Archive for September, 2011


Football as a religion

When I first move to Texas I discovered that my apartment was only about half a mile from the local high school. I figured this out when one Friday night I was out walking my dog and noticed the bright stadium lights off in the distance, coupled by the sound of a marching band and the roar of the crowd.

In Texas there is little else as sacred as high school football, save religion itself.

Today’s book is Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger. The book (which both the movie and TV series are based off of, and oh, if you have never seen the TV series, get yourself a copy of the DVDs and go watch is now. One of the best depictions of working class America on TV ever.) The book, however, is non-fiction, and is based on a football team, the Permian Panthers, a team from Odessa, an oil town in the West Texas scrubland.

The book, (written in the late 1980s) is a classic of fine American sportswriting. For me, it stands right up there with Seabiscuit in taking a sport and using it as a prism to examine a place and moment in time in American history. Bissinger’s book is about the phenomena of high school football in a town that has few dreams left to hold on to, but it is also about much more. It is about race, class, economic and social status in America (and the issue of race is really ugly. While unsurprising is still jarring to read.) It is about dreams realized and broken. It is about young people who have to live up to impossible hopes that an entire town pins on them, and then how they get torn apart when those dreams are dashed.

Bissinger lived in the town for a year, he went with the football team to every game, he had unprecedented access, and that is what helps the book ring so true. He is also a master of colorful, evocative writing that pulls you along, and he takes time to explain the history of West Texas, along with the different dynamics of the place. All of this allows you to feel as if you are there, experiencing the quest for the state championship with the Permian Panthers.

Its a real team, a real town, a real slice of America. And it’s about football,  but it is also about more than that. This is a fantastic, can’t-put-it-down read and a true American sports classic.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Well, what happened? And Foodie Goodness

I fell off the blogging wagon for almost two whole months. It happened rather inadvertently–one minute I was reading and blogging and the next minute I wasn’t. I was besieged by the start of a new semester, and a major academic deadline. So I felt, for a while like I was drowning. I read a bit, here and there, but I did not blog because it seemed like so much effort.

I even thought for a while, about giving up the blog and the challenge that I set for myself.  One of my enduring characteristics, however, is that I finish what I start. (That got me through the dark and lonely days of writing a dissertation, that stubborn, mule-like tendency to finish at all costs.) So I am back, I have a few posts to catch up on (like I said I have been reading and have a backlog of books), and I hope to keep going to meet my goal of 52 books this year (at least.)

So today’s book is Gluten Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back… and How you Can Too  by Shauna James Ahern.

Okay, a bit of back story. Last March/April, when I fell off the blogging wagon (the first time) it was because I had become seriously sick. I won’t go into the details, but I had a strange constellation of symptoms that puzzled my very good doctor, both neurological and gastrointestinal and I had all these weird vitamin deficiencies. Anyway, after enduring a battery of tests (which proved nothing), after being in pain for months and dealing with crippling fatigue, (not like when you are just tired, think so exhausted that the thought of moving off the couch for a glass of water is a problem) I sat with my doctor’s nurse practitioner, shuddering in pain and wailing that this was not “all in my head.” She replied to me, “you know, it might be a food allergy. Wheat and dairy are the biggest offenders, so try cutting them out first.” Well, I already don’t eat dairy, so I went home miserable and cut out wheat, specifically, gluten. In two weeks I felt better than I ever felt in almost a decade.

Long story short, I was diagnosed as a gluten-intolerant, probable celiac (I refused the colonoscopy, which is the gold standard test because my insurance would not cover it, and it seemed like a waste of money  that I don’t have to just confirm that I should not eat gluten. Screw it. I just wasn’t going to eat gluten anymore. My doctor agreed– she said I presented as “classic celiac” and that the diet had proved enough without anymore testing. The celiac blood panel came back inconclusive– be warned on that– the blood testing has a failure rate 1/3 of the time. Yup. So it can totally be wrong. Changing diet or the colonoscopy are the only ways you really know for sure.)

So I delved into a world of no more bread, pies, cookie, fast food, packaged foods, soy sauce, oh hell, wheat gluten is in everything. To most people, it seems incredibly restrictive. But for me the transition wasn’t hard, because I already ate mostly home-cooked meals made from fresh ingredients. But I had loved bread. Adored bread. I was known as an amazing baker of bread and sweets, and oh shit, no more bread for me.

