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05 February 2009

twittering our way to a meal

oatmeal for breakfast on big days.

As I sat at the computer, Little Bean taking a nap, I slipped the cursor underneath my Word document and opened up Firefox again. Even though I had only forced myself to close that window fifteen minutes before, I could not resist the lure of checking my email one more time. Maybe Meri wrote to me. Sharon wrote her 25 things list — surely there would be new comments on her fist-closed, furious rant about noisy neighbors. A new You Tube video I just had to see? There is always another editorial at The New York Times. Oh god, I haven’t looked at Andrew Sullivan since this morning!

The Chef walked into the room and saw me checking Facebook again. He stopped and looked at me, his hands wet with dishwater.

“I’m just…. I have to see.”

He smiled and walked back into the kitchen, shaking his head.

If you write, you are probably a good procrastinator.

I don’t mean the kind of procrastination where you call yourself a writer but don’t actually write anything finished for years on end. That was me in my 20s, when the sum of my writing was a shelf of big black sketchbooks filled in hurried scrawl, one after the other. I don’t regret writing down every feeling — well, okay, maybe I cringe at the solipsism of the day I tried to write down every single stream of thought I had in 12 hours; trust me, nothing was that interesting. Every sentence I wrote pushed me toward better sentences, some of them like a good kick in the back of the knees. However, I look at those journals now and see something once enticing now unpalatable, like black licorice grown sticky in the sun. (When we moved into our home, I shoved all those journals in a big box and labeled them “heavy.” Molly picked up the box and gave me a quizzical face, since the box was physically pretty light. “I must have meant they were emotionally heavy,” I told her, laughing.)

No, I don’t mean the kind of the-thought-of-doing-what-I-want-scares-me-so-I-won’t procrastination. I mean the quotidian, standard-issue procrastination in writing. Write a phrase, go away. New ideas emerge while folding the clean sheets, warm from the dryer, so I drop them onto the bed to rush an entire paragraph onto the clean white page. Think and belabor a sentence to death, and then read a request for a gluten-free, dairy-free loaf of bread. Come back to the hacked-up sentence and immediately see, “I wrote it in passive voice. I don’t even do that. No wonder it’s so flaccid.” Hey, I wonder if Dooce has a new post up yet? Leta turned 5? Score. I can read this and sob, thinking about Little Bean turning five someday and not write for at least 15 minutes.

It sounds a little crazy if you don’t do this. Maybe it is.

One of the most fascinating parts of the past three months, with the Chef at home and the two of us working on the cookbook, has been the chance to learn each other’s minds even more deeply. We work differently, in mighty broad brush strokes of difference. For the past 20 years, he has been on the line, on his feet, on the run. When he worked at Impromptu, he sometimes went 10 hours without once sitting down. My job requires a lot of sitting, staring at a single fixed point on a computer screen. His work is elemental, physical, and rewarding for the direct results. If the Chef sets to chopping an onion, within a few moments he has a mound of evenly sized white cubes, ready to be sautéed. One task leads naturally to the next. All he has to do his put his hands in the food, and he’s off.

But writing is rarely that direct. Creating sentences from the ethers of my mind requires a kind of blank state, a receptivity that allows me to hear the small noises rumbling, an idea forming. I can only listen to music without words, or music I have heard so many times before that the lyrics sound like a low background hum. Words tumble down on the page, in a panting rush, and then I look back at them and erase them all for their flibbertygibbet nature. But those words lead to the next set, the ones that make more sense.

When I taught high school, it was easy to spot the student who had clamped down too hard on the stress of the test before her and blanked out all the answers. Her feet jiggled rapidly, she chewed on the end of her pencil, and her face scrunched up in a scrim of worry. Most of the time, I’d walk close by her, and whisper toward her ear, “Think sideways.”

“What?” she’d startle, struck out of her anxious reverie by my odd sentence.

“Think about something else, and it will all come flooding back. What did you have for breakfast?”

Being such a good student, she would do what I had told her. Face softened into the memory of toast with melted butter and strawberry jam, or a bowl of oatmeal piled high with raisins, she sat for a moment, enjoying it. Inevitably, she’d jump in her chair, point her pencil toward the ceiling, and start writing again.

