shoot took up energy, gladly. And as I revealed in my last post, I now have a literary agent, and I’ve been working on the revision of my book proposal, in preparation for a possible book deal. However, as joyful and exciting as those realities have been, they have not kept me from this site. There’s really only one reason, one stunning, too-amazing-to-be-true-but-it-is reason that I have not been filling the pages of this website.
This has been the most spectacular year of my life. After being diagnosed with celiac disease last spring, and finally cutting gluten out of my life, I have never been healthier. This website has brought me consistent joy, a new world of food, and a plethora of incredible friends. There have been material gifts and honors. And finally, my lifelong dream — to be a working writer, creating books and seeing them published. How could I ask for anything more than what I have been given?

But, in one of those rare twists of fate that yields only happiness, I have been given more. This spring, the most spectacular gift of all: the Chef.

We met, improbably, online. Even though I wrote on Valentine’s Day that I didn’t really need a boyfriend, I realized I was just trying to convince myself. Everyone needs someone. I’ve had my share of relationships, each of them teaching me something essential, but not one of them stuck. For whatever reason, I had not met a single man who seemed like my match, someone with whom I could dance and cook and laugh, and envision myself doing it for the rest of my life. Over the past few years, I have tried online dating a couple of times. In this strange, internet world, who has not? But each time, it turned out to be a disappointment. After the last time I tried it— and a retinue of horrifyingly funny stories — I swore I would never do that again.


Several friends of mine are now in loving, committed relationships with men they met online. When I visited New York in February, those friends urged me to try again. So, I surrendered. I put up a profile on the most popular online dating site, with the following headline: “I’ll make roast chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, and flourless chocolate torte. You do the dishes. We’ll dance in the kitchen.” To my surprise, I was flooded with responses. Write about food, and the men come calling. But the problem was, they all turned out to be disappointments. There were cups of coffee and glasses of wine with men who didn’t know how to laugh, or who weren’t really alive or interested in food, or men who seemed interested but turned out to be confused. It felt the same as before: strange and untenable. One man even wrote to me, after a volley of interesting emails, upon finding out that I cannot eat gluten: “I’m sorry. You seem great, but I really love bread, and I just can’t imagine dating someone who cannot eat wheat.” Oh god. After six weeks of trying this— and signing with my agent — I decided to devote my energies to my writing. Who needed this? I gave up. I vowed to never look again. I quit.

When I told the dating site to not renew my subscription, thank you, they informed me I still had five grace days left. Who cares? I thought. They’re all going to be the same. I vowed to not even look at the emails piling up in that account. But, curiosity grabbed me, the day before my subscription ran out. I flicked through all the people who had sent out requests, and even felt a small tug of self-satisfaction that I had made the right choice. No, no, no, no....wait.

Something in his eyes in that photograph looked familiar. In spite of my loudly voiced intentions, I clicked on the rest of his profile, and found out he is a professional chef in a well-respected restaurant in Seattle. Damn. Well, now I had to answer. But I expected nothing. I sent off a little “wink” back, imagining that I would not hear from him, ready for my dating days to finally be over.

To my surprise, he sent me an email the same day, with his real email address within it. (The dating service uses a double blind function, so that you never see each other’s real email address.) If he had not sent it to me that day, I would never have met him, since my subscription was about to expire. And his email had only one question: “If a man was to prepare a meal for you, what would you consider the ideal meal?”
Ay, that was hard to resist. So, in spite of my resolve, I sent him this answer: “Honestly, it would be this: one he made with love. With his own hands. In
season, beautifully seasoned. Made to connect, every taste an experience,
meant to be eaten mindfully. Surprising tastes. Wholly unexpected and
familiar at the same time. It would taste of laughter.”

He wrote back, and we started writing to each other about food, pouring out our favorite tastes and memories from childhood and places to eat. I kept my guard up — after all, I was done, right? — but he kept knocking it down.

Technically, we met through an online dating service, but truly, I feel like we met through this website. Within the first couple of days, I sent him the url to this site. And frankly, I did it to ward him off. Too many men had read this site and been intimidated by my writing, by my passions, by the length of these posts. I expected him to be the same. But he first grabbed my heart when he wrote a long email to me, telling me how much he loved this site, my writing, my enthusiasms for food. And the one post he loved most? The essay I wrote for my nephew’s third birthday. Oh, he really knows how to get to this gluten-free girl.

