Up until this summer, Addie and Mia were perfectly happy to bob around in the water wearing their little floaties. I don’t blame them: those babies were their tickets to freedom. They plunged into the pool unafraid and enjoyed the safety and support the floaties provided.
This past June, something changed and they realized how much they couldn’t do, and how the floaties kept them from really moving freely about the water. Soon, they were flinging those things off and trying very hard to swim on their own. They thrilled at the idea of swim lessons and eagerly counted down the days until they started. When we arrived at the first lesson, their eyes swelled with excitement as they peered over the side of the gigantic pool. They breezed through the first level, excited about starting the next level because that is when they would start to swim on their own, like, for real. They were confident to start that new level up until the moment they had to let go of my hand and dip their little bodies into the frigid pool, lingering at the edge before reluctantly jumping into their instructor’s waiting hands. The reality of learning to swim on their own was a little frightening.
Once she jumped in, Mia’s confidence showed its lovely face. She flailed about in the water, flinging her hands and feet to and fro like a bug on its back trying desperately to get out of a puddle of water. A graceful water baby she is not. But she tries really, really hard, giving everything she’s got with a smile on her face. She approaches lessons with the sort of tenacity that tells me she believes she is already a swimmer, and the lessons are a mere formality.
On the flip side, Addie hesitated a little longer before getting in, but when she finally did, she looked like a natural as she slipped in and out of the water with ease and agility. Her poise masked her misgivings: the poor little thing battled through nervous tummy aches every day before class. She got in the water anyway, admitting she loves swimming enough to get in the water. The more I watched, the more I realized her reservations had nothing to do with fear of the water itself, but have more to do with being frustrated she does not already know how to swim. It was as if she felt like she should have this figured out already and making mistakes in the process of learning sets her on edge. She was not sure she had it in her to get the job done well.
They began learning how to do the freestyle, the first, most basic stroke. I watched Addie’s arms plunge in and out of the water and Mia’s kicking legs bent and not at all propelling her forward. Their instructor praised them all the same, cheering them on and applauding their efforts. As I watched and listened and clapped and waved, I couldn’t help but identify with Addie. Like her, I shy away from doing hard things for fear I will do them wrong, and messing up is not something I deal with very well. This was especially true for me when I first found out I had to remove gluten from my diet, and believe it or not, that’s what I was thinking about as I watched those girls try again and again to get the stroke just right.
I thought about how overwhelmed and lost I felt when I first heard the news that gluten was responsible for how sick I had been for so long. For me, it wasn’t as simple as just not eating bread. It was bigger and wider and more terrifying than that, as if everything I knew about cooking was thrown overboard, myself along with it, and I was drowning in an unknown, dark ocean of grief, hopelessness and despair.
I know that sounds overly dramatic. Maybe it is. But gluten is everywhere, and figuring out how to move freely within the gluten free world was paralyzing. I was not up for the task at first, so I grabbed onto things I knew would keep me afloat: prepackaged, gluten free foods that did their job of keeping gluten out of my system, but certainly did not teach me how to cook with comfort in my kitchen again. These products were my floaties, enabling me to bob around a bit, but limiting my freedom. And I was thankful for them at first: my body was healing and I was grieving and it hurt too much to try and fail and try and fail. I was both upset I didn’t already know how to cook/live/be gluten free and very afraid to really try.
I’m sure some people plunge into the gluten free world with abandon. They are like Mia, confident they will eventually figure it out and not terribly worried if they don’t get the hang of it right away. I was more like Addie: upset I had to start from scratch because it felt like I should already know how to do all this. And I was also very afraid to fail at it.
It took me a long time to listen to my own advice about making mistakes in the kitchen: it really is part of the learning process. We learn something essential when we goof up and have to figure out how to fix it (or how to nix it). But I finally, finally, let myself deal with the fact that gluten and I don’t get along, and if I ever wanted to be free of my floaties and really enjoy life in my kitchen again, I had to swallow my pride and risk making a mess out of things. The biggest lesson I learned: it was not nearly as difficult as I once imagined it would be, and the only thing that really stood in my way was my own fear of failure.
That is why I was able to tell Addie with absolute certainty that she would catch on, she would figure it out, and any mistakes she made in the process were really a good thing because they would teach her something essential. Plus, her fear of failure was really a desire to do well, and realizing that is sometimes all the motivation you really need to do the hard work of trying.
Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins (GF/DF/NF*)
This recipe is one of the first I tackled when it finally came time to figure out how to make my own beloved recipes gluten free. It is the muffin at our house, the one we make for friends and new neighbors and small groups and Saturday mornings. The really unique ingredient here is olive oil, which lends a fruity, somewhat sophisticated flavor to the muffin, one that I highly recommend. If the idea of using olive oil doesn’t appeal to you, you can use either melted refined coconut oil or canola oil instead. Can’t do eggs? Use 1/4 cup applesauce instead. This recipe can be baked in a loaf pan instead; bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top is crackled and golden, and a toothpick inserted into the top comes out clean.
3 medium ripe bananas (about 1 1/2 cups of mashed bananas)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup evaporated cane juice (or regular cane sugar)
*2 cups good quality gluten free flour blend that measures cup for cup (like this one), or white whole wheat flour, if gluten isn’t an issue for you.
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup chocolate chips (if desired. It’s easy to omit this ingredient, but I rarely–if ever–do.)
*add 1 teaspoon xanthan gum if your gluten free flour blend doesn’t already contain it
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 12 muffin tins with paper baking cups, or coat a regular loaf pan (or an 8×8 baking pan) with nonstick spray.
First, the dry ingredients: in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, xanthan gum (if using), baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set it to the side.
Now, the bananas: remember, the uglier and more bespeckled they are, the better they are for baking. In our house, I call those little black specks sweet spots to help my girls accept that “ugly” bananas could be good for anything besides dumping in the garbage. Like I say to them, the more sweet spots there are, the better the banana bread will turn out.
Take the easy way out and mash those bananas using a stand mixer (or a regular old handheld mixer will do, too). Just throw all three peeled bananas in whole, turn the motor on medium-high, and let the paddle attachment do its magic.
Once the bananas are smashed and mostly smooth, add the olive oil. Once the bananas and oil have emulsified, add the egg, sugar and vanilla extract. Whisk again for a minute or two, until the mixture is velvety and smooth.
Remember those dry ingredients? Add them gradually, whisking between additions. Pour and whisk, pour and whisk, pour and whisk. With every addition, stir until the flour mixture is moistened, but don’t over mix (a few seconds on medium speed should do the trick). Once all the dry ingredients are incorporated, stir in the chocolate chips.
Pour the batter into those muffin tins you have waiting in the wings. Scoop about a 1/4 cup of the batter into each cup (or plunk the whole thing in a loaf pan), and sprinkle each top with a little bit more sugar.
Pop the pan into the oven and bake, about 18 minutes (or 50-60 minutes, for a loaf), until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the pan sit for about 3 minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack. Cool completely before eating them–if you can wait that long.