That’s what writing is like. I just have to remind myself to think about breakfast sometimes.

Sometimes I wish that I could simply bear down and chop at sentences the way the Chef attacks those onions, never sitting down, always on to the next sentence and not looking back. But writing will never work that way. I’m always going to need the distractions, the chance to look sideways, and sadly, the underlying panic that I’m not going to make it this time, or that I don’t have anything left to say. After having completed two books, I’m at home in the process. This is just the way it is.

Besides, if I didn’t need the procrastination, I would never have found Twitter.

Most of you have probably discovered it already, this community of people eager to share their sentiments and pictures, in 140 characters or less. (It’s like those essay exams, all over again, but with less stress.) As Anita phrased it to me in a message the other day, “It's lovely to have our big watercooler.” Those of us working at home without the hilarity of colleagues in cubicles nearby need that social interaction, somehow. You can follow gossip on politicians, watch how friends construct their days over a series of small messages, and read about people’s dinners. And besides, being forced to limit myself to 140 characters made me even more careful with my word choices. I think Twitter has made me a better writer.

Goodness bless Twitter. Without it, and my twelve favorite websites I check in a round-robin fashion while I am trying to describe the taste of veal stock in a mustard sauce, I would never have completed this book.

The Chef thought, at first, that I was being a little lazy, commenting on friends’ status updates instead of completing the headnote for the latest recipe, immediately. But I think he sees now (and perhaps even more after this essay) how I need to look sideways before I write forward, boldly leaving footprints of words behind me on the page.

If you would like to follow me on Twitter, my name there is glutenfreegirl.

And the Chef is hooked now too. You can follow him on glutenfreechef. In fact, if people are interested, he will do some intermittent time online, answering cooking and food questions for people who ask.

Also, I have created a Gluten-Free Girl page on Facebook. Come on over and join in the conversation. I'm posting daily news items, photographs, recipes I like from other bloggers, funny tid-bits, and places to buy and eat gluten-free food. If you'd like to friend me there, look for Shauna James Ahern.

dinner last night

Roasted chicken with kiwi, blood oranges, and ginger

And Twitter gave us this meal.

A few days ago, when I was sitting on Twitter instead of finishing an essay, fabulous Deb of Smitten Kitchen wrote that she had three blood oranges left over. What should she do with them? Eager to take a break from sitting, I ran into the kitchen, where the Chef was cooking and Little Bean was bouncing in her chair. Bending down to kiss her head, I asked him, "What would you do with three blood oranges?"
He thought for a moment, and then said, "
a sauce with duck stock, creme de cassis, kiwis, and the blood oranges. Serve it with duck breast and wild rice."
I just stared at him. How does he do this?
We didn't have any duck or creme de cassis, but we had the rest. (He gathered his ideas from what he saw spread out on the kitchen table.) And so, we had this dinner that night.
So can you. I recommend it. It's just so good.

The Chef calls for a "dark chicken stock" in this recipe, which is simply a chicken stock in which you roast the bones before you blanch them. Feel free to substitute at will.

1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 onion, fine diced
2 teaspoons garlic, thinly sliced
1 small nub lemongrass (about size of your thumb), smashed
1 1/2 cups Italian black rice
4 cups dark chicken stock

4 whole chicken legs, drumstick and thigh combined
salt and pepper
6 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups dark chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups mixed mushrooms, ideally whatever is at the farmers' market in this moment
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, fine chopped
2 kiwis, peeled and quartered
4 blood oranges, peeled and supremed
zest of 4 blood oranges

Preheating. Turn on the oven to 500°. Bring 2 cups of the chicken stock to a boil.

Cooking the rice. Pour the sesame oil into the large saucepan. Put in the half the onion, half the garlic, and lemongrass. Stir the vegetables briefly to coat them with the oil, and then cook until the onion and garlic are soft and translucent. Pour in the black rice, followed by the hot chicken stock. Simmer the rice, stirring once in a while, until it is tender, about 20 minutes. If there is any liquid left over, strain it. Set the rice aside on a back burner, covered.

Preparing to cook. Smear each chicken leg with oil. Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper.