And so, we finally met. I walked into one of my favorite coffee shops, prepared to be disappointed. But he made me knock down my guards and give in to what we both knew within a few moments. In one of those improbable, once-in-a-lifetime ways, we both fell in love, immediately. For some reason, we both felt familiar to each other, within the first minute. We talked about food and touched each other’s hands and beamed with joy just looking into each other’s eyes. And we laughed and laughed and laughed. By the end of that first date, we were both goners.

Our second date was the wine tasting, kissing-at-sunset-at-the-end of the pier night. And then we spent the afternoon at Pike Place Market, where he bought me tulips, and we bought grapes, and fed each other triple cream cheese off the ends of our fingers as we sat in the park. We talked every day, he calling me from his restaurant to tell me what he was cooking that night, me telling him stories from school and what I had written that day. We never really dated. We just started our lives together. There were no games, no veneer, no wondering or hesitation. We just started loving each other.

We go to cheese festivals, eat brunch at French restaurants, look at food magazines together, walk downtown holding hands and stop at every restaurant to look at the menus of the day. We cook dinner together and eat langorous breakfasts on the weekends. We make plans to cook stocks and make salsa and shop at the farmers’ markets all summer long. We wake up in each other's arms, happy and warm. And then we spend the morning listening to the Beatles, drinking coffee with our legs intertwined as the sunshine falls through the blinds. Then, we look at menus online of restaurants we love and wonder what they are cooking right now. It's official. We're food geeks, goony in love.

This is a man who knows how much his 79-year-old father loves tomatoes and so sends heirloom tomatoes to him in Tucson by Fed Ex during the summer. This is a man who comes to my house at 11:30 at night, after working at his restaurant for ten hours, and cooks us a spectacular dinner, happily. This is a man who always makes sure that my cup is full of hot coffee. This is a man who makes potato leek soup with wild truffle honey at his restaurant, saying that he thought of me when he made it, then spoons some into my mouth and makes me want to cry, because it is the best soup I have ever eaten. This is a man who ran from the length of my kitchen to the the other side of the living room when he first ate my roast chicken, whooping and hollering at the taste of it, then stopped to do a jig on the kitchen floor. This is a man has a stack of pink post-it notes filled with all the different variations of mashed potatoes he wants to make. This is a man who makes the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten in my life. This is a man who eats three bowls of my Moroccan lentil soup. This is a man who calls me from his restaurant to tell me, in excited tones, about the basil oil he made that afternoon from the Thai basil we bought at the market that morning, and how he swirled the dark green liquid through the chilled tomato soup he made just after. This is a man who loves his food. This is a man who never makes me feel like the rank amateur cook I am, but who says he will teach me everything he knows.

There is, of course, so much more to him than his food. He is, truly, the sweetest man I have ever met. He adores his family: his mother and father; his four brothers and sisters; his nine nieces and nephews. He looks up at me in the mornings and I see pure adoration in his eyes. He is unabashedly goofy — we talk in stupid voices and make fart jokes and watch South Park together. He is a lifetime member of Amnesty International, and he believes in the dignity of human beings. He listens deeply. He pays attention to the world.

But food is central to him, as it is central to me. He is, without question, a sensualist, alive to his senses and living in his body. (And because this is a family website, I will say no more on that matter. But — yeah.) And as he told me within a couple of weeks of meeting me, the reason he has been cooking in restaurants since he was twenty years old? Because in making food, he can give people such joy.

Danny in his kitchen

On the night of the Food Network shoot, I went to his restaurant for the first time. He is the sole chef at a small restaurant here in Seattle, called Impromptu Wine Bar. This intimate place, with twenty-five seats and windows overlooking Lake Washington, is based around the impeccably chosen wines. Every three months, the restaurant changes the region of the world from which the wines come. And then, the Chef creates an entire menu, entirely of his own devising, and cooks the entire meal, from start to finish, every day. There are few chefs who can do this: maintain a relationship with the food producers, choose the cheeses, make the stocks and soups, create all the appetizers, grill and sautee the entrees, and conoct the desserts. And, after the first night there, I was amazed.

He had a table reserved for us, by the window. Every member of the staff had heard about me, so they all smiled when I said, "Hi, I'm Shauna." On the table, a vase full of purple tulips. Stephanie, the waitress, said, "Dan bought those for you." Oh. And in the arrangement, little squiggles of pea shoots, which he had bought at the farmers' market with me that morning. (He was actually with me the day of the film shoot, but I couldn’t reveal that yet when I wrote that post.) That got me, hard. He had them send over two glasses of red sparking wine (so good! you'd never expect it), then a bottle of wine. And then....a cheese platter, with three of the most delicious cheeses I have ever eaten. This young, soft pecorino, unlike anything I have ever tried. A St. Robert, which melted on touching with the tongue. And a goat cheese, densely packed, light taste, clean. I was in tears. My friend couldn't speak for the pleasure.

