First Comes Love, Then Comes (Gluten-Free) Dinner
Shauna, Lucy and Danny Ahern in their kitchen
In Shauna Ahern's words, she "lucked out."
Her daughter Lucy, age 2, loves food as much as her parents do.
"We eat together, at the table, at nearly every meal, telling stories and reading books, talking about our days," Ahern wrote on her website, "Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef" (www.glutenfreegirl.com).
As part of her daytime play, Lucy mixes and bakes and slices and gardens at the family's Vashon Island home. "She eats everything: avocado slices falling from the knife, quinoa with poached eggs and prosciutto, pizza with caramelized onions and leeks, noodles with pesto, whole carrots, warm peanut butter cookies," Ahern wrote.
It sounds idyllic, and, yes, lucky. But luck is also in how you look at it, and Ahern's life has had as many perils as peaks.
Ahern, a former English teacher, spent years debilitated by a mysterious illness until she was finally diagnosed with celiac disease, meaning she could not eat wheat or other products containing gluten. Overjoyed to find her way back to health, she reveled in all the foods she could eat rather than focusing on what she had lost. Her approach won her fans, a nod as one of the world's top food bloggers, and contracts for first one book deal and then another.
She met Danny Ahern, a restaurant chef, through an online dating service on the day before her subscription was set to expire. A year later, they were married. Lucy, their "Little Bean," followed soon after.
Lucky, yes. But hours after Lucy was born, she stopped breathing and was rushed to the neonatal ICU for emergency care. A rare genetic anomaly, her parents learned, meant she would need major skull surgery before her first birthday to give her brain room to grow. They waited out the months as they tested recipes and wrote Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, their love story told through words and recipes.
Lucy came through the surgery and grew to be as delightful and determined as only toddlers can be. As soon as she could walk and talk, she could be found toting her stool to the kitchen and calling out "Bake! Bake!"
As she's grown, her parents have faced some of the same issues of nearly everyone who parents a young child – namely, how to cook around an active youngster's attention span and schedule. They've also faced health scares and a doctor's advice that Ahern take tamoxifen to reduce her high risk of breast cancer. Women cannot take the drug while pregnant. She shared that with her readers, too.
"I'm 43. If I take the tamoxifen for 5 years, I will be 48. Taking that drug meant not being able to have more children …" she wrote last year.
"We adore Lu. That's probably clear in everything I write. We also always hoped (and pretty much assumed) we would have two kids. We had the names picked out long before Lu was conceived. And now, we had this choice: take our chances and try for another or take the drug and let go of our expectations.
"There was a lot of grieving in December and January."
The cookbook, written during Lucy's infancy, was recently named one of the year's best by The New York Times. It's a snapshot of the couple's past, though, a pre-child courtship that grew amidst braised white beans and Umbrian lentils with duck confit and beef tenderloin with port sauce and balsamic onions.
They do still create such dishes, and Danny Ahern cooks restaurant fare at The Hardware Store on Vashon. Now, though, beef tenderloin is more like a weekend project. Weeknight dinners outside the restaurant might be sautéed vegetables on top of the whole grains that are always warming in their rice cooker, or added to Lucy's favorite, "pasta-cheese!" Their next cookbook is on "everyday cooking," Ahern said, a reflection of their lives as parents, the way they are now.
Whole grains have also taken center stage in their baking, and Ahern has become a committed jogger. Having Lucy has made them want to be as healthy as they can be, she said, for her as well as themselves.
Her focus has changed since she began writing, from food-loving person to food-loving family. But readers have followed along, making their own kitchens a little brighter, their tastes a little more adventurous and introspective, helping them discover the luck their own lives might hold.
Seattle food writer Rebekah Denn first interviewed Shauna and Danny Ahern in 2007, and remembers thinking what wonderful parents they would be.