Roasting the chicken. Bring a large sauté pan to heat. Pour in 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. When the oil is hot enough to run around the pan, put the chicken legs in the pan and slide it into the oven. After 10 minutes, turn down the temperature of the oven to 425°. Roast the chicken until the internal temperature of the leg, right at the joint, has reached 185°, about 25 minutes. You'll also be able to tell by the warm roasty smell emanating from the onion, enticing you over.

Remove the chicken from the oven and place the legs on a plate in a warm place, nestled next to the rice.

Making the sauce. Drain the grease from the chicken pan. Pour in the the rice wine vinegar and honey and cook it on medium-high until the liquid has reduced by 1/2 its volume. Pour the chicken stock into the pan. Allow the stock to reduce. When the sauce begins to thicken, about 10 minutes, swirl in the butter.

Sautéeing the mushrooms. Bring a large sauté pan to high heat. Pour in the remaining canola oil. Put the mushrooms into the hot oil. Cook them quickly, stirring occasionally, until they have some color and have wilted a little bit under the heat. Put in the remaining onion and garlic. Cook for a few moments until the onion and garlic are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Throw in the thyme and cook until the herb starts to release its fragrance, about 1 minute. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper.

Mix the mushrooms and rice together.

To serve, make a mound of the mushroom-filled rice on each plate. Perch a chicken leg on top of the rice. Swirl some of the sauce around the plate. Place the fruit in the sauce. Top with the blood orange zest.

Suggestions: you can also make this dish throughout the different seasons. Use figs and pears. Mangoes. Raisins and prunes. Grapefruit segments. Whatever you imagine might be good.

Feeds 4


At 11:59 PM, Blogger Pearl said...

i love your writing.

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your 'think sideways' idea - just letting go of an idea then coming back to it later with a really helps. I do the same with art. Just walk away and come back later and then I can see it all from a new angle, and suddenly I'm not 'stuck' anymore and it flows again. I love your writing. (And your recipes!)

At 5:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've described the writing process so perfectly! I love the distinction between THAT kind of procrastination and the type that relates to tasks we don't actually WANT to do. Yet there's nothing quite so invigorating as finishing a book, a good paragraph, a great sentence. I've not been lured to Twitter quite yet, but you're making me curious!

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I love the description of your writing process. I love that the Chef had to "learn" that you weren't wasting my time. I think I will show this post to my hubby. I like to read your blog for the recipes and for the writing!

At 6:39 AM, Blogger jbeach said...

Splendid post. Why is it just so darn good to hear that other people find themselves in the same predicaments as you do? That feeling that we're all connected, despite our many wonderful differences, does wonders for the soul. And you can describe the feelings of a writer perfectly. Love what you told your students.

At 7:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanted to thank you for articulating so clearly what goes on in my head. Identifying what the trouble is, somehow seems to release the cramp in my brain. It's so important to share what we learn with others, as you prove so well with this blog and your book. Thanks again.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger marylandceliac said...

Great post! It is great to see so much gluten free info on twitter and facebook. I was amazed when I recently signed up for facebook to discover so many gluten free/celiac groups and the networked blogs. I just started with twitter this week - it is awesome!

At 7:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will be spending my day thinking sideways. love it. I enjoy your posts so much. I'm impressed you can manage fb and twitter. I can't keep up with twitter :)

At 7:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving words to my practices. I sit here this morning knowing I should be writing out fellowship application letters, articles for submission, etc., etc., but finding myself on your site (one of my regular, "round-robin" checks!) instead. Thinking sideways is EXACTLY what it feels like, and I'm so glad to have it validated. Now I can go write!

At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, it's not just the writing process, it's the creative process.

When I first have to design a landscape, I have to do everything BUT look at the plan in order to visualize it first: listen to music, go for walks, check out Andrew Sullivan (actually, that's an addiction at this point), and after a few hours of doing that I can finally get my arms around a portion of it. My partner who works in comics is the exact same way. He has a few hundred bookmarks in Safari that he circles through every week.