Then, a polenta dish, studded with roasted asparagus, topped with seared foie gras. For the entrees, he sent out a perfectly tender beef tenderloin, rare, on top of blue cheese mashed potatoes (the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten), with a port-balsamic reduction. Ahhhh. (And he made sure the blue cheese had been made in the US, and thus gluten-free.) And then, a perfectly grilled piece of rockfish, with kalamata olives and a bacon vinaigrette. It took everything I had to not lick both plates clean.

After the entrees, I told the waitress to go back to the kitchen and tell the Chef I said one word: joy. I looked up a minute later to see him standing in the doorway, smiling wide at me, arms thrust in the air. Then he started jumping up and down like a little kid.


For dessert, there was a polenta cake with lemon syrup. And fresh-made strawberry sorbet, which he made just for me. How could I not love this man?

What can I say? I'm madly in love. And laughing at the same time. How improbable. How wonderful.

And wonderfully, beautifully, I have a restaurant now where I KNOW I can eat gluten-free, and not worry about cross-contamination. The chef is impeccably careful about it for me, teaching everyone around him to bleach down the cutting boards and avoid bread crumbs assiduously. And this means that every one of you reading, those of you who must be gluten-free, you have one restaurant where you can eat safely too. Just tell the Chef that Shauna sent you.

The Chef is, without a doubt, tenderly aware of what will and will not make me sick. After I educated him a bit about gluten, he has never made an issue of it. He has certainly never made me feel odd because I cannot eat wheat. Once, while we were eating a spectacular meal at Palace Kitchen, kissing each other over the table, he did something that knocked me out. We had ordered a duck breast dish, with duck confit, asparagus, and potato gnocchi. He asked for the potato gnocchi to be put on a side plate, so it couldn’t touch my food. We had also ordered a grapefruit margarita, and we were sipping it between us. Halfway through the meal, I was prattling on about something happily, telling a story to my new love. I reached for the straw and nearly put my lips upon it. The Chef grabbed my hand, gently, and said, “Nope. I just drank from that, after eating the gnocchi. Don’t touch the straw. I don’t want you sick.” I drank from the side of the glass instead, and gulped back my tears. It’s amazing how a gesture like that can make me feel loved. This man, this chef, he takes care of me, beautifully.

If you want to understand just how much I care about this man, let me share this fact. In my kitchen, there is a drawer next to the stove containing a cutting board and a loaf of bread. And in the refrigerator is a six-pack of beer. For an entire year, not a single speck of gluten entered this house. But as soon as the Chef entered my life, I decided to let gluten back in, too. He is meticulous about using only that cutting board, then wiping down the counters. And when he eats bread, or drinks a beer, he refrains from kissing me until he has brushed his teeth. Having to wait — and knowing that he is taking care of me — only makes me want to kiss him more.

Shauna and Danny

So here we are, equally in love with each other, laughing and dazzling each other. No hesitation, no drama, no questions. I just love him. And he loves me. Recently, he said to me, "You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. I have never been this happy in my entire life." I feel exactly the same. And it is all because of food.

We have plans to make stocks all summer, experimenting with food every day. I can promise you this — the food I create for this site is going to grow better. The Chef is going to help me improve all the recipes for my cookbook. Everyone is going to benefit from this man.

And when we stand in the kitchen together, dancing and kissing, cooking food together, it is familiar and wholly unexpected at the same time. Beautifully seasoned. Connected. Every moment a mindful experience. Honest. Made with love. It tastes of laughter.

And by the way, of course, the Chef has a name. His name is Dan — only I can call him Danny — and I love him dearly.

06 June 2006

an almost-summer picnic with my favorite group of writers

senior picnic, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Summer vacation. We can taste it. Every student and teacher at school is leaning toward it, exhausted and ready for three months of sleeping in, wandering in indolence, and discovery. For months, everyone has worked diligently, churning out research papers and grading World War Two exams and producing journalism publications. But at this point in the spring, with the air lambent until late in the evening, we are all starting to lean away from each other and the work at hand. Students spend more time outside on the tiny strip of green grass in front of school, lounging and longing for a few dapples of sunlight on the skin, than they do in class. Frankly — and I say this with utter love — we are all tired of each other. Time to go.


