Always Hungry, and Homestyle Hamburger Soup

Cool weather finally showed up on our doorstep and no one was as delighted to greet it as I was. Trading shorts and salads for sweaters and soup pots is the best part of the year, in my book.

bed of white petaled flower

Cold weather always makes me hungry. I don’t know why, exactly, but I blame soup. Soup does more than fuel my body; it warms my bones. Once I start slurping, I almost can’t stop. It’s a matter of cold weather survival around here.

Chunky sweaters are part of the deal of Midwestern life, of course, but if I had to pick between hearty soups or trendy fall fashion? Soup would win every time. Cozying up with a bowl of it while dressed in leggings and an oversized sweatshirt does the trick too.

If I had to choose a favorite soup (and thank God I do not have to do so), Hamburger Soup might be my pick. It tastes like home to me. My mom made it all the time when I was young. She still does, I think. Don’t most moms have a version they serve on the regular? Gluten free, allergy life didn’t throw a kink in this familiar recipe, and I’m so thankful for that because it’s a dinner that connects our family table to the one I sat at when I was a child. We didn’t have food restrictions in our house when I was growing up, and yet I can’t recall a day when my mom’s version of this was served with a swirl of cream before serving. Simplicity makes this soup a star. Ground beef, onions, carrots and celery, and potatoes are almost all you need.

Well ok, you need beef broth too. And tomato sauce and Worcestershire sauce too, but this soup forgives you if you’ve got to leave them out. It’s flexible and fast and filling. If you’re cold and hungry and soup sounds ideal? Cook up buns for biscuits and stir up a pot of Hamburger soup. It’s not fancy, and that’s why I love it. I can cozy up with a bowl of it in under 40 minutes.

Simple and satisfying, this one tastes like home.


Comfort Food Reimagined and Gluten Free, Dairy Free Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole

Casseroles are like McDonald’s: they get a bad wrap, but secretly everyone loves them.

Well okay, I don’t love McDonald’s–anymore. But gracious me, how I adored their french fries until I learned gluten’s evil reach extends to even them. French fries don’t need wheat to be wonderful.

The same is true for casserole. I know I’m not the only one with childhood memories of noodles and meat tucked into a sumptuous sauce, layered thick with gooey cheese and baked until golden and glorious, right? Casserole was pretty much my favorite, but now gluten is ornery and unwelcome at my table. Ditto for dairy, so clearly, casserole complicates my kitchen. I bet it complicates yours, too.

Allergy life handed us a whole bunch of adversity. Shoot, it’s just plain bananas sometimes, but I have learned to leverage the crazy and bake banana bread. In other words, I’m good at making the best of bad situations, but casserole creates a crummy conundrum. No matter how you slice it, alternative ingredients just don’t swap out the same way in savory dishes.

Even so, when cooler weather compels me to click on the oven and cook something cozy, casserole calls my name. I usually argue with the voice, saying things like “Dairy free cheese is disgusting” and “Gluten free noodles get gummy.” Casserole patiently nods its understanding, then nudges me to try again anyway, saying “I’m problematic, but possible.”

Over the years I have tried to prove my beloved food friend right. Try after disappointing try simply confirmed my opinion until I realized this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is just plain crazy. Daiya does not–will not— taste like dairy Mozzarella no matter how much I wish it did.

That’s the problem: I’m expecting my taste buds to adjust to something I just plain don’t like. Many alternatives are frankly unpalatable. Others are acceptable, but some really are inspired. Sorting out the bad from the good is an exercise in patience and fortitude.

It’s exhausting.

Once upon a time Mia asked me to make lasagna for dinner. Rarely one to deny a request for comfort food, I hesitated, and it surprised her. I mean, lasagna is all about the cheese. The marriage of ricotta and mozzarella is a match made in comfort food heaven, so I panicked. But something switched that night and instead of asking How can I make that? , I asked myself How will I make that? Saying yes to her simple request taught me to re-imagine casserole instead of trying to recreate it.

Does gluten have to be involved at all? Does dairy? The simple answer is, of course, no. A casserole is really just “food cooked and served in a casserole [dish]” (According to Merriam-Webster, that is), which essentially means anything goes.

