I loved Shauna James Ahern's book, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back...And How You Can Too. (If you don't know her blog, make sure you check out her regular posts, too.) I don't have celiac disease, but I felt an enormous connection with Shauna as I read. Sometimes the difficult things we go through in this life help shape our future in a beautiful way. My own health issue led me towards interests and relationships that I am not sure would have developed without the crisis. It is impossible to imagine what my life would have been had I not been hospitalized, but I have trouble imagining that it would have been nearly as rich as it is. For Ahern, a diagnosis of celiac disease and the resulting need to follow a gluten free diet led her to learn to appreciate food and cooking in a whole new and beautiful way. I love the attitude that allows Ahern to write that "going gluten-free has guided me to think about how to eat locally, choose organic, and experience every tast I take more vividly. It has been a gift." (I think I have a bit more anger and mourning about my own medical crisis, but I get where she is coming from, too.) As she writes later, "Do we need a death sentence to allow ourselves to truly taste our lives?"
Although my own health issues had little impact on my food commitments, my tastes were transformed and shaped in several similar ways. Early in her life, Ahern picked up a copy of Laurel's Kitchen,--one of the first whole-grain vegetarian books that shaped America in the 1970s. "In the privacy of my bedroom, I read it, chapters at a time....Mostly I devoured the introduction, which welcomed me into the kitchens of these women as the authors baked bread meditatively, talked about politics and how to raise their families, and made everything from scratch," writes Shauna. "Their world seemed much more at peace than mine, even though they were discussing the worst pertubations of society. They were doing something about it--rebelling--by making their own food." She concludes: "I wanted to be in that kitchen."
For me, I stumbled across Laurel's right as I was learning to cook for myself, when I entered graduate school and left the college cafeteria. I had just finished Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, a book that had a profound influence on me. At the time I did not know that there were alternatives to the grain-fed meat that was so unjust to the poor of this world. Although I had eaten a vegetarian diet in college to avoid the mystery meat in the school cafeteria, I now became a vegetarian with political commitment. Laurel's Kitchen, along with the absolutely classic Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzan, taught me to cook with my politics in mind. (For those who take my vegetarianism as literal, I should tell you I always ate meat at my parents' house--and in fact usually I ate a meat without a word of protest at the homes of others who were gracious enough to offer to cook for me. At other times, I told people I "ate mostly vegetarian." When one's goals are about justice to the people of the world--rather than animal rights--it doesn't seem quite as hypocritical to make these kinds of exceptions.)
Interestingly, like me, with time, Ahern eventually broadened her diet to include a little sustainable meat--while retaining or even sharpening her politics. So have some famous vegetarian chefs, including Mollie Katzan and the incomparable Deborah Madison.
Ahern is a talented writer, whose book is very hard to put down. It includes a few recipes. (So far, we've tried out her delicious chicken with pomegranate sauce recipe, and the deep roasted cauliflower with paprika and cocoa. Yummy!)
Perhaps the best part of the book is its end. While I'm often irritated with books about strong women that end with marriage, Shauna Ahern totally pulls it off. She tells a story of her tattoo (I won't give it away) that sets it up. The story is beautiful, funny, romantic in ways few books are, charming, and utterly inspiring. She and her husband ("The Chef") are coming out with a cookbook together this fall: Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I can't wait!
The surprise ending to this story is that after reading this book along with another (which I will review soon), I decided to try out a gluten-free diet for a few weeks in hopes that it might help some auto-immune issues that have flared recently. So far, I'm not sure if the diet is helping or if I am just getting a bit better from this flare, or if I had some little illness other than autoimmune stuff. We'll see. More details forthcoming about my experiences eating gluten-free.