I cried the day I gave my huge bags of bread flours to a neighbor. I sobbed when I hauled my bags of pasta and crackers (unopened) to a local food bank. I tried to be positive, but damn it seemed hard. I was now defined by what I could not eat. Nevermind that I was feeling so much better, had lost weight and had finally made peace with my angry, angry stomach. I was now different. That gluten-free person.

I first read Shauna’s writing in her blog, http://www.glutenfreegirl.com  Then I discovered that she had written a food memoir of sorts, and after scouring the local library for gluten-free cookbooks, and modifying my diet, and working on that for months, I finally picked it up.

I wish I had read it sooner.

There are many books on going gluten-free out there. Many are great, they detail how to change your diet, what you can and cannot eat, etc.  But almost all approach the gluten-free issue from the aspect of how going gluten-free is hard, and then they offer advice and tips.

Fine. It is hard. I won’t lie. But Shauna’s book was one of the few that I read that took having to go gluten-free and made it something that was freeing. It freed you to eat really good, homemade, artisanal food. It frees you from the American approach to  junky foods, fast foods, it frees you to experiment with food in new ways. That is not to say that she sugarcoats it and says that going gluten-free isn’t hard, and that the food that you will eat, while good, will not taste exactly like the food that you used to eat (it won’t)  but instead she is an incessant and friendly cheerleader. Use going gluten-free to try the new flours. To eat local, fresh food– to treat yourself well by cooking for yourself with care and respect. Use going gluten-free to not restrict you, but open your horizons.

This book is not a cookbook (there are a few recipes)- it isn’t a “how to go gluten-free” book, and it isn’t a technical book.  Don’t read it thinking that it is. It also might be hard for people to read who have multiple food allergies (people who are gluten and casein free for example, or people with allergies to nuts, etc- Shauna has no restrictions beyond gluten.) Instead it is a food memoir, a reminder that having celiac is not the end of the world, that rather, it is the beginning– one can be healthy again and enjoy food. It is one woman’s journey, and man the way she write about food. It just makes you hungry reading it. Shauna loves food, and I love that about this book– because my mom, who is an excellent cook who always cooked locally and fresh (I escaped the packaged food hell that Shauna describes her childhood as because my mom loved cooking fresh home-cooked meals) talks about food in the exact same way. Food is something to be enjoyed, savored, and to love. Having a food allergy, intolerance or celiac disease should not stop you from loving food. This is what I took from this book.

And there is something to be said for eating locally. When I lived in rural Ohio for a year I discovered the wonders of buying from actual farmers. Every Saturday morning I would point my old sputtering Mazda towards the local farms and go from place to place, picking out the freshest produce (there is nothing like sweet corn coming off the field in the back of a tractor, lemme tell you.) There was a Mennonite gentleman that I would buy potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and peppers from. He would even give me watermelons that were too ripe and bruised to sell after I told him that my dog loved watermelon (this is true.) Every Saturday morning when I would come to pick up my produce, he would have a few watermelons “for the dog” he would say in his gruff way. I would inquire after his pigs and dairy cows. We talked about the weather (in all seriousness) and his grandchildren would tumble by in their bonnets and long skirts. There is something about knowing the people who actually grow your food.  He tipped me off to an Amish farm that sold “the best chicken you could ever imagine.” The next week, after butchering day, I head over for chicken. The flesh was pink, some still had feathers in it.  I took it home and roasted a simple Amish-raised chicken with Mennonite-raised leeks and onions. That night I sat, just savoring the taste of the chicken “This is what chicken is supposed to taste like?” It was a revelation. That night I sat with my windows open, enjoying the Ohio summer, the breeze off of lake Erie, and devouring the best chicken I had ever eaten (it was most definitely not factory farmed.)

In the last six months, since I got my diagnosis I had slogged along in my gluten-free diet. Food was not joyful, it was hard. Well, Shauna’s book has reminded me to go recapture those carefree Ohio summer days. Time to hit the Farmer’s markets again, time to try some grass-raised Texas beef cattle, fresh sausages, and produce. Time to be inspired again and not let my diagnosis cage me in. This book was much-needed inspiration. Thanks Shauna, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start my blogging up again.  I am going to be adventurous again with food. I’m not going to let celiac hem me in. And I will keep reading and blogging, my fellow readers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C