So I looked my girl in the eye and said “Let’s do it!” and we rolled out sheets of homemade cassava flour noodles and stirred together a filling of garlic-studded meat and spinach, and layered them together with a simple marinara sauce. Then in a fit of inspiration, I got out a can of black olives. As I sliced them, Mia asked if she could put them on by herself. I laughed as I watched her arrange them into a smiley face.

I can’t redefine casserole, but I can re-imagine it. Food allergy life taught me that. My kids don’t know the difference between a lasagna covered with cheese and one simply slathered with sauce. All they see is lasagna served with a smile. Isn’t that the point? Food doesn’t have to be fancy or familiar to feed my family well. If it’s served with a smile, it’s enough.

Yes, it means letting go of what I know. But it frees my heart from stress and burnout and gives me the gift of saying yes.

Casserole isn’t comfort food because it’s layered with cream or cheese: it’s comfort food because it’s home food, made with all kinds of creativity and love. Experimenting with alternative ingredients yields all sorts of casseroles with character, and cultivated a cuisine unique to our table and taste buds. We top them with olives or thinly sliced tomatoes, seasoned rice-crumbs or crushed potato chips or savory streusel or even gluten free crispy french-fried onions, and then cheer when it comes out crispy and golden. We even argue over who gets the corner piece.

I’m sure the same will be true for you, too, because casserole is a framework, an idea, a canvas for a culinary masterpiece.

This Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole is top 14 allergen free proof that comfort food of my childhood is possible after all.

It’s not comfort food the way your Grandma would have made it, unless of course your Grandma was cooking for gluten free, dairy free folks, but my family thinks it’s every bit as comforting — and way better than McDonald’s.


Day in the Life of an Allergy Kid: Field Trip Edition, and Homemade Lunchables

My six year old son with multiple severe, anaphylactic food allergies climbed on a school bus and went on a field trip without me this week, and we both survived to tell the tale.

I’m still getting used to letting go when I hug him goodbye on regular school mornings, so dropping him off for a field trip felt even more awkward and emotional because, well–the What if’s? were loud that day.

For me, that is. Not for him. The kid was crazy excited.

I can’t blame him. He had never been on a school bus before, and he knew he would get to go on a bug hunt and pet a snake in real life at the science center that day. What first grade boy wouldn’t be excited?

But while other moms were slipping Lunchables into backpacks, slathering kids with sunscreen, and sending them out the door with a simple “See you later, sweetie!” I caught myself worrying whether I had done enough to prepare EJ for surviving two hours at a local science center without me dogging his every step.

A few weeks before that morning I asked EJ if he even wanted to go on the field trip, secretly wondering if he would feel too nervous about something so new.

“Oh, yes–I really want to go. It’s going to be so fun. And Mom, can you make a homemade Lunchables for my lunch that day? And put an Oreo in it too? ‘Cause kids take Lunchables with treats in them to school on field trip days.”

How did he even know that?

After assuring him I would pack him a homemade Lunchable, I double checked to make sure he felt comfortable and confident going on the trip without me. One simple “Oh, yes. I feel just fine about it,” and we moved on to reviewing all.the.rules and a reminder that God would be with him even when his dad and I could not be.

Years ago, back before we even know EJ had severe food allergies, Joshua 1:9 etched its way into my heart as his life verse: “Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord God is with you wherever you go” (NLT). God knew even all those years ago I would need courage to let my boy go live his own life–and EJ would need the assurance that God would be with him when I was not. So instead of keeping the kid home and assuring him he wasn’t missing out on anything anyway, I decided to listen to face everything and rise instead of forget everything and run.

It’s easy to run away from the tough stuff; harder to stand face to face with something scary. Lord knows I’ve done my share of running over the years. I’ve made decisions out of cowardice, and I’m sure you have too. But I don’t want to train EJ to make decisions based on what’s easy. I don’t want him to miss out on life because he lives his a little bit differently. I want to be courageous so he can be courageous too. If I had kept him home that day, it would have taught EJ life is too risky, he’s too different, and safety is what matters most.

Hear me: safety matters. Of course I did my due diligence: I talked to his teacher and confirmed she would carry his epinephrine along with them that day. We discussed when and where and how of food (none on the bus; morning snack at school as usual; sack lunches outside after they return). She knows his symptoms backwards and forwards and reviewed what to do in case of an emergency. Before he left for school that day, he slung his allergy ID necklace around his neck as usual, and I made sure his hand wipes were stocked and stowed in his lunchbox just like every day, and we went over washing hands and not sharing food and speaking up for himself if he felt anything funny at all one last time. In short–we covered everything in our power to prepare EJ for the first step toward managing his allergies independently.

