With a Little Help From My Friends: The Fearless Gluten Free Girl

by paige on April 9, 2009

sharon-and-shauna-champagne

Shauna, right, with lifetime sister-friend Sharon, who's "family."

FROM A SISTER-FRIEND she’s known since age 15 and others adopted along the way, Shauna James Ahern says she has learned to be herself, and unafraid. Those traits, combined with Shauna’s exceptional culinary creativity, have put the Gluten Free Girl at the center of a sisterhood (and a brotherhood, too) of passionate cooks who follow a gluten-free diet but don’t compromise their palates to keep their health.

Shauna came to her gluten-free diet in 2005, after a debilitating and mysterious illness left her unable to function, and terrified for the future. When she finally learned what was really wrong—that her body was unable to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat and some other grains—she felt reborn, and she shares her vibrance and joy in the recipes, writing and photographs that fill her site, Gluten Free Girl.

Here at The Sister Project, we’ve long admired Shauna; at least one of us TSP sisters is a big wheat-avoider. But even those of us untroubled by celiac disease or otherwise focused on eating gluten-free find Shauna’s joyful approach to life in and out of the kitchen compelling.

gfgbookcoverShauna’s passion for eating well, even while eating gluten-free, has literally moved readers to tears and improved their quality of life, and has made her a leading internet authority on gluten-free living. Shauna’s first book, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back and How You Can Too (Wiley and Sons, 2007) is now in paperback. Her next book, Cooking with the Chef, a narrative cookbook with over 100 recipes, written with her husband, will be published in the fall of 2010.

These connections with food, and the writing life Shauna longed for as a kid, could not have happened without relationships made on the internet, she says, with women who have become the sisters, older and younger, that Shauna (proud older sister to a brother, but genetically sisterless) never had.

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Shauna's Ginger Molasses Cupcakes

Fellow Seattle food bloggers, such as Molly Wizenberg of Orangette, Tea from Tea and Cookies and Jess Thomson from Hogwash, says Shauna, have become “friends with the strength of sisters.” They have shared “long, loping conversations over soufflés and walks around Greenlake, gabbing about how to be tender, fierce women in this world. With friends like Viv of Seattle Bon Vivant or Amanda Soule of Soule Mama, photographs on Flickr that felt deeply familiar led to emails and meetings, and then a feeling of connection without the need for explanation.”

Shauna lives on a rural island just off Seattle with her husband, Daniel Ahern, a professional chef, and their daughter, Lucy. Despite her thousands of fans and her passion for (in her words) “loving food and living gluten-free,” Shauna says her “favorite job title is ‘mama’.” (And she hopes fervently that Lucy will be a sister one day.)

THE TSP INTERVIEW WITH SHAUNA JAMES AHERN

shaunaQ. You know you’re a sister when…

A. “You don’t have to explain yourself, or apologize for the state of your hair or the sobbing session on the phone. Another woman has become a sister to me when the conversations between us feel as comfortable as my hands around a warm coffee cup.”

Q. What are your best of/worst experiences with your sibling and your sister-friend?

A. “I don’t have a biological sister. I have a younger brother, whom I adore. I’m fiercely proud of being his sister, his protector, the one who nudges him and reminds him that he needs to wake up more. He was my best friend, growing up, and even now the only one who understands me on a genetic level.

“But I always wanted a sister, to be honest. One of my dear friends, Françoise, has two daughters. And she told me recently, ‘You don’t really know who one is until you have both.’ She meant that when her first girl came along, she thought that everything Camille did was what a baby, and then a little girl, did in life. It was only when Selene came along that Françoise was able to see what was unique to her girls as individuals, and what was just normal for a young girl.

“That’s why I always wanted a sister. It would have been such a gift to have someone else in the family was is female. Watching her, I could have seen what was part of being female, and what was me alone. I missed that.”

Shauna has known her best friend, Sharon, since age 15—and expects them to last a lifetime together.

“She’s my sister. She’s family. We have been close friends through all that time, not just connected. Together, we survived the 80s (she had a really bad tri-level haircut; I was gawky and awkward); talked through college; learned how to live on our own by clutching the phones to our ears, processed every relationship through endless conversations, and know all the important events and stupid stuff of each other’s lives. We have always joked that we will be in our 90s, sitting on rocking chairs on the porch of the nursing home, laughing. It’s not really a joke. We will be.

“That’s the best experience with her—the endless knowledge of each other. Friends who have known me for less time are sometimes befuddled when we are with Sharon. She and I can set each other off laughing, so hard to the point of snorting and losing our breath, at half a sentence that makes no sense to anyone else. It’s probably hard to be around us in those moments. But we love our secret codes and reminiscing. No one will ever be Sharon to me. I hurt when she hurts.”

shauna-and-lucy

For Shauna, with Lucy, motherhood has had an influence on sisterhood.

What are Shauna’s worst moments with Sharon? They have centered on the complex changes that marriage and motherhood can create within a friendship.

“Throughout our lives together,” says Shauna, “I thought of Sharon as the beautiful one—blonde and workout-thin, with a body that makes men stop and stare on the street—and I was the bookworm who wore glasses and knew more about James Joyce than how to kiss. I never expected to be the one who’s married, and consoling her that she’ll find the right one, in the right time. Right now, we are a bit more distant than ever in our lives, because I have what she wants, and she’s jealous. And I don’t know how to repair it. I just reach out. And we talk. And cry about it sometimes. I know our sister-friendship will survive this time. But it’s tough.”

