A love story in cookbook form

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

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    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.

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.

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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.

Writing and cooking and working hard were wonderful salvation in the midst of all this. Having the chance to create something instead of worrying about her made us better parents, too.

Q: You made a name for yourself as "Gluten-Free Girl," and this book does have bread and cake that people with celiac disease can eat. But it's mainly "just" a cookbook and "just" a love story. How do you balance a niche constituency and a mass-market audience? Do readers searching for a gluten-free Oreo recipe want to read a slice-of-life essay, and vice versa?

A: I'm not sure that I do know how to balance it! That's for readers to decide. Some folks have said, "This book isn't gluten-free enough!" That sort of strikes me and Danny as funny, because our cookbook contains over 100 gluten-free recipes. But I know what they mean. Those few folks wanted all baked goods, substitute foods for the familiar treats they miss.

However, those books already exist. That's not how Danny and I live or how we cook.

My focus, right from the beginning of my gluten-free life, was the foods that are naturally gluten-free. Great potato puree. Blackberries in season. Smoked salted caramel ice cream. Pork and caraway stew. What I found is that when I was forced to go gluten-free, I started finding foods I had never eaten before. If they were gluten-free, I was eating them! In that way, I have a far more widely varied diet than I ever dreamed of when I could eat gluten. Of course, having a chef for a husband has only made those discoveries more delicious.

So for me and Danny, this is a book about discovery and delight, new experiences and familiar flavors both. Meals always come with stories. So we share our story as an entry way to the recipes, and those only lead to more stories. And more food.

Almost all the people who have read the book have told us that they love that balance.

Q: How did you decide how much of your personal lives to share with readers, and did you draw the line in a different place for the book than on your blog? Given the details that did make it into the book, were there any stories you deemed too salty or too private to go into print?

A: When we began writing this book, we worked on instinct alone.

You know, writing a book is a particularly long and exhaustive process. You have to dig deep and share everything that feels right in that moment. And then you write more, and wait for edits, then copy edit and look at photographs and make a hundred different decisions. From the time we conceived this book until it hit the stores was three years.

So to be honest, in a lot of ways, as we were writing, we didn't really think about that readers would know all these personal details of our lives. We wrote what felt right, from the gut, in that moment.

As a writer, I always have a certain tendency toward openness. I love the scouring effect of writing out a memory. I'm changed by sharing it. I live it again ("We write to live twice," said Virginia Woolf) but I also let go of it. So, by the time the book was on the shelves, nothing we shared felt too open. It felt like another part of our lives, a life that is no longer.

Writing for the blog is about immediacy. It's in the moment, of that day or that week. But writing a book is about creating something more permanent. We told the stories that needed to be shared to make that narrative worthwhile.

Of course, there are moments of our lives that are too private to go into print. Isn't that true of everyone? Not everything needs to be shared!

Q: How did you divide the writing work and the recipe development? One writer and one chef, or two writer-chefs?

A: This was pretty fascinating to the both of us.

Most of the recipes were all Danny. He's the chef. He's the one who has been making these foods for over 20 years, learning every day, and improving. So many of the recipes began as me attempting to get onto the page what he created in his restaurant kitchen. He'd cook in our kitchen and I'd watch him and take notes, asking questions all along the way. I figured the readers could be as naive as I was, so I wasn't afraid to ask why, for them!

I wrote the essays, which are in my voice, with quotes and interjections in Danny's voice. But we talked about every essay and what it could be and the stories we wanted to tell. So the final drafts were mine, but they could not have happened without Danny.

The headnotes for every recipe, as well as little sidebars about chef techniques interspersed throughout the book, are written in Danny's voice. He didn't sit down at the computer and type. Instead, he talked and I took notes. We laugh remembering this now, but he could only tell his stories and remember his recipes if he was moving, the way he is on the job. (He often works as a chef for 10 hours straight without sitting down once.) So, quite by accident, we discovered one day that he lost his self-consciousness and just talked if he was playing a golf game on the Nintendo Wii. Over the months we worked, he really perfected his drive!

The baked goods in the book began as joint efforts, but as we worked over the course of those three years, I became fascinated by the science of gluten-free baking. I took over those recipes, making them 58 different ways (in the case of the gluten-free pasta) until we both felt they were excellent. Not just good for gluten-free, but great food, on their own. So in essence, Danny was chef and I was pastry chef!

This was truly a joint effort. We lived and remembered and cooked out every single idea in the book together. That's part of the reason we loved the process so much.

Q: I was curious to see that you asked readers to make a recipe exactly as written, at least once, before playing with it. Why? Should this be a general rule for cookbooks?

A: I really think it should be a general rule for cookbooks.

Danny taught me this. One of his first mentor chefs told him this, "Make every recipe exactly as written, at least once. Then you can change it if you want."

If you look at a recipe and say, "Ah, I can make it better," that's fine. You're just not making that recipe. And I want to see if I can trust that cookbook author! I try to make at least 5 recipes in a cookbook, preferably 10, exactly as written, before I say if that cookbook belongs in our kitchen permanently. If you are always changing recipes, you're never really learning. You're just making your own food, over and over.

Now, having written a cookbook, I know how painstaking and thorough the process can be. The finished recipe landed on the printed page for a reason, not by random. If you have bought a cookbook, you should be able to trust that writer as a guide. To me, a great recipe is like having someone wise and funny standing beside you at the stove, approving and nudging, reminding and helping you to create something memorable for dinner that night.

I have so much more to learn about food. So does Danny, as he says. I want to be humble enough to say that other cookbook authors have much to teach me. How can I learn from them if I doubt their recipes right from the start? My way isn't always right!

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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