That’s ultimately what I want him to do: manage his allergies, not let allergies manage him. A long time ago I had to make a choice whether I would worry my way through his life, hiding him away from danger in hopes of keeping him safe, or face each new day with courage, determined to let him live every blessed moment of his life to its fullest. Existing in the confines of home and missing out on a chance to see the wider world and discover all sorts of beauty out there isn’t really living at all, and so, by God’s grace and with his help–we are putting one foot in front of the other and walking into new territory, believing God is with us every step of the way.

As I packed EJ’s homemade Lunchables the morning of the field trip, I realized my job is exactly that: to give him the things he needs to be able to eat lunch safely away from me, not just on field trip days, but always. It is more than my heart can bear sometimes because he’s only six years old, for crying out loud. But someday, someday, he will be all grown up and in charge of his own choices, and my job is to empower him to do that. I need to make him lunch-able. That sort of thing is only ever homemade.

Here’s the big news: I wasn’t worried about him. I wondered how things were going, of course, because I’m a normal mom who misses her kids while they’re gone. (Yes, I had to distract myself all day so wonder didn’t turn into worry.) But my nerves didn’t overwhelm my heart. I had peace, and as soon as EJ set foot in the car, I had joy too because there we was, healthy and whole–and happy. For the first time in his life, he said, “Mom! Guess what?! I made friends.” (And guess what? One of them even has food allergies too!) What if fear had convinced me to keep him home that day?

This allergy mom life isn’t easy. Allergy kid life isn’t easy either. It presents a new, big challenge every time we overcome the smaller one that came before it. But gracious me, God is so good. He uses all the tough stuff to grow us and stretch us and prove he is true to his word. If we never went anywhere, we wouldn’t need courage, would we? And we wouldn’t need the promise that God would be with us wherever we go.

So until EJ grows up and moves on to a life lived outside of the confines of our house, I’ll keep doing everything I can to make him lunch-able, believing God will be right there with both of us every step of the way.


A Gift for This Moment and Wacky Cake (Gluten Free, Grain Free, and Top 14 Allergy Free)

Necessity is the mother of invention.

I remember hearing my folks say this sort of thing to each other as they sautéed their way toward dinner. I never quite understood what they meant because it never felt like we needed anything. Dinner was always awesome. My mom would dig out a few leftover baked potatoes and dice them, saggy skin and all, while my dad dug out leftover roast beef and heated up oil for hash. They chopped up onions for good measure, then tossed it all together in a hot skillet until the potatoes were crispy and golden. Dinners like that were some of my favorite, regardless of what food my folks wished they had on hand.

Now I know that our pantry sometimes got bare. Now I know my mom bought Hyrdox Cookies instead of Oreos and big tubs of generic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers Vanilla Bean for one reason: they fit her budget better. But even those bargains were only sometimes treats. Even so, I don’t really remember going without. In fact, a bare pantry meant my dad jumped at the chance to bake a Wacky Cake–the dessert for which we always had ingredients. The fridge doesn’t have to be fully stocked with cream or eggs or milk or butter for a slice of his famous impromptu cake.

Last week I read The Kitchen Front, a novel about ordinary women struggling to cook palatable meals during WWII England. Wartime rationing redefined pantry staples, so pantry stockpiles looked awfully paltry compared to the way they looked before the war. Fresh eggs were limited; dairy products too. Food women used to take for granted were whisked away from them without their consent or approval, and before they knew it they were whirling together bits of stale bread and overcooked vegetables to make mock roast chicken. Some of their concoctions sounded just plain awful (mock anything makes me cringe), but I admired their resourcefulness and creativity nonetheless.

I imagine it was heartbreaking to have to forego serving a cake on a birthday because there weren’t enough ration coupons for eggs. Someone somewhere figured out how to make cake without it–necessity is the mother of invention, right?–and vegan cakes were born out of a different sort of necessity back then.