This weekend, I sat on a wider strip of green grass, on an early Saturday afternoon, having a picnic with the most talented, spirited group of students of my entire teaching career. I don’t play favorites — I love all my students for the quirky individuals they are and the experiences they add to my life — but I cannot hide this one. My senior creative writing class this year was an extraordinary group of human beings. I was, throughout the year, consistently in awe of them, always eager to teach them, and delighted to hear their stories. And, throughout the year, I have maintained my silence about anything to do with my teaching job on this website, because of a mutual agreement with the administration of my school. After all, this is a food website (ostensibly). Students don’t have anything to do with gluten-free living, do they?

Well, actually, they do. These senior students do, in particular. You see, I have had the extraordinary privilege of teaching these funny, alive beings for the past four years. During their first year of high school, I taught ninth-grade Humanities, where we studied the Greeks and Romans, interpreted the world’s religions, and pondered the meaning of life. When they were sophomores, three students of this group took my journalism class, where they figured out how to write arresting leads and complete assignments (somewhat) on time. Last year, when they tackled their junior year, I taught on a team that offered lessons on 20th-century American history (grim) and literature (exhilarating), marching our way from World War One through the 1980s. And this year, eighteen of these amazing beings wrote every day in my creative writing class. Four years of instructions, banter in the hallways, conferences on the couch in my office, and enormous changes.

And by enormous changes, I mean not only the natural maturation and growing pains of four years of adolescence, but also the years of ill health I endured from their first days of high school. When they first entered the hallways of our school, tentative and desperate to fit in, I did not realize I had celiac disease. I was exuberant but exhausted, all the time. And now, I realize from my research that any trauma to the body can kick celiac into higher gear, activating it to emergency state. When these students were freshmen, I had emergency abdominal surgery in January for a fibroid tumor that had ballooned to the size of a grapefruit in a matter of weeks. I missed six weeks of school after that, and I never recovered my energy. The next year, I endured a terrible car accident in December. Grateful to be alive, I nevertheless suffered with crippling back pains, migraine headaches, and sometimes-unendurable exhaustion for the next year. Plus, another six weeks of school gone. Last year, when they were struggling to figure out who they were as juniors, I descended into the hellish spring of pain, lethargy, and terror before I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease and began this gluten-free journey.

It took until this year for me to realize that the three years of lousy health and lingering pain were related to gluten. The fibroid tumor? Women’s hormonal problems are correlated with celiac. The injuries from the car accident that lingered long after I should have recovered? They all disappeared when I stopped eating gluten. The constant viruses and colds that used to knock me out for a week and medical maladies that mystified everyone? All because of my lack of nutrition and general ill health from celiac disease. I was beginning to think I was cursed. I didn’t know that giving up bread and eating mindfully could change my life this thoroughly.

And this year? Since I have stopped eating gluten, I have never felt so good in my entire life. I have never been so alive. And this year, I have not missed any significant amount of school, for the first time in the four years of these students’ high school careers.

Through it all, I have been reading their analytical essays, listening to their questions in conferences, and helping to interpet their minds in the miasma that is high school. For four years, we have laughed together — they collect stories of people tripping and falling for me. For four years, we have discussed literature and current events and historical figures and poetry and absurdities together — sitting in a classroom, leading a discussion is one of the greatest honors of my life. For four years, we have learned together — any teacher who tells you that she knows more than her students isn’t a good teacher. I have been deeply informed and changed by knowing these people and reading their writing. How could I not love them after all these interactions? As someone close to me said recently, these people are more like my nieces and nephews than anonymous students. It’s true. I love them that much.

So I hope that everyone will understand why I have to break my silence about school — this one time — to share these students with you. You see, on Tuesday, they will be graduating. And I know that, as soon as the music sounds and they begin proceeding in to leave the school, tears will spring to my eyes. I will realize again how blessed I have been to know them. And then I will let them go.

Before that happens, we all gathered one last time, but this time, outside of school. Almost every member of the class and I perched on the grass of a park here in Seattle, sharing stories and eating food. An end-of-the-year picnic, to mark the moment of transition. To celebrate. To eat more of this life together.

All year long, we have been in a classroom, discussing the written word. We sat in a circle, each of them at their desks, with me sitting on the sturdy science table at the head of the class, bouncing my feet as I talked. At the beginning of every class, I asked the same question, “Stories? Anyone have stories?” And so they shared fumbling tales of bad movies, strange men at bus stops, and late nights of looking for meaning or at least the assignment they had just completed. Over time, they all became extraordinary storytellers, and even more avid listeners to each other’s stories. Even though some might see this rambling, ambling story time as a waste of time, I know differently. As they tell stories and feel heard, as they listen to stories and feel part of a community, they learn each other’s lives. After stories, they care about each other, and thus they care about each other’s writing. On the last day of class, I read them an essay I had just discovered, called “Miss Ivory Broom,” which contained this line I dearly love: “Story is the assassin of despair.” And so, we told stories.