Q. Are there cultural references (books/music/movies) that the sisters in your life love, or love to fight about?

A. “Oh god, so many. I once made Sharon an art piece: ‘What will always remind me of Sharon…’ Inside jokes, foods, and pop-culture references interspersed with photographs of the two of us together through the years. David Letterman, Paul McCartney, PeeWee Herman, Texas (the band) in our New York apartment late in the afternoon the summer of 1999, Christopher Guest films, black labs, fall trips to Vermont, bagels at H & H, Thai Tom on the Ave in Seattle, smoothies, Opus comics, stand-up comedy, dancing late at night all sweaty and pushing the guys away because we just wanted to dance with the rest of the girls in a circle, fiercely, putting our whole selves into it….

“I could go on and on. With any of my sister-friends (I made one of those art pieces for my dear friend Tita, as well), there is this web of connections, phrases and flashes of experiences that will always remind us of that person, first.”

Q. What does the word sister mean to you?

A. “Sister means unwavering love, nudging, teasing when it’s appropriate, knowing when it’s not, a hand to hold, a laughter backward into letting go, conversations over a meal, and feeling nothing but joy in knowing you will know this person the rest of your life.”

Q. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your sister?

A. “From my sisters, and everything they have given me, I have learned to be myself, unafraid.”

A GALLERY OF SHAUNA JAMES AHERN: COMFORTING FRIENDS, AND COMFORT FOOD

We asked Shauna to share a look into some of her life’s sisterly moments, and also a couple of her favorite recipes. Her suggestions on the latter: comfort food, but also healthful–and of course, delicious. Scan the slideshow for more.

salisbury-steak

Check out her updated take on that TV-dinner staple, Salisbury steak, and you’ll never look at a Swanson’s box again.

Salisbury Steak (get recipe)

And her ginger molasses cupcakes are a great introduction to wheat-free baking, with a flavor that is both nostalgic and irresistible.

ginger-cupcakes-2Ginger Molasses Cupcakes (get recipe)

Read more about, and by, Shauna James Ahern on her own website. Gluten Free Girl was named one of the best food sites in the world by Gourmet.com, Bon Appetit.com, and the London Times, as well as being named one of the 20 best blogs by and for women by The Sunday Telegraph.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie April 10, 2009 at 1:43 pm

What a beautiful, inspiring post! In fact, I copied and pasted pieces to my sister-friend because it succinctly described us exactly.
I love Gluten-Free Girl and eagerly await each post, although I’m not gluten-free. Her words and stories are just so lovely and the emotion that pours through feels tangible.
I’ve made loads of her recipes for a dear gluten-free friend and I’m so thankful to have the site as a resource!
Thanks so much for sharing about Shauna and Sharon here.

Allison April 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm

This made me so happy. I have so much affection for Shauna, even though I’ve only met her once. Her love of life really shows in everything she does though and it’s so inspiring to me.

Also, I totally tear up reading about the sister-friend relationships. Beautiful.

margaretroach April 10, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Welcome, Jackie, and welcome, Allison. Obviously you both understand the sister-friend experience. My best sister-friend is Erica, who was in our Galleries awhile back. All the same feelings apply for us, too. See you both soon again, I hope.

Heidi September 16, 2009 at 12:10 am

Just being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, Shauna has been my life line. Reading her book, I feel as though I could have written parts of it…even the lemon cookie story, sigh. She is a pioneer and my hero. It makes me happy that she is a part of your tremendous and incredibly fun sister project. Absolutely brilliant! You people should be applauded.

margaret September 23, 2009 at 6:12 pm

@Heidi: So glad for your positive feedback, and to hear your story. We hope you will be a regular “face” here. :)

margaret September 24, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Wanted to make sure people knew that Shauna will be teaching food writing online in fall 2009. Get the details here. See you in class?

Heidi October 1, 2009 at 3:24 am

Fantastic!! What an opportunity!
Thanks for offering such valuable information! I hope to meet you in class, for sure!
I wish we were all gathered face to face, however. How much fun that would be!
I am a little overwhelmed at the thought ….

Kate October 24, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Whoa whoa whoa. With all due respect… what kind of friend says something like this publicly:

“I never expected to be the one who’s married, and consoling her that she’ll find the right one, in the right time. Right now, we are a bit more distant than ever in our lives, because I have what she wants, and she’s jealous.”

I am all about total honesty in relationships, but who thinks these kinds of things? Isn’t a good relationship about what you share, and not about what you don’t? Isn’t there supposed to be a celebration of the fact that, thank goodness, we’re all so different from each other?

I guess it’s the growing pains of friendships. But I have a hard time taking a statement like that seriously.

Heidi November 4, 2009 at 4:01 am

I return with some feedback, Margaret.

On your…unspoken, but thoughtful suggestion, I signed up for Shauna’s Food Writing Class that was held Nov. 2.

Honestly, I’m not sure why I did it because I’m a little shy, but, HIGH 5 me, girl, because it was a fantastic class!

I love to learn and felt like a sponge. She had great tips and little things to help me practice honing my skills as I continue my art as a writer.

As a lover of food, and those who know me know that it’s my insatiable weakness, she gave me a better understanding of how to focus on food itself and appreciate the simplicity of it through film as well as the written word. It was fantastic! We visited The Sister Project and viewed some of the photos here…great work, by the way! (Tomato shots….)

I think the biggest impact, though, that S.J. had on my life was her personality. I think she is absolutely wonderful. Hysterical sense of humour, smart, encouraging, and so real…plus she is a SILLY YAKKER! Works for me!

Thanks for introducing the class to me. I really appreciate the direction you showed me. Was hoping to meet you there…

Heidi

margaret November 5, 2009 at 9:49 am

Welcome, Kate. I inferred that Shauna said this because the two friends have discussed it and that’s what is going on, and they both know it and are working on it. Maybe I am wrong. But interesting to hear your feedback. I hope we will see you soon again. :)

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