When I put the book down, I couldn’t help but see the parallel to my own cooking life, of course. Wartime rationing isn’t to blame for the changes in my kitchen, but outside forces beyond my control stormed in and bossed me around too, and I find myself staring at a smattering of ingredients that don’t feel like enough, wondering how to make familiar food out of mock versions of the real thing. Like them, I was frustrated and angry but powerless to do much else than slip into survival mode at first and just keep cooking something. Little by little, they learned to let go of what they didn’t have and how to make do with what they did have, and so did I, and in the process new things are born–like grain free, vegan cake that is familiar and delicious.

Wacky Cake proves that God really does bring about good things out of desperately difficult situations. All the harrowing hardship of the war didn’t change the fact that women wanted to serve something celebratory and sweet. I know what that’s like on a much smaller scale, of course, but imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t serve cake for your boy’s birthday and you might understand a little. This crazy cake made out of cassava flour, cocoa powder, sugar, oil & water makes a decadent, distinctly not weird confection that could be served to just about anyone. It’s flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of allergies–a feat women working in WWII kitchens couldn’t imagine, and yet somehow they secured it long before we ever really needed it. I feel a kinship with them when I make it, because even though allergies and intolerances and dietary restrictions weren’t really a thing back then (like they are today), they knew the frustration and heartache of going without.

I like to think Wacky Cake is a wartime gift God gave to women two generations before me during that dark, difficult season. Food doesn’t solve everything, but sweet balances out the bitter, so cake helps. God must know that; why else would he have made cocoa beans bitter and sugar cane sweet? This dessert uses both, without any of the dangerous ingredients that we can’t serve to our people this season. When I whisk this cake together, I whisper a prayer of thanks because I am certain God knew we would need this recipe for this moment, right now, when so many of us are wondering how to serve special foods to the people we love, too.

The best gifts just keep on giving, and this gift is for you too.


Back When, Until Then, and Vegan Scalloped Summer Squash

September can’t decide which season it is: one minute it’s crisp and cool and apple cider donuts call my name. The next minute it’s hot again and I silently judge all those other people stashing pumpkin everything into their shopping carts.

This in-between time puts me on a seasonal teeter-totter. There’s something inside me that’s really ready for what’s next, so in the cool of the morning I pull on a light sweatshirt and pair it with shorts, convincing myself it will be chilly enough to warrant my wardrobe choice. I head into my day wanting to make apple crisp and pumpkin bars and cider braised short ribs with sweet potatoes; I want to debate whether apple orchards trump pumpkin patches; and I want to order my Chai tea lattes extra hot. But none of that sounds appealing when it hits 88 degrees outside.

But oh, this Scalloped Summer Squash. It’s the perfect culinary bridge between the best of the summer season and comforting fall favorites. I don’t pine after pumpkin when I make it. I’m able to be perfectly present to the moment I’m in, right now. It points back to the beauty and bounty of summer and promises the warmth and wealth of fall.

It is a reminder of “back when” and “until then” in more ways than one. I used to cook with mainstream ingredients: back then I would have layered the squash with whipping cream and Gruyere; I might have added some breadcrumbs for crunch, and you know butter would have been involved somehow. Someday I’ll be able to cook with dairy again, but until then I’m finding ways to use what I have available right now to feed us well. I may be using uncommon ingredients this season, but there’s always something familiar from last season to combine them with. This casserole proves it.

Summer squash is a summertime staple, one that is still widely available during September. The stunning colors of the squash snuggle up beneath a warm blanket of velvety vegan cream sauce made with coconut milk and nutritional yeast, then topped with a little fresh thyme. The result is comfort food September is can be proud to call its own–but one taste and I bet you’ll make it all year, because oh, dear friends–it’s that good.

Of course the first time I made it I wondered whether my people would pout about a cheeseless casserole without noodles. I expected them to protest, but to my shock and delight they devoured every last bit of it.

I made it again last night and I paired it with pan-fried pork chops. When Mia came home for dinner, she walked in the door and and inhaled deeply, asking with a smile on her face, “Oh, mom–did you make that squash thing again? Ooh, and pork chops? Yay. This will be the best dinner ever.”

Back when and until then collided in a delicious, dairy free moment that had me celebrating the right here and the right now. I hope it helps your family do the same.


