I read Shauna James Ahern’s Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too
All of it. Yesterday.
I was super excited to get it from the publisher to review for you, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking: There is no way I’m going to have time to read this book.
Yeah. Well, I started reading it at breakfast yesterday, shopped all day in Elko, drove three hours home, and then started reading again after dinner and didn’t stop until I’d read every word.
Before I started reading, I’d already read the reviews at Amazon. Most were raves. A couple dinged her on being a food snob or her use of big words. She isn’t perfect, and thankfully that shines through in the book. It made her very real, like a friend who has the same problem I do and is willing to sit down and help me through it. The woman is an English teacher. She clearly loves words as much as she loves food. Reading this book was like sitting down with her across a dinner table and listening to her life story.
It could have been my life story. Shauna and Shaunta were both raised in Los Angeles suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, Gen-Xers searching for something. We both had neurotic Baby Boomer parents and a history of mysteriously weird stomach issues, random infections, and social awkwardness. Shauna and Shaunta both grew up on Wonder Bread and Cheetos, both had an odd fascination with Laurel’s Kitchen (I was floored that she picked up a copy at a garage sale in high school. I found a copy at Acres of Books when I was 12 and read it like a novel. Since I’m three years younger, that was probably the same year) and hippie-hood (I wanted to live in a commune when I grew up, and might have if I hadn’t gotten pregnant about five minutes later), and both were vegetarian teenagers (she persisted longer than me, though) in a meat-eating world.
Shauna lives in Seattle now. At the risk of sounding like some off-kilter stalker, I am even more excited than ever to move to Seattle after reading about the farmer’s markets and friendly butchers there. Maybe I’ll run into Shauna at Pike’s Place Market. Maybe we’ll become friends and she’ll make me lemon and olive oil cookies. Yum.
Here are the parts of the book that stood out to me the most:
1. There is a list of “Ten Noble Tastes”, which is basically Shauna’s primer on how to become a foodie. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I really needed this. I love food. I’m a wanna be foodie. But the prospect of $25 oils and $15 dollar a pound cheeses and grass-fed organic beef makes me feel overwhelmed. This chapter gave an outline on how to spend just a little more, maybe in lieu of a movie or some other fun-money spending, and to gradually build up to higher quality ingredients. Her Ten Noble Tastes include: oils, salts, vinegar, cheeses, fresh herbs, unfamiliar flavors, butter and dairy products, chocolate, coffee, and eating local and independent. This chapter was worth the price of the book.
2. I have wondered if possibly the reviewers on Amazon who disliked the end chapters about her relationship with her husband don’t actually have a gluten-intolerance. Until you’ve lived your whole life feeling like you have a stack of heavy, wet wool blankets over you, you have no idea the exuberance that comes with feeling them lift. Shauna’s progression from very ill, to being able to fully and with gusto enjoy every aspect of her life, was sweet and made me happy from page one.
3. There are a few recipes in the book. I expected more, but that isn’t the point. This book made me start thinking about what I cook. How often are my recipes just a recreation of what I’ve always eaten? How often do I not even think about what I’m making beyond that desire to eat what I’ve always eaten? Being gluten-free means having to shake that up. Shauna’s pure joy at being able to do that rubbed off on me.
Take roast beef for example. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and now my sister and I all make pot roast the same way. A three-pound roast, two cans of cream of mushroom soup, a can of broth, a pouch of onion soup in the Crockpot for 6 hours. Four generations of makes-its-own-gravy pot roast.
Cream of Mushroom soup has gluten in it. So does canned broth. And onion soup mix is suspect.
I don’t have access to a farmer’s market. I don’t own $25 a bottle olive oil! I don’t even have any fresh garlic in the house.
But then I took a breath. Cooking isn’t about being perfect. And it’s certainly not about doing things right the first time.
Then I thought about Shauna. And I got creative.
Not-My-Nana’s Crockpot Roast Beef
- 1 three-pound beef roast (I used a sirloin tip because it was on sale)
- 2 8 oz cans tomato sauce
- 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes (I used the kind with olive oil and garlic)
- 1 cup mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
- 1 T sugar
- zest from one orange
- cumin, cinnamon, cracked pepper, chili powder (about 1 teaspoon each)
- sea salt to taste
- 4 stalks celery, chopped in big chunks
- 1 large potato, chopped in big chunks
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 T olive oil
We woke up early, my head spinning with ideas, Ruby still in her monkey PJs and ponytails. This is going to be fun. This is exciting! Way more exciting than the same old recipe I’ve made 10,000 times. The same old recipe that’s been making me sick, and I didn’t even know it, for almost 40 years. (I set out the ingredients before I realized that the broth probably had gluten in it. I used water instead.)
First, I made up the sauce. I’m sure that Shauna would have had higher quality tomato sauce, or made her own. I worked with what I had, which was a store brand that doesn’t add a lot of stuff to their canned tomato products. I’m quite sure that she would have used fresh mushrooms. I didn’t have any, just a can, which I added to the tomatoes, liquid and all. Then I added the spices, the sugar (I wish I’d had honey) and zested the orange right into the bowl. The result was a rich brown, spicy-but-not-too-spicy, slightly sweet mole-type sauce.
Saute the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Put the chopped celery and potato and the onions in the crockpot. Add the roast on top (I like to put a potato in to keep the meat off the bottom of the pot) and pour the sauce over the top. Add water until the roast is covered, I had to add about a cup.
I usually cook a roast on high for about an hour to get things going, then cook on low for at least five hours. This roast was still mostly frozen, so I started it early and will let it cook probably 8 hours. It’s been 30 minutes, and our house already smells yummy.
I’ll update tonight with the verdict. But I’ll tell you this. I feel adventurous and free. I feel like I’ve created something, instead of just recreating what has always been done. I think even my Nana would approve.
(Disclosure: Wiley Publishing sent me a free copy of this book to review. That did not color my opinion in any way.)