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Q&A With Shauna Ahern on Gluten-Free Holidays

Shauna Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl

Shauna Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl

I met Shauna James Ahern last September at one of Molly O’Neill‘s Longhouse Writers Revivals. These one-day, single-subject conversations draw an inspired group of food and drink writers, editors and activists. Shauna was there to talk about “Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef,” her website and books sharing her approach to living with celiac disease.

No surprise, Shauna was funny and charming. She was generous with her writing advice, just as she is with her recipes on her site. But she is a serious woman on a mission. A writer by temperament, training and talent, Shauna launched her blog to help others with celiac disease. Her wit and wisdom have made her an online muse not only for her gluten-free tribe but also for legions of food lovers of all stripes.

Gluten-free insight

Shauna doesn’t suffer celiac disease. Diagnosis was liberation; gluten is a toxin that can be easily banished. Her delicious solutions are welcome at any table.

I asked Shauna to share some tips on how to manage the balancing act of cooking for family gatherings when some folks are following a gluten-free diet. This is a high-stress time of year for people with celiac disease, she said. No one wants to be the “special” person who can’t eat what is being served.

What is the best way to ease the kitchen tension when holidays bring together the gluten-free with the gluten-addicted members of a family?

Well, the first tip is to remember the reason we’re doing all this! It’s about gathering, family, friends and lots of lights. And food. But it doesn’t have to be a specific food, the one cookie your grandmother made and your mother made and you want to make gluten-free now. Make great food. Fill the table with it. And ask everyone to gather around.

The second tip is to ask the gluten eaters how they would feel if their entire holiday was spent in the bathroom. That’s what happens if I get 1/2 a teaspoon of gluten by mistake. Explaining what actually happens if gluten becomes part of the holiday celebrations may help others find a little more compassion.

Also, board games. Lots of really dopey board games help break the tension.

What are the easy substitutes — the gluten-free dishes that no one even notices are gluten-free?

Well, think of most of your favorite foods. Prime rib. Mashed potatoes. Pomegranates. Chocolate pudding. Potato latkes. Roast chicken. Omelets. Kale salad. Peanut butter fudge.

Those are all naturally gluten-free.

Celebrate the foods that are gluten-free without much work. No one will know these are special diet foods. Especially if they involve chocolate.

What is the best reason for someone with an iron gut to lighten their gluten intake?  

Oh, I don’t think anyone has to lighten their gluten intake. There’s nothing inherently wrong. It’s just that for millions of us, it’s a toxin.

I will say this. We eat far too much wheat in this culture out of inertia. It’s very, very easy to eat pancakes, toast or muffins for breakfast. Pizza, sandwiches or calzones for lunch. Meatloaf with breadcrumbs or garlic bread with pasta for dinner. Pie for dessert.

Without realizing it, people are eating wheat — and mostly bleached wheat flour, which has no nutritional value — at nearly every meal. Dan Barber, the chef from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, said recently that “We eat more wheat than meat in this culture.” We’re having an important conversation about how much meat we eat in this culture, and where it comes from, and what we could do, but we are not talking about cheap wheat.

So it would be interesting if everyone had to be gluten-free for a week to see how unconsciously they are eating.

When your cousin rolls his eyes about the faddish rush to eat gluten-free, how do you make him smile?

Oh gosh, I probably wouldn’t try to make him laugh. I’d educate him.

Maybe I’m not so much fun at those parties. Then again, most of my cousins have celiac, since it runs in families, so I’ve never actually had to have that conversation.

How do you explain the gluten-free fad?

Well, the first thing to understand is that it isn’t a fad.

So here’s the deal. For decades, wannabe doctors were taught in medical school that celiac disease was really rare, only attacked those who were super-skinny and couldn’t put on weight, and was a childhood disease that people outgrew. They were also taught that 1 in 5,000 people had celiac. Well, it was only about 10 years ago that several doctors in the U.S. petitioned the National Institutes of Health to test the nation’s blood supply. See, those doctors who were celiac experts were all from other countries, where celiac happens anywhere from 1 in 100 to 1 in 500 all over the world, and yet America is 1 in 5,000? So they tested the nation’s blood supply. Guess what? The rate of celiac in the U.S. is actually 1 in 133. (And since those who have anemia cannot give blood, and anemia is one of the most common symptoms of celiac, it’s informally understood that 1 in 100 people have celiac in this culture.)

The University of Chicago Celiac Center tweeted an interesting fact. If you packed Yankee Stadium with everyone in America who has celiac, it would be filled 57 times. But 55 of those times Yankee Stadium would be filled with people who don’t know they have celiac. Still, I think 10 years ago it would have been 56 of those times.

We’re slowly, slowly diagnosing the people who are suffering for no reason.

And then there are folks who have non-celiac gluten-sensitivity, gluten-intolerance, wheat allergies, and people suffering from diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis who report they feel much, much better without gluten in their lives. That’s a LOT of Americans.

This isn’t a fad.

What is a favorite gluten-free joke that makes everyone laugh, gluten-free or not?

Well, I like to tell people that nobody expects gluten-free baking to be any good. (Psst. Here’s a secret. It’s often better than baking with gluten.) So I like to tell people in cooking classes: “The expectations are so low that you’re bound to look like a genius when people eat your cookies!”

Top photo composite: Shauna James Ahern and a screen capture of a video on her website of how to cook gluten-free pasta, with Daniel Ahern. Credit: Courtesy of

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.

  • Wendy Petty 12·17·12

    Great interview, Shauna! I think it is always great to remind family and friends of all of the wonderful foods that are naturally gluten-free. In my house, holiday tamales are a must!

    In talking with other people who are gluten-intolerant or celiac, I’ve found that many of them feel the greatest stress in their need to painstakingly re-create all of their traditional family feast foods. Something I’ve found more workable is to put the effort into reworking one more-difficult recipe (like Grandma’s best cookies or a cake), and one easier recipe (a quick substitute of starch for flour in a gravy recipe), and then not sweat the rest. It is also fun to create new traditions for the holidays by adding brand new recipes that can be enjoyed by the entire family for all the years to come.