Candy Hearts

Beer Stew and Gluten-Free Love

Chow Bella has a valentine for you. For the rest of February, we're handing out Candy Hearts -- stories of food and love from some of our favorite writers. Enjoy.

When I met my husband, Tom, in grad school in Tucson, he was cooking on a two-burner hotplate in his dorm room and I was living in an apartment with shiny new appliances, including a stove that had been used only to boil water for tea.

I invited him over to watch the presidential debates, and he made me cannelloni, carefully crafting homemade shells and stuffing them with ricotta, shredded mozzarella and egg. He gently placed them in my Pyrex dish (Don't ask why I had one when I rarely cooked, but I did), covered them in the bubbling tomato sauce he had been tending on one of the pristine burners, and slid the dish into the oven.

See also: - Deborah Sussman's Care Package - Candy Hearts archives

They were amazing. He was amazing. We got married. Well, there was a lot of stuff in between but, eventually, we got married.

Love and food are tangled through our lives, marking the moments, small and large. I remember the first cereal I made for my son the Thanksgiving after he was born, easing it into his little mouth on the spoon with the rubber coating, and the surprised look on his face to taste solid food. And I remember the chicken fajitas I made for my father when he was dying, and how he hugged me and thanked me and told me he loved me. I made mountains of them. I would have made football fields of them if it would have kept him alive.

When I got married, I thought I should cook. I had a handful of recipes: tacos (I know, not really a recipe), tuna casserole (a concoction containing mushroom soup that is so disgusting I can't believe I actually made it and ate it), and my shining glory, beer stew.

Beer stew starts with an inexpensive cut of beef, cubed, rolled in flour and browned. Add chunks of carrots, onions and potatoes, a packet of Knorr Oxtail Soup Mix (which, unfortunately, the company has discontinued) and two cans of beer. Put it in a 350-degree oven until the vegetables are cooked. The beer tenderizes the meat and the soup mix makes a heavenly rich, beautiful brown sauce.

I made this amazing dish for my amazing new husband, lovingly spooning it over a bed of rice, and he smiled as he ate it and complimented my prowess in the kitchen.

Very soon thereafter, he started vomiting. Once, twice, again and again. At first, I thought I must have poisoned him, but I had eaten the beer stew, too, and I was fine. He had the flu, and in the next 24 hours threw up maybe 12 times, each with a slight flavor of beer stew. That was more than two decades ago, and I haven't made beer stew since.

Nearly two years ago, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, an allergy to gluten that damages your intestines. The treatment is to eat gluten-free, which means nothing made with wheat, rye or barley.

Shortly after my diagnosis, I bought the cookbook The Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. In it, Shauna James Ahern writes about falling in love with her future husband, Danny, a chef who converted his restaurant to gluten-free, saying he never wanted to make anything she couldn't taste.

I read this passage to Tom, and he looked at me with an expression mixed with amusement, caring, pity, and disbelief. He would not be taking Danny's lead. He does make many gluten-free dishes for me, but he still makes his gorgonzola-walnut pasta with gluten-y noodles, and he still buys the crusty football-shaped wheat loaves from MJ Bread.

But going gluten-free has provided some love-food-entangled moments. My mother was thrilled to discover that Cheetos, my favorite snack since high school, are gluten-free. And for my birthday this year, my son, now a freshman in college, brought me cookies and cupcakes from Gluten Free Creations Bakery in Phoenix. Love. Pure love.

I continue to experiment with gluten-free cooking, sharing the kitchen with my husband. And I'm thinking that, with some rice flour, gluten-free beer, and a substitute soup mix, I could resurrect my old friend, beer stew.

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Judith Nichols