And so, we danced our way through weeks of writing personal essays, played with poems all late autumn and early winter, dabbled with the magic world of writing fiction through the lean grey days of winter into early spring, watched clips of films in the dark and tried to write screenplays through the return of light to the land, and worked on argumentative essays and personal writing projects until the end of the school year. There were dazzling pieces read every day, a sense of awe in the room as everyone else listened, and plenty of applause after the last word reverberated in the air. Mostly, we appreciated.

What did I teach them about writing? Not enough, it seems from this point in the year. But mostly, how to pay attention. Slow down and appreciate. Write from the place of I don’t know, instead of insisting on enforcing one’s opinion through the words. Singing with the ineffable. Listen. Write with sensory details. Let the world soak through into you, and then onto the page. Love humanity and all its foibles. Write every day. Stop doubting. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Revise, revise, revise. Learn to laugh at yourself. Indelible. Visceral. Urgency. Mostly, just keep writing, then write some more.

And so, we all tried.

Of course, early in the year, I even had them try their hand at food writing. I put squares of dark chocolate on their tongues with their eyes closed and made them write about the actual sensation of the taste. We searched our minds for our favorite memories of food as children. They wrote about meals of macaroni and cheese they had shared with friends, pasta in the Cinqueterra, and the perfect late-night sandwich. We revelled in each other’s descriptions. We grew hungry together. We ate food and laughed.

On perhaps the most extraordinary day of the year, which happened to fall on Halloween, the class finished that grading period by reading personal essays to each other. They each stood up and read deeply personal pieces, funny and devastating, about visiting concentration camps or longing for fathers or obsessions with q-tips or confusions with the future. They were singular, spectacular, and unforgettable. The fact that everyone in the room was dressed as a ninja or pirate or sailor boy probably allowed them to drop their guard even more than before. (It certainly added to the surreality of the situation.) After several of the essays, many students had tears in their eyes. But when the last student stood to read his story, we all let go and wept. A young Korean man, normally too shy to speak in class, read a stunning, honest essay about his mother dying of cancer. It was not maudlin. It did not ask for pity. It was unflinchingly kind and real. When he finished, every teenager in the room, as well as their teacher, was crying, unabashedly. There was a deep, caring quiet that I did not want to break by instruction. So we all stood together, taking it in, appreciating. They gave each other hugs. I said I felt blessed. They left the room for vacation. And we were never the same.

There is simply no way for me to convey the beauty of these beings. I wish that I could. If I could, I would feel I had done some small part of my job. But instead, I will just share this. Danny reading a cut-out poem about love that hit everyone in the room in the gut. Jacob breaking into giggles, uncontrollable, from sleep deprivation. So Young hitting Jae Shin on the arm when someone else told a story about how good her boyfriend had been to her. Zach directing his actors in the reading of his one-act play in April. Becca reading a Sharon Olds poem to the class, breaking her usual bravado with misty eyes. Eva gesticulating wildly with her hands, carving circles in the air, as she told another story. Maya struggling with the new form of writing every grading period, resisting, then falling in love with it after four weeks. Lilly reading her latest performance poem, triumphant, the sounds playing in the room, her fellow students dazzled. Alex R. sitting next to Alex I., and every time I called on either one of them to read yet another gorgeous piece of writing, they both turned their heads toward me. Why did they always sit next to each other? Caitlin behind her enormous sunglasses, eyes bleary after staying up all night, working on her end-of-the-grading-period project, yet another stellar piece of writing. LaNika reading the poem she had written about New Orleans and we are all stunned into silence. Bryan smiling shyly when we called on him to read. Jamie telling stories of her trainer, and horse shows, and trailers being stuck in the mud. Kris launching into another long, seemingly pointless story that will captivate us all only one minute in, by saying, “Well....” Jared, every time he read a piece, modest and modulated in his voice, leaving every person in the room in awe of the way he played with words. And Mackenzie, who had spent many sad times on the blue couch in my office during her freshman year, sitting confidently upon it — grown up and smiling — on the last day of classes.

My god, I am going to miss them.

