My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste

Before you judge me for talking about a cookbook this week, I should tell you that I once considered cookbooks to be below my notice too. I’m not much of a chef, although over the last few years, I have challenged myself to explore new recipes and perfect certain techniques (barbecuing vegetables, for example, or making dairy heavy meals lactose-intolerant friendly). I’ve learned to make my own granola, fish tacos, vegetarian chili – all recipes taught to me by dear friends that are in beloved rotation in our house now. Basically, I reached the point in my life where eating out every night had lost its appeal, and the idea of eating pasta, oatmeal or quesadillas in a steady stream for eternity was no longer tempting either (although I will say, I made a dessert quesadilla with peanut butter, slices of banana and a sprinkling of chocolate chips that I ate happily every night for two weeks, so it’s clearly not impossible for me to bow to routine).

Even though I’ve been pushing myself to cook at least four or five nights a week for awhile now, I still find it difficult to utilize cookbooks, which is a shame because I have received a stunning collection over the years (Moosewood, Smitten Kitchen, Rose’s Cakes…). Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up in a house where cooking was a favorite job. My mother did it because she loved us, not because she loved the activity itself, and I’m grateful to her for all those years of putting healthy meals on the table for us. Her mother had been even less interested in the kitchen than she was, and it’s my understanding that they mostly survived quite contentedly on soup and sandwiches, a fact that no doubt stunned my paternal grandmother, an Italian whiz in the kitchen.

My own Italian heritage did not come with a burning desire to prove myself over a hot stove, although I did inherit from my mother a love of all things sweet, and ever since I was small, I’ve happily baked cookies and cakes for neighbors and friends. These foods, while delicious and soul-filling, are not exactly a part of the food pyramid. On the other hand, my desert island food (that is, the one type of food I would be content to eat on a desert island should I be stranded there indefinitely) is bread, a staple that exists in some form in just about every culture. In the US, it’s also quite expensive, and often times filled with garbage ingredients to preserve flavor and freshness indefinitely. While I do occasionally buy a loaf, I’m rarely satisfied with it and have long dreamed of learning to make my own.

The problem is, bread is hard. Well, it’s not hard so much as it is time consuming. All that waiting and kneading and rising, and even when I followed every step, it never turned out quite right. My friends could bake beautiful braided challahs and hot crusty rolls, and my own contribution was dense and flavorless. After a while, I decided to start researching to figure out where I was going wrong, and I came across an article by Lahey, and I was immediately taken with him and his ideas about bread. About a year later, I asked for his book for Christmas, and my in-laws obliged. I dove straight in after the holidays. I worked my way though the basic bread recipe, and when it was a complete and utter failure, I was, well, devastated. His recipes are no fail! How could I fail a no fail recipe? It made no sense. I gave up, deciding I just wasn’t cut out to bake bread.

A few months ago, I pulled out the book again, and this time, I actually sat down and read it, cover to cover. I didn’t get out the flour or the yeast. I simply sat with the book and absorbed the tales he wove about salt and the singing of a perfect loaf. It was poetry. It made me salivate, and more importantly, it gave me the courage to try again. Again, and again. I made loaves that required my patience because I trusted in the story Lahey told about his beloved bread. I left dough alone when it needed space, and I was gentle when it needed care, and every time, I turned out a perfect golden loaf. It felt like a miracle, but really, it was nothing more than buying into what Lahey spun for me. I allowed myself to be swept up in his unconventional story, and it was every bit as wonderful as the bread itself.

Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too, Shauna James Ahern

On Monday night, I was up until 2:30am with a stomach crisis. I’m the worst when it comes to self-diagnosing via the internet (oh how I regret the day Web MD debuted!), and since my husband was visiting his family in Colorado, I had no one to stop me from looking up every possible cause of my distress. By midnight, I had narrowed it down to either food poisoning from an unknown source or a reaction to drinking a banana and mango smoothie I’d made for dinner. Before I began Googling, I didn’t know that both of those foods can have an adverse effect on a  person with a latex allergy (which I happen to have), and I’ve eaten both many times before, although never together.

Of course, I have no real way of knowing what caused my stomachache, but I’m used to that. For close to twenty years, I had an undiagnosed intolerance to lactose, and since I happily drank milk with dinner every night, I had terrible pain just about every day. Looking back, our best estimate is that I developed the problem at three or four when I went from being an enthusiastic eater to one of the pickiest people ever. I was too young to be able to explain to my parents the deep-seated fear I was developing of food, and so many children go through fussy eating phases that, while concerned with the change, neither my doctor nor parents realized the extent of the problem. (Now, of course, I suspect I would have been diagnosed in under six months, but it was a different time.)

By the time I was seven years old, I was so good at hiding my stomach problems that I had everyone convinced I was just a difficult eater. The truth is, so much of my energy was focused on pretending I was fine that it never occurred to me to consider another solution. I thought, much like Shauna James Ahern, that I was just a low-energy, sickly sort of person. I didn’t see food as fuel, as pleasure, as anything but a necessity I approached three times a day with dread.

When I discovered the truth at twenty, it was both a relief and heartbreaking. Most of my favorite foods were full of dairy, and it was too much for a college kid to give up all of them at once. I was, at best, half-assed about my approach to eating better until 2008 when I was invited on a three-week rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. There was no question in my mind that I couldn’t consume dairy on the river; it was already an experience far outside of my comfort zone and I didn’t want to risk being crippled by cramps.

