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.


He Is Strong, and Hulk Smash Split Pea Soup

Dear Joey,

We spent the first autumn season in our new home watching more than just leaves fall.

We watched Emery fall a lot, too.

Kids run and jump and trip and fall every single day. Bumps and bruises happen. So do skinned knees. Our boy was just as rambunctious and active as any other, until somehow he wasn’t.

When Emery started walking funny, we paid attention. Soon he couldn’t run, really. He shuffled and cried. He couldn’t jump or climb. Next he told us his fingers were tickly.

We never saw it coming.

Read More

The Fruit of Our Prayers and Spiced Brown Sugar Apple Crisp

Dear Joey,

Remember all those years ago when we started praying for fruit? I think about how that prayer has been answered every time I pick an apple off of our apple tree.

It all started because we cancelled our membership to a local Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) because our grocery budget couldn’t really handle the novelty of it anymore. It seemed like a good decision at the time. It was the middle of winter, we were getting a whole lot of lacinato kale, swiss chard and leeks that just sort of sat in our fridge, sad and limp at their lack of use. There were only so many ways we could think to cook a leek, after all.

Even so, my ego took a hit when we decided to forego the delivery service for awhile. I was an informed and responsible consumer and belonging to a CSA made a difference, you know?  But we were still getting used to the expenses that arrive the same day a child does, and so we chose to go back to buying commercially produced fruit and vegetables again, promising we would be more diligent with our dollars for awhile and go back to the CSA when our wallet loosened up a bit.

But time kept us moving along and we didn’t go back. We had another baby, moved in with my parents and started the year long work of saving for a house of our own. In the midst of all that, we started remembering our CSA boxes with the sort of wistfulness that made us long for the ease of just-picked fruit magically landing on our doorstep before the sun came up. We even missed that fridge full of wilted winter vegetables (leeks in particular, ironically, because of those tempura leeks. Hallelujah.) We talked about joining the CSA again, but we just couldn’t seem to make it work for our family. I still felt pretty deflated about it. Even the promise of making it work once we moved into our home, the place we’d plant ourselves and grow together as a family, didn’t really help. And so I did what I always do when I don’t get my way: I pouted.

When I came to my senses, put away my bottom lip and thought about why any of this mattered to me at all, I realized this: something primordial is lost when produce is produced commercially. Food was created to be good. It is supposed to taste good. The way our food system works now, most of us are missing out on the goodness of that food. Everyone knows a tomato freshly plucked from its vine tastes nothing like its mealy, flavorless counterpart available at any major supermarket. Our kids sure do: they spit out grape tomatoes purchased from the store, complaining the little things sting their tongue. But they’ve race toward our own grape tomato bush nearly every morning this summer, picking the firey red ones as fast as they can shove them into their mouths.

God intended for food to taste amazing when he created it. I’m sure of it:

“God spoke: 
‘Earth, green up! Grow all varieties
        of seed-bearing plants,
    Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.’
        And there it was.
    Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,
        all varieties,
    And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.
        God saw that it was good.”
(Genesis 1:11-13, MSG)

I have a hard time believing God only saw the functionality and efficiency of his design as good. This is the same God that illuminates the sky at night with beacons of blazing glory; the same God that infuses a baby’s head with its intoxicating sweetness; the same God that paints flowers in resplendent hue. This is the God that created our food for our nourishment and our enjoyment.

It’s hard to feel like I don’t have a choice but to feed our kids virtually tasteless, pesticide laden foods. It’s hard to teach them to love fruits and vegetables when the ones they’re given are mushy and tasteless.  It’s hard to make a case for eating more of them when it feels more like punishment than something to savor. It’s hard to miss out on experiencing the glory of the way food is supposed to taste.

And so, I began to pray for organic fruit. And I asked you to start praying for organic fruit too. I felt a little foolish suggesting it, but since food is so central to life, I decided a strange prayer like that wasn’t really so weird after all. Plus, I was ready to be rid of the weird mix of guilt, humiliation and longing that still harassed me every time I went shopping. But you didn’t laugh at me. You affirmed me and added to the depth of the prayer, reminding me that fruit is the thing toward which much energy and attention moves; an end product; a result of effort spent. Wasn’t that what we were doing that year, saving for a home? (Not to mention our children’s lives–who they are and who they are becoming–don’t we pray for a rich harvest there, too?) And so, we began praying for fruit. The organic kind.

Eventually, the arduous year of saving for a house produced fruit of its own, and we found ourselves putting down roots in a house with a gnarled old apple tree standing proud in the backyard. I didn’t love the tree at first, but then springtime came and we marveled at they way its blossoms sprang to life and my heart changed. Apples followed, and come back every summer, a very real answer to prayer. We may not be part of a CSA again yet, but we have organic fruit growing at our house.

We’ve been enjoying these apples this summer especially. It’s a little funny that the tree produces before the fall, I think; but I pray our kids remember this summer spent under its branches, picking its fruit and nibbling on them before breakfast in the early morning sunshine. As Addie was eating one just last week, she sighed and said to me, “this is the best apple I’ve ever tasted.”

So many prayers answered, right there, in that beautiful moment.

Love,
Scratch

Spiced Brown Sugar Apple Crisp

The Fruit of Our Prayers and Spiced Brown Sugar Apple Crisp

This recipe evolved from my disastrous first attempt at making a gluten free pie crust. I had never made a gluten free pie before, but with so many apples around, I couldn’t very well not bake a pie, could I? But my best effort nevertheless turned into a salty, gloppy paste. Happily, I have enough of my Grandma Teague’s good sense in me to salvage the apples and make an apple crisp instead. Later, as Joey spooned it into his mouth straight from the baking dish, he announced between bites, “I like this better than apple pie anyway.” 

Ingredients:

For the Filling:
20 ounces peeled and cored apples (crisp and tart-sweet, like Granny Smith), sliced to about 1/4″ (about 4-6 apples, depending on their size. If they are large, you will probably only need four of them, but if they are on the smaller size, you will need six or so).
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 Tablespoons Gluten Free Flour Blend*
2 Tablespoons evaporated cane juice (pure cane sugar works too)                                                 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

For the Topping:
3 1/2 ounces coarsely ground oats (gluten free if necessary)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup Gluten Free Flour Blend*
1/4 cup refined coconut oil
pinch of salt

*This blend contains xanthan gum, but if yours doesn’t, add 1/8 teaspoon to the filling ingredients and 1/4 teaspoon to the topping ingredients. 

Method:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9′ pie plate or glass baking dish (I take the easy way out and use coconut oil spray).

Then, the dirty work: wash, peel, and slice the apples about 1/4″ thick. Toss them into a large bowl as you go and sprinkle the lemon juice on top when you’re done. Give them a good stir, making sure the lemon juice is well distributed among the apples.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients for the filling. Pour the spicy goodness on top of the apples and toss it together as you would a salad so that each apple slice is coated with the sugar mixture; then pour them into the prepared baking dish.

On to the topping: in a separate bowl, cut the coconut oil into the ground oats, sugar, etc., until it looks like coarse sand. Spread evenly over the top of the apples.

Pop the pan into the oven and leave it there for 40 minutes, or until the topping is golden and the brown sugar melts into spicy liquid love, bubbling up around the edges and beckoning to be married with vanilla ice cream.