When the World Goes Bananas, Make Dessert (and Grain Free, Dairy Free Bananas Foster Bars)

I had two bunches of over-ripe bananas sitting on my counter last week. This is a rare occurrence because usually over-ripe bananas go straight into banana bread or the freezer. Two dozen at once overwhelmed me. “What do I do with all this?” I asked myself as I stood paralyzed, staring blankly at them.

For the briefest moment I considered throwing them away. Then I shook my head with a definitive “No way!” because what a waste. But my freezer couldn’t take any more, and a quadruple batch of banana bread wasn’t going to happen (because news flash: apparently I make banana bread a little too often and the freezer was stocked with that, too).

I had a choice: tuck them in the trash then go about my day pretending they were never there, or face the problem and do something.

So I did something. I started with thinking about Joey–the man who goes bonkers for bananas. “What would he like?” I asked myself.

Duh. Dessert.

At first I considered custard, then cream pie, and finally narrowed it down to cookies or bars until suddenly, out of no where, the memory of Bananas Foster barged in and changed everything. The first time I tried that miracle of a dessert, Joey sat across the table from me in the dimly lit, local Italian restaurant that made us feel ten thousand miles away from home. Neither of us was hungry for dessert, but when the waiter asked if we wanted to try Bananas Foster, we exchanged a knowing look and said an emphatic “Yes please.” One bite of the sticky sweet bananas doused in vanilla and rum and we were hooked.

And that’s when I knew: I would make Bananas Foster Bars. I didn’t know how to make them, or even if they were a thing at all. All I knew was I had a pile of bananas that had to be dealt with and I knew how to turn bananas and cassava flour into a moist, cakey treat, so that’s what I did.

As I pureed and measured and whisked, I thought about how so much in our world has changed since that first bite of Bananas Foster. I thought things were bad back then, but it’s bonkers now, right? Hard things are piling up and we don’t know what to do with them, and even if we did, would we know where to start?

It makes me think about the story of the widow and the oil–the desperate widow’s debts piled up. She knew what she had to do (pay the debt), but she didn’t know how to do that (with what money?). And the story of when disciples had 5,000 hungry mouths to feed, but they didn’t know how to do that either. In both situations, someone asks, “What DO you have?” The widow says “Nothing, except a little oil.” The disciples say “Just a few loaves and two small fish.” They realize didn’t have nothing. They had something. And when they used it, things changed.

Maybe that’s where we need to start too. If the world is bananas, let’s make some dessert, you know? We might not have all the answers: but do we have just one? We don’t have the loudest voice, but do we have a voice at all? We don’t know whose word to trust anymore: but we can trust what God says, always.

Maybe instead of looking at what we lack, we look at what we have, and then we use it.

I didn’t have a bunch of useless bananas: I had Bananas Foster Bars just waiting to be made.


Sweater Weather, and Vegan Pumpkin Spice Creamer

It’s September 3 and 80 degrees outside, but pumpkin spice is taking over everything. Here we go again, right?

I rolled my eyes as I ordered myself a Pumpkin Spice Latte yesterday because I felt so trendy. I mean I rarely go to Starbucks, and almost never get coffee there. Ordering a fully caffeinated hot beverage felt totally wrong because, well–I was sweating, you guys–but I wanted one. It’s September and I was really, really tired and pumpkin + caffeine felt like the right choice despite the fact that you know, everyone’s doing it. I thanked the barista as she handed over my hot cup, all the while wondering how many other customers she quietly judged for ordering a steaming hot cup of coffee when it’s so hot outside still. I mean, they do make an iced version too.

I hate to sound negative. I adore fall, and I am a sucker for Pumpkin Spice Lattes. But it’s hard to enjoy sweater weather while I’m sweating.

But whether it feels true or not, fall is just around the corner. The wind told me so this when it blew a little cooler on our way out the door. And so, it felt fitting to take advantage of the Fall Kick Off Sale and stock up on Crio Bru while it is 25% off this weekend. You bet I ordered a bag of the Pumpkin Spice blend. Joey is a sucker for all things pumpkin too.

In the spirit of being prepared for the season, I headed to the kitchen to whip up a batch of Pumpkin Spice Creamer because 1) my bottle of scratch made vanilla creamer is empty, and 2) the back up bottle of Hazelnut flavored Nut Pods I had stashed in the cupboard just isn’t cutting it for me. (Fun fact: I hate hazelnut). I’ve been making my own coffee creamer for a few months now, ever since I threw a private pity party over the price of Nut Pods. I love the stuff, but it’s expensive, and I organized my grocery shopping trips around which Target carries the larger size so I could save a few cents by buying the bigger bottle.