I can’t even describe how life changing the experience was, on many levels; the one that sticks with me most though is how different my body felt.  For the first time, maybe ever, my body was completely free of the thing that was hurting it the most, and food tasted so much better when I didn’t spend the hours after eating curled up in agony. I felt like a super hero those first few weeks, like I’d been gifted with powers I could never have dreamed of.

Since then, I’ve learned to feed myself the way my body needs to be fed. Sometimes I still find myself apologizing for inconveniencing people when I’m visiting, but I know it’s worth it. I think that was part of the reason I was so upset on Monday. I knew everything I’d eaten that day was good for me, and yet I felt just as awful as I did when I was a kid. I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled out my Kindle and looked for a book that might relax me. I’d purchased Gluten-Free Girl a few years ago and only gotten around to reading the first few chapters. I dove back into it, a new-found kinship blossoming with this woman I’d never met. Yes, I thought, clutching a useless hot water bottle to my belly. She gets it.

Admittedly, I had to skip over the recipes she shares because my body was not interested in considering any combination of ingredients in that moment, but I’ve gone back and bookmarked most of them to try now that I’m feeling better. I may not be gluten-free, but I see the benefit of a diet low in wheat and high in delicious local ingredients. More than a collection of recipes though, she shares her journey of not only adjusting her diet to accommodate celiac’s disease, but of learning to rejoice in food. Her excitement is contagious.


For more about Shauna James Ahern, head over here. Seriously, you won’t regret it. Fair warning though: I just lost an hour perusing recipes when I should have been working…

The Urban Picnic: Being an Idiosyncratic and Lyrically Recollected Account of Menus, Recipes, History, Trivia, and Admonitions on the Subject of Alfresco Dining in Cities Both Large and Small, John Burns and Elisabeth Caton

Last Monday, after surviving my first road race (the incredible – and incredibly hot – Bolder Boulder 10k in Boulder, Colorado), I was sitting with my husband and his family in the CU stadium waiting to watch the elite racers come through. After each of the 50,000 participants finished the run, they were funneled into the bleachers by way of volunteers handing out cloth lunch bags full of healthy post-run treats, water bottles, Pepsi, and if one was so inclined (I wasn’t), a can of Michelob Light. By the time we crossed the finish line, it was crowded and 90 degrees, and I was so hungry that I tore into this lunch bag with energy I didn’t even realize I still possessed. I was tired, covered all over with salt (from sweat evaporating so quickly in the dry air that it left me coated and gritty), and completely happy. I had run the race I wanted to run, and now I was being rewarded with one of my all-time favorite things – an impromptu picnic.

You see, I’m not too picky about the definition of the word picnic. This is why, I think, my husband saw this book and immediately thought of me. I love to take my food outside, to get away from the dining room table and into the fresh air. I love barbecuing (in my back yard, at the park, by a lake), and making cold noodle salads, and cutting up fruit to eat with my fingers, and I love finding those little spots where I can eat whatever I have with me and feel a breeze on my face. I don’t need a table-cloth or blanket. I don’t need a cooler filled with delicious food (although I’m not against it!). I don’t even need to have company in order to enjoy myself. All I want is a spot of dry land and a snack, and I’m feel better about life.

This book, along with its history about picnics (both urban and otherwise), is filled with recipes to try, and my guess is that I will I learn to make about eight of them really well. I’ll pick whatever’s easiest and keeps best at room temperature and be completely satisfied. That being said, I’m sure my family will think it’s a step up from what I usually pull together (a loaf of bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, chips, and somewhat inexplicably, Red Hot Tamales), and maybe I’ll be able to spread the picnicking love to my more skeptical friends and neighbors by tempting them with Artichoke and Sun-Dried Tomato Dip (p 97), and Sesame Potatoes (p 122), and Mushroom Medley (p 166).

I can share with them that I now have official documentation (in the form of this book, which looks like someone on Amazon possibly stole it from a library before selling it to us…) explaining that it is historically acceptable to bring booze on any outing where I require them to eat while sitting on rocks. Also, I can probably relent and occasionally allow us to find a picnic table so that we don’t have to deal with the bad knees and arthritis flare-ups that apparently begin plaguing people around age thirty. With this book in hand, I can probably even ease them into more adventurous picnicking scenarios (while hiking! on road trips! without wet wipes!), which makes me happy since, even though I can and have happily picnicked alone, it’s certainly more fun with a friend or three.

The best thing about The Urban Picnic is that it strives to demystify the experience (just in time for those long summer days) for people who live in cities or who don’t have a lot of free time to create an elaborate experience. The whole point of the picnic is to kick back and relax with some food; it shouldn’t be stressful or involve hours of prep work (unless you’re the kind of person who loves to cook, in which case, there are definitely some recipes in here for you – feel free to send samples of any dishes that take longer than thirty minutes to prepare, since that’s my hard limit for culinary endeavors that don’t involve chocolate).

There’s no one right way to dine al fresco (I especially don’t recommend googling the phrase “dine al fresco” with Image Search on because  the pictures are ridiculously daunting and gorgeous), so if you’re happy throwing some meat on the fire and cracking open a beer, great! If you prefer to slow roast vegetables in foil while chowing down on chips and salsa, that’s fine! If you want to grab a yogurt and muffin from Starbucks and take it to the park, that’s a picnic! All that really matters is that this meal is a moment you’re taking for you. Whatever you like to eat, and wherever you want to eat it, slow down and enjoy the freedom from the office, the winter, and using utensils. All too soon, school buses will be revving up their engines again, the barrage of autumn holidays will start, and it will be too cold and rainy to sit outside with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and simply be.


Here’s a link to the NPR interview with Burns and Caton about their book.