And don't be fooled by the chef; he's the same, too. It's just that there are a lot of nuts and bolts portions he gets to focus on, such as cutting an onion, before he has to be truly creative. All the prepping allows him the space to "think sideways" before getting to the real heart of the matter, because even if he has an idea of what he wants to do things get adjusted once it really starts. When I had to work in an office, I'd always focus on the mundane tasks (filing, irrigation design, helping others with filing, etc.) of other projects while I was trying to get into the creative mood.


At 8:25 AM, Blogger Allison the Meep said...

Ohh, blood oranges. Just the thought of them is a treat to me. That recipe looks great.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Ellen said...

ah, writing. totally a love hate thing for me...I care about it, yet struggle with it so much. I often have to get away from the internet to get anything done...

At 8:42 AM, Blogger elizabeth said...

I am amazed by the range of flavors in this recipe! I have been craving something new as the winter drags on here in the east. As always,
thanks for the (food and writing) inspiration.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger katie stone said...

you're on facebook? now i'm NEVER going to get anything done!!! :-)

At 9:40 AM, Blogger katie stone said...

you're on facebook? now i'm NEVER going to get anything done!!! :-)

At 10:02 AM, Blogger nicole said...

Yes - I totally do this. And you're right: it's not necessarily procrastination as it is freeing up the mind for a bit (taking a mini break) to let new ideas in.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

I LOVE this post - I've never heard anyone describe the writing process like that. Now I don't feel so badly about how I constantly get distracted at my grant-writing job by Facebook/NYT/the blogosphere/etc. Too often when I get sidetracked on something I like, I worry that it has become a task I don't want to do.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Jennifer said...


I loved this post and am de-lurking to tell you so.

I'm a novelist and blogger, but also an enthusiastic cook and quilter. When writing gets to be too much, I try one of the other activities. The immediacy of movement and measuring and production, is a nice break and my own way of "thinking sideways."

Have a wonderful evening.


At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Writers put the "Pro" in procrastination. I know, I am one. We are also really good at cleaning when we should be writing. But some of the best ideas come to me when I'm doing dishes or showering or driving. It's the distraction thing. So the truth is: you really are always working.

About the "tense" situation... I'm going to copy a poem I wrote when I was in high school. Pardon this indulgence, but I think you will get a kick out of it.


If I see you in the present future
I know the past was not too perfect
You can correct me if I’m wrong
I’m feeling tense so I’ll move along

Although there was a pause in our stanza
I think we left the line open
We can write more if you care
Or we can punctuate it there

We can have rhythm or flow smoothly
Or perhaps we can be spontaneous
It’s hard for me to see
Just tell me if you want to be free.

June 28, 1979 (I was 17 years old.)

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Cyndi in BC said...

Glad you're twittering! I've added both of you to my friends. I'm @cyndiinbc

Just a suggestion, when you post anything to twitter about gf use the hashtag #glutenfree, then it will come up in the glutenfree conversations. Tweet ya later! :)

At 11:33 AM, Blogger Jennifer said...

My husband says he does not want to get me a laptop because I will be checking email, twitter, my blog, commenting on others etc....I say, heck, mister, I spent 4 years only taking care of kids and house so if this is how I spend some late nights, so be it....then I kiss him and he goes off to HIS laptop. hum....Valentine's is coming...oh, and off to join yo on facebook.

At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always feel so tremendously relieved when I hear a writer describe the process of writing. It's nice to be reassured that my private, weird, neurotic procrastination routines and idiosyncrasies are only as crazy as every other writer's. Whew! Reading your blog, of course, is one of my favorite ways to not be productive. I love a good food distraction!

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

La Niña, you wrote your poem on my birthday!! (that year I was 11 years old....)

Shauna, I love your post!!! I´m going to send it to my 11 years old daughter that wants to be a writer and she is writing all day long... (she is so excited because this month she is going to be published for the first time... Stone Soup)

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to delurk to tell this story. Once in my freshman year of college, I was having such a problem with procrastination that I decided to make a sign that said, "do not procrastinate". This was all well and good except that I decided to CUT each individual letter and glue them down to the page. How about that for the ultimate in procrastination! Now, I'll just look back on it and think of it as me "looking sideways". I love that! how perfect.

Thanks Shauna!

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Angela said...

