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A love story in cookbook form

Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern describe their courtship even as they share their recipes.

By Rebekah Denn / November 12, 2010

The Aherns invite cookbooks readers into their kitchen – and their lives.

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“Reading” a cookbook takes on new meaning with “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef,” by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern. It’s a love story in cookbook form – long recipe headnotes that tell stories and virtually invite the reader into their kitchen; warm and sometimes salty essays describing the couple’s courtship and Danny’s daily life as a chef. By the end, the reader feels engaged in a conversation as well as a cooking lesson.

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That’s no surprise to longtime fans of Shauna’s blog, “Gluten-Free Girl”. Food, for her, is the essential backdrop for taking on life in all its daily struggles and glory. When she writes, in my favorite essay in the book, “When you burn the garlic, you have to stop what you are doing and start all over,” she’s talking about brewing resentments in a relationship as much as – or more than – she’s talking about tomato sauce.

I’ve been a lucky guest in the couple’s actual kitchen several times since I first interviewed Shauna for her 2007 memoir. The new book struck me both as a true representation of the real-life selves of both Shauna and Daniel, and as a moment frozen in time. Here’s my e-mail conversation with Shauna about how to balance writing for a niche readership (readers diagnosed with celiac disease) versus writing for a wider audience, how much personal information is too much information, and how she could write evocatively about her past when her life suddenly became swamped by very different challenges. And if that’s all more than you wanted to know from a cookbook, I would just say to make sure you try the meatloaf and the arugula-fig salad.

Q: The book is a warm and uplifting romance, but when you wrote it you were facing several grave challenges – in just one, you were new parents fearing for your infant's life. How were you able to write about your past in the midst of such week-by-week scares?

A: We dreamed up the book just after I finished my first one. We wrote up the book proposal after I found out I was pregnant with our daughter. We began cooking and working with our photographer when I was seven months pregnant. (She had to crop some photos for the book to make sure the bump didn't show!) Before she was born, I planned to take the first two months off to simply be with her and have some space from the work so I could see it more clearly.

How could we know that she would stop breathing the night she was born? Or spend the first week of her life in the ICU? She came out okay, in the end, but it was the most horrifying and beautiful time of our lives. Working on a cookbook was the farthest idea from our minds.

However, by the time we had her home, and we could coo over her every sound and not worry it meant a lack of breath, we found that we wanted to return to work when that two-month mark hit. In fact, almost losing [our daughter] motivated Danny to quit his chef job (the one we write about in the cookbook) and be at home. We crossed our fingers and lived off our modest book advance so we could do this together. We didn't want to miss a moment with her. She sat in her swing in the kitchen as we cooked and we put whatever spice we opened for a dish under her nose before we tumbled it into the pan. Almost losing her made us even more grateful for her, and for the chance to be together.

When she was 10 months old, she had major surgery to clear up some of the remaining health issues lingering from her rocky start in life. Luckily, we had sent in the first draft of the book and were awaiting edits. By the time those came back to us, she was healing, and we were ready to return to work again.

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