And it turns out that these students know a secret that most of my readers do not know yet. As this tremendous year of my life has progressed, I sometimes shared the successes of this website with my students. Not to brag, but to show them that dedication to writing they love can sometimes pay off. When I found out I had been sent a free set of Le Creuset cookware from the company, I told my class about it. When this website won the Best Food Blog: Theme, I shared it with my delighted crew. And in early March, after spending six straight weeks of December and January writing every day after school — and all day long on the weekends — I found out that the agent with whom I most wanted to work approves of my book proposal. So, when I signed with my literary agent, my writing students were among the first to know my giddy news.

I know. I know — I teach journalism. I buried that lead. Yes, it’s true. I have a literary agent now. All winter and spring I have been working on a book proposal for a narrative cookbook, a guide to living gluten-free, joyfully alive. There will be recipes and helpful hints for the kitchen. Photographs will fill its pages vividly. And of course, there will be stories. Writing the book proposal, and revising it, working with my agent, and starting to write the book — all in the midst of being a full-time teacher? It has consumed me, happily. And if I have sometimes been missing from this site, sporadically, you now know why. (Well, that and one other reason, yet to be revealed.) I have been writing all my life, longing for bound books with my name sitting on the shelf. Never could you have told me that the seemingly impossible dream of attaining a great agent would happen because I had to go gluten-free. Life constantly surprises me. The joy comes tumbling out of me. And there will be many more books besides this one yet to come.

This was the ongoing story I shared with my students at the beginning of each class. It was important for me — I wanted them to know that all the writing I urged them to do every day (let’s be honest: I also required them to write every day) can pay off in the end. I wanted them to hear that a working writer still struggles and wonders and has to push herself to throw sentences down on the page. And besides, I couldn’t contain my joy with them. They were my community of writers this year, an extraordinary group of people who shared my sensibilities. For some ineffable reason, we all feel the need to watch ink spooling out from the end of our pens or listen to the clack of our fingers on the keyboard. They understood. I understood them.

I am not a perfect teacher. That is not the point of this piece. But I do love my students. To me, they are human beings before they are students with academic records and holes in the grade book. And this group? I am sorely sad to see them go.

And so, this weekend, we celebrated the only way I know how. With stories and food, in the sunlight, laughing.

Avocado, Mushroom, Spring Onion Frittata, adapted from The Best Recipe


Somehow, the name frittata intimidated me for years. It just sounded complicated. As soon as I went gluten-free, however, I started experimenting with every recipe that sounded beyond my reach. If it didn’t have gluten, I wanted to try it. Now, I make frittatas every week, at least. With fresh snow peas and goat cheese (as pictured above), they can be the quintessence of spring. Try chopped tomatoes, oregano, and fresh mozzarella for a pizza frittata. Or, you can make this one, which I threw together for our class picnic. There are endless variations on frittatas, the same way that any combination of eighteen students can add up to a different class.

One tablespoon olive oil or butter (or half of each)
One-half spring onion, chopped fine (here in Seattle, we have Walla Walla onions)
Six porcini mushrooms, chopped fine
One tablespoon finely chopped tarragon
One tablespoon finely chopped basil
One ounce soft chevre
One-quarter teaspoon salt
One-qaurter teaspoon ground black pepper
Six large eggs, well beaten with a touch of water
One half avocado, peeled, seeded, and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°. Place a ten-inch skillet (one that can go in the oven) on medium high heat until it is fully heated. Add the olive oil or butter, then the spring onions. Sauté the onions until they have softened, which will be about four or five minutes. Add the mushroom slices and herbs.
While the mushrooms are softening and taking on all the heat of the onions, beat the eggs lightly, adding the salt and pepper. Pour the eggs over the sautéed vegetables.
Stir the egg mixture lightly with wooden spoon until they start to set. Add in dollops of goat cheese and avocado at this time. When it looks as though the eggs have started to set, lift one edge, gently, up from its place, with a thin rubber spatula. Lift up the skillet to tilt it toward you and allow the uncooked egg to run underneath. Place the skillet on the level again and sweirl it gently to distribute the egg. Continue cooking the eggs for forty seconds or so, continuing to lift and or unitl the egg on top is no longer runny.
Place the skillet in the the oven and bake it until the frittata top is dry to the touch. This should take about five minutes. Watch it closely.
Gently, guide the rubber spatula around the outside edges of the frittata to loosen it. Turn the skillet over, onto a waiting plate, and then flip it around for a lovely presentation.

Serve this warm, at room temperature, or refrigerated.

Yield: twelve people, each with slim slices, or six with more hearty appetites