It was a silly thing to stress about, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and just make my own version at home. It can’t be all that hard, right?

Right.

Turns out making a clean, allergy-friendly coffee creamer is no sweat at all. In fact, it takes just five minutes and only a few ingredients I always keep in my cupboard: unsweetened almond milk, full fat coconut milk, agave syrup, vanilla extract, and kosher salt. (PS–almonds a no no at your house? Swap it out for your favorite unsweetened dairy free milk.)

Adapting my original recipe to make it special for the season wasn’t any more difficult than making a plain vanilla version. Just reduce the amount of vanilla and add pumpkin puree, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg (but no clove, because another fun fact? I loathe clove.) and voila! Spicy pumpkin perfection in a cup. It might be 80 degrees outside again, but whatever. I plead seasonal insanity.

I may not ever buy Nut Pods again–pumpkin spice, hazelnut or otherwise–because my scratch made version is seriously no sweat. Easy, affordable, quick and clean–I’ve fallen for the flavors, and I hope you will too.


A Reason to Celebrate, and Sweet & Smoky Chicken Skewers

Good grief I’m tired. Summer can’t come soon enough.

It’s weird to say that because last summer stretched on forever, and when it was finally over I swore up and down I never wanted the hot, sticky season to come again. Summer is supposed to be slow, but it was more sluggish than a snail last year. The lack of momentum made it feel static, not serene. And that was tiring. I feel like I only just started recovering from it, yet here I am ready for another one? It’s a strange tension.

Today I’m tired in a different sort of way–the best sort of way. The weekend swept me up in a swirl of food and family and fun, and the whirlwind wore me out. I fell asleep on the couch last night recovering. Remembering, too: the smile on Mia’s face as she turned nine. The way she laughed and played and drank it all in–the swimming, the silly jokes, the small cans of Dr. Pepper that are special treat indeed. It almost didn’t matter what I served; the people surrounding her made it the most special, especially after last year’s lockdown.

Her birthday last year was different. We celebrated, but separately. Reality got skewed and our circle got smaller and eventually summer stretched on for days on end. We grilled our way through the long, hot months, trying to enjoy the low pressure days, but secretly stressed out with waiting and wondering what would happen next. This recipe was born out of the lonesome days of lockdown, a time when life was slow and sweet in its own way, even though the world seemed to burn around us.

The days at home were good, but the strife outside our doors made it hard to guess what would come next. This recipe for sweet & smoky chicken reminds me of those days. It gave me hope for a day when we would fill our table with family and friends again–and that day came right along with Mia’s birthday. They remind me of last year when we couldn’t share meals together like this–and why it’s so important we do so again.

A shared meal is never just about the food: it is always about fellowship with the faces that share the food with us. It’s about acknowledging our need for fuel and friendship at the same time; it’s about feeding people’s stomachs and souls by giving them a reason to slow down and savor. Food is so much more meaningful when it’s shared.

And so, as a new summer knocks on our doors and asks to stay for awhile, let’s invite it in with open arms–and along with it, let’s welcome each other again. Let’s find a reason to celebrate and gather around tables together, laughing alongside each other as we pass platters filled to the brim with good things. Let’s feed each other with the sort of welcome that says “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Let’s remember the way it was for awhile and be grateful it wasn’t forever, because eating together is something sacred indeed.


Nothing Is Wasted, And Banzai Burger Bowls

It’s no secret I’ve been sick. Or at least, I don’t think it’s a secret. I’ve shared a lot about it on Instagram (are you following me there yet? Come say hi @rachel.maier.writes!), but haven’t filled you all in here because the truth is, I have been very, very tired. Even thinking about writing posts with recipes wiped me out. And so, silence ensued.

But I’m feeling better now–or at least, I’m improving. I talked with my mom the other day and laughed because saying “I’m feeling better” suggests I am better, which of course by now you probably realize I am not. I am improving though. Minute by blessed minute, my body is responding to the miracle of having the right medicine for the right diagnosis–and Lord help us all, when you don’t have a complete picture of what’s wrong, it’s hard to know how to make it right.