A dear friend just sent your blog to me - as 'the blog ever'. She was right. I enjoyed your description of the writing process for you. The procrastination of creative people is often a frustration when part of you wants to get a move on and other half is drifting purposefully. The blood orange recipe sounds fabulous...I plan to follow your blog. Thank you.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Lauren Denneson said...

That is exactly how I write! I have a really hard time not being "distracted" by facebook and what's on the news and what other bloggers have posted. I'm glad I'm not the only one :)

At 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is SO true - although you put it more eloquent than I could have - "think sideways". Helps me to just come back to it at night. I found I am much more creative at night - the later the better. Or maybe it just seems better, the more punchy I get.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Domino said...

Great post!

So, let me think about this for a minute. Apx 8 hours away from Andrew Sullivan's blog should equal about what... 50 new entries!
(I eventually dropped his feed, there is such a thing as too much.).

Otherwise, that's a great summary of daily internet procrastination and oh yeah, thanks for the recipe!
See you on facebook. ;p

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Milhan said...

I never got into Facebook...but I love Twitter! However, it's far to easy to waste away the day twittering, lol.

The recipe looks awesome!

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Mom on the Run said...

Thank you for letting me know I'm not the only one! I edit books and often, when I'm stuck or just frustrated with a chapter, I'll stop and check e-mail and the dozen or so sites, including yours I follow. Usually, once I've "checked in", sometimes twice, I can get back to work and figure out what needs to be done to improve the chapter.

I really enjoy your blog!

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Seph said...

haha i completely agree with procrastination serving its purpose when writing. btw the kiwi in that dish is such a surprise...wasnt expecting that combo. intresting. Also the 25 things has become the facebook equivalent to chlamydia ...i'm not kidding...its everywhere msn wrote an article about how insane the fad has become. ernie-way (lol) best of luck with the new book!

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Beth Hikes said...

Found your blog courtesy of my friend Jana. I created the silver rendition of Little Bean for the necklace she made you. What fun to read your musings!

At 4:23 PM, Blogger said...

Hi! I've just been (sort of) diagnosed Coeliac and am trying your GF pasta recipe for my boyfriend's Valentine's day meal - wish me luck!!

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Milhan said...

I thought I already replied to this...yes, I Twitter.

Found your blog on today...responded to your post on leeks, under the name of shinzo (the Japanese word for "heart").

At 10:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

As an advertising writer, I tend to "hate" writing when I begin. It takes me a while to start, I have to check Facebook, countless newsfeeds, etc. Sometimes I then write a quick word and head to the shower. For whatever reason, that "break" in the shower (going for a drive also works) seems to do the trick and as soon as I get that first string of words down, the rest flows out of it. And I fall in love with writing again.

It's so great to hear I'm not alone in this!

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for this "essay"! I love your writing. If only every teacher understood different learning styles they way you do ... things would be vastly different. Thank you for your thoughts today!

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Cheating Death said...

Sideways thinking is the only way I accomplish anything... Otherwise one might say I just have 40 unfinished projects!

At 1:29 AM, Blogger JenPB said...! I feel so, so, well, so NORMAL now! No longer alone in my procrastination, my writer's NEED (yes, NEED) to once again check that e-mail, caress the keyboard, listen to the clacking keys. I thought I was mentally ill. Turns out I AM a normal writer, too. :)

At 4:13 AM, Blogger gfe--gluten free easily said...

Don't be offended, but I am procrastinating now ... however, in the best way. ;-) What you describe is how I tackle writing or any big project ... I have to ruminate on it a while and I definitely do that by getting away to some favorite things (like your blog) a few minutes. I am in awe that you are managing Facebook and Twitter with everything else you have going on. You amaze me, Shauna! Have just gotten on FB ... maybe Twitter next week after our big V Day party with at least a dozen overnight guests. Better get back to my party prep now ... see what I mean! LOL

At 5:36 AM, Blogger Andromeda Jazmon said...

Lucy is adorable. What a beautiful smile! I following you now on Twitter and FB and looking forward to your cheerfulness.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Last of the Mohicwells said...

What a fantastic idea!! Looks amazing!!

At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Faye said...

When I saw that picture you posted up, I could help but think it looked a bit like composition of the heart. Look for yourself and see if you see what I see.


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