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Thursday, November 18,2010

Blogger turns disease into opportunity

By Rene Lynch

 

The long, narrow plate arrived at her table, and, like any good food blogger, Shauna James Ahern paused to take it all in: roasted red piquillo peppers — plump with a lentil stuffing — alongside graceful strands of quick-pickled green beans and red onions, and emerald pools of cilantro-ginger sauce.

“When people hear ‘gluten-free,’ the reaction can be ‘poor thing,’ and I just want to say, ‘Look at what’s on my plate — does this look like deprivation to you?’” In the blogosphere, Ahern, 44, is best known as Gluten-Free Girl. She’s a Pacific Northwest blogger who was diagnosed in 2005 with celiac disease, ending decades of mysterious ailments and endless medical exams. At one point, she was largely subsisting on jarred baby food because she was too sick to cook for herself. The crippling symptoms vanished overnight when she stopped eating wheat, barley and rye and anything else that contained gluten, she says.

“After I was diagnosed, I just kept it simple. I just ate ‘real’ food. One of the first things I remember eating was a plate of spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil and with a little salt. And I just remember looking down at how gorgeous it looked and the feeling of hot food going down my throat. I was so grateful for it.”

Harder, though, has been convincing skeptics who greet the term “gluten-free” with an eye roll, or the newly diagnosed who fear it is a culinary death sentence. They all turn to Ahern for answers.

She usually does it with a sense of humor: “I know there are people who think, ‘gluten-free? That’s a fad, it’s all about the celebrity,’ but I’m like, ‘Do you really think I’d give up pizza and pasta unless I had to?’” “I think of the day of my diagnosis as my birthday, because life started all over for me again on that day,” Ahern adds. “Before, the food was making me sick. Now, I eat better than I ever did before. I know food in a way I never knew before.”

Her blog has become an online coffeehouse for people who share the digestive condition, which prompts the body’s immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. But don’t expect a lot of moaning and groaning and symptom-swapping. In fact, it’s easy to forget that the blog revolves around gluten-free eating because there are so many gloriously decadent food photos. And because Ahern is determined to celebrate what she can eat — not what she can’t.

Same goes for her new cookbook, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, which is as much a guidebook for new cooks in the kitchen — it covers basics such as how to select ingredients, properly season foods and make sauces — as it is a collection of gluten-free recipes.

Woven around dishes that celebrate seasonal eating and locally sourced ingredients is her story: her illness and recovery, her romance with the titular chef, Danny Ahern, how he taught her to cook, their marriage and more.

“You know what it’s like when you fall in love. You want to feed each other,” she says. “We had this immediate connection through food.”

So did readers. In fact, roughly half of the nearly 500,000 visitors to Ahern’s site each month don’t suffer from celiac disease. They just want to know what will happen next for Gluten- Free Girl, and Ahern sees the comments section light up whenever the Aherns’ daughter, Lucy, now 2, makes an appearance.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think people would want to follow along with all of this,” says Ahern, whose online popularity also led to the 2007 memoir, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back ... and How You Can Too.

Ahern is now a stay-at-home mom and full-time writer on rural Vashon Island in Washington, where her husband is the chef at a restaurant called the Hardware Store. He’s expanded the restaurant menu to include gluten-free dishes, such as those piquillo peppers.

“I’m a writer, so when I started the blog I just did it as an outlet, as a way to get my thoughts down and document this,” she says. “And then people started finding the blog — I have no idea how that happened — and I realized, ‘Hey, I can help people with this.’” She says that before her diagnosis, life seemed like one revolving doctor’s appointment.

Today, Ahern keeps a gluten-free home and almost never yearns for the forbidden. Instead, she and her husband develop recipes that scratch that comfort food itch, such as chocolate-peanut butter brownies that use gluten-free oat flour. They are addicted to the trial-and-error of it all. He, after all, is a chef always in search of a new dish. And she’s a food writer who uses it as fodder for the blog. The pair toiled for months to develop their recipe for homemade pasta. (They use corn and quinoa flours.)

“For us, that is fun in the kitchen,” she says. “I just never get over the amazement at looking down at the food on my plate and realizing that food can be a great way to heal yourself.”

Los Angeles Times/MCT — MCT

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