It all started on my 40th birthday. Well that’s not true–it all started the summer before my senior year of high school. This particular flare up started on my 40th birthday. Instead of lighting candles on my birthday cake, my body flared up hot and angry. I got plenty mad about it too because I had just gotten over a nasty flare up last fall. Last time I evaded going to a GI doctor (I had yet to establish care with a new once since relocating here a couple years ago), but this time around I knew I had to finally go.

I sat in his office nervous, knowing the severity of my symptoms warranted a colonoscopy, so you can imagine how surprised I was when the doctor dubiously said, “It’s IBS, I think. Not Ulcerative Colitis.”

“Even with the bleeding?” I asked.

“Even with the bleeding,” he replied.

I wanted to shout BS at him. (But I didn’t. I have more self-control than that.) I bit my tongue and left that day, trying to wrap my head around the possibility that he was right. I tried to trust my gut, but I entertained the idea that perhaps I had overreacted to gut distress for all these years, and maybe, just maybe, God was giving me the answer for which I asked him repeatedly: a name for the crazy gut issues that stumped countless doctors for years.

I was so tired of hearing “You have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).” When I was almost 20 years old my family doctor diagnosed me with IBS and showed me to the door with a smile, telling me to eat plenty of yogurt as he waved goodbye. I heard that same story again in my early 30’s when wheat and gluten triggered similar responses, but that doctor scolded me for inquiring about Celiac Disease and shooed me out the door with an IBS diagnosis (again) along with strict orders to take a daily fiber supplement. Here I was 40 years old hearing IBS again. It threw me for a loop.

In all these years, only one doctor gave me an opinion with grace and insight. He guided my decisions and oversaw my gut health until we relocated three years ago, but his words still rang in my ears that day, nagging me and making everything even more confusing. That doctor specifically told me he suspected I had undiagnosed Celiac Disease, but recommended against testing for it because I had been gluten free for several years at that point, and I already knew what I really needed to know: that gluten wreaks havoc on my system, and my symptoms improved dramatically without it in my diet. In his words, adding gluten back into my diet to confirm the diagnosis is “just too dangerous.” After ordering a colonoscopy, he diagnosed me with proctitis and advised me to stay gluten free to control my symptoms of colitis, and that there was a high likelihood all the bleeding in my colon was related to my gut issues, despite the fact that the test didn’t show it yet.

But here I was hearing IBS again. In this doctor’s opinion, the results from my previous colonoscopy were inconclusive. He just wasn’t convinced I had Inflammatory Bowel Disease at all. So he ordered a colonoscopy to investigate and confirm his theory.

And this, friends, is why tests are so important: the colonoscopy settled once and for all that I do, in fact, have Ulcerative Colitis.

After the procedure he very matter-of-factly reported I do have ulcerations in my colon, which means I do in fact have a form of Ulcerative Colitis, and the condition will likely progress and it puts me at a significantly higher risk for colon cancer.

The weight of his words fell softly on my shoulders because I already knew all this. Somehow, deep down in my bone-tired gut, I knew.

I wasn’t sad about it, exactly, but wrapping my head around the facts that finally prove IBS does not capture the whole of what’s wrong stung. I felt like I wasted twenty years. If I had gotten better insight earlier, would things be any different than they are now?

The whole ordeal got me thinking back to the glory days before any of this started, back when gluten wasn’t off the table and disease wasn’t something I dealt with and food was just food. It was a friend, not a foe, and a source of joy and fun and comfort–not hurt or hardship or pain. I recalled the days when sharing a booth and a burger at Red Robin was a pleasure, not a pain. My best friend Molly would order the the Banzai Burger and convince me to do the same, and we would eat basket after basket of seasoned fries while we mapped out our route through the mall, hitting up Bath & Body Works and Express first; then on to Macy’s and the Disney Store before swinging by the Dairy Queen for Blizzards on our way out the door. It never crossed my mind that one day grabbing burgers with my best friend would be a distant memory, or that I would spend more time mapping out the mall for bathrooms instead of boutiques.

Clearly, things changed.

Twenty years later I know the truth: my gut isn’t just finicky; it’s inflamed. It’s not just distressed; it’s diseased. This condition is life-long, but shoot–it has already been life-long, hasn’t it? It’s ugly and uncomfortable and embarrassing too–but it’s my story, nevertheless, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s valuable in its own way.

I was chopping up leftover pineapple a few nights ago as I wrestled with all this, frustrated again that all this transpired because of a flare up on my 40th birthday–and then it hit me: the timing was a gift, because truth be told I would not have gone to the doctor or had this procedure or gotten the diagnosis I desperately need to move forward had I not had a flare up that day.

I whisked together sticky, syrupy coconut aminos with sharp and biting vinegar, and I remembered again that life is sweet and sour at the same time. The good things and the hard things work together to build a life we can truly savor. Today’s heartbreak is soothed by the sweetness of the memories I brought with me from the time before things changed. I wouldn’t know how to make a dinner like this without a recipe to guide me had I not treasured the memory of munching on Banzai Burgers with my best friend all those years ago. I browned the beef and sautéed garlic and transformed leftover pineapple into a midweek meal that made me miss her like crazy. Then I sat down to the table and scooped out big portions to my girls who ate it up with the sort of gusto that reminded me of the way Molly always did. Banzai Burger Bowls redeemed the memory of those untouched days when gluten and allergies were yet unknown and made it a beautiful moment to treasure instead of a memory to bemoan, and suddenly, surprisingly, I was thankful for all of it.

God does that, you know? When we hand him all the smashed up, broken pieces of our disappointed hearts and let him make them into something new, he does–and what he does with it is good, because he’s good. All the messed up, unfair, heartbreaking circumstances of our lives transform into something beautiful, when we love him and trust his heart for us (Romans 8:28).

And because of that, nothing is ever wasted.

So here I am still recovering from the worst flare up of my life that turns out to be the biggest blessing I could have asked for. The results of the test are not what I had hoped for, but they handed me the answers I need to move forward from here, and friends, that is an invaluable gift indeed. I don’t have to wonder anymore, and I’m thankful for that against all the insufferable odds.

Blessed relief, the medicine is beginning to work. My body is responding to treatment and I see light flickering on the other side of the dark tunnel through which I have walked through for over 20 years.

I’m not well yet, but I’m on my way there. The irrepressible love of food isn’t wasted in my upside down kitchen. Good things happen here too–like Banzai Burger Bowls.


A Good Excuse to Bake, and Cassava Flour Miracle Muffins

I bake when winter’s cold seeps through every nook and cranny, barging inside when it’s not welcome. Spring feels far away on days like these, so I cope by baking blueberry muffins. They brighten the day and remind me that harsh, hard seasons eventually fade into warmer, more welcoming ones, and this season will too.

Winter reminds me of hard days when kitchen life turned upside down. My outlook was bleak. The promise of good food felt elusive, even laughable–nothing like it was in my childhood. Back then the kitchen beckoned, I answered its call out of curiosity, not necessity. I was lucky enough to have parents who indulged my desire to explore to my heart’s content (God bless them). Lots of good stuff came out of those early experiments.

Oh, there were plenty of flops, too, but even the worst of them didn’t deter me from getting back into that kitchen the next day. Trial and error has been part of the process for as long as I can remember. Every miserable failure fueled my drive to get back behind the stove and try, try again. This recipe is the result of that resolve.

Of all the challenges this unconventional kitchen life handed me, baking without grains was the trickiest. Gluten free baking was tough enough, but at least that still uses grains. Learning how to use alternative flours (almond, arrowroot, coconut, tapioca, potato) is like learning a different language. Nuance gets lost in translation, complicating the exchange. Discovering cassava flour was like meeting a good interpreter who makes meaning out of the mess.

Miracles don’t make sense, exactly, but they do have meaning. These muffins are naturally grain/gluten free and accommodate for all the top allergens. (They contain egg, but work beautifully with an egg replacer.). The basic recipe is plain on purpose: it can be dressed up on a whim with all sorts of flavors and textures. Feel like lemon poppy seed? Use this recipe. Curious about cranberry orange? Use this recipe. Craving chocolate chip? Use this recipe. It’s endlessly adaptable.

Today we made blueberry lemon because citrus helps lift our moods in the middle of a dreary day. It reminds us brighter days of spring really will come again and prompts us to watch the miracle unfold.

Until it does, we’ll be keeping warm by baking batch after batch of these muffins. I hope you do too!