kung hai fat choi!

Almost one year ago, I leaned up against the railing of a Chinese junk on a New Year's boat cruise, and tried to soak in the view of Victoria Harbor with Hong Kong's crowded skyline as backdrop. It was a beautifully clear night, if a bit chilly, and we were enjoying an open bar and a steak dinner with friends, waiting for the fireworks display over our heads. I had a 3 month old at home (and an almost 3 year old), and we were both aching, I think, at the separation, though I didn't regret the experience at all, knowing how our lives were about to change. Matt had just barely begun the job search, and I remember wondering where we would celebrate the next Chinese New Year, knowing that wherever it was, it would be very different.

And different it was in many ways, but in others, not so much. We knew we wanted to somehow keep this celebration alive in our family. The great thing, however, about celebrating someone else's holiday is that there is absolutely no guilt or anxiety about having to do everything, or do it right. For instance, if it really was our holiday, then we would have to turn the house inside out with major spring cleaning, get everyone new clothes and wait in crazy long lines at the bank to procure fresh new bills for the lai see packets.
Instead, I got out our New Year decorations that conveniently pull the eye away from the dust, looked online to find a (hip hop!) lion dance up in Cleveland, and threw some chocolate squares in the red envelopes. There were no long lines to contend with, no displays of ferrero rocher candies everywhere you look, no flower market with its riotous beauty, no anxiety about how much lai see to give the doormen.

We debated having friends over or not, since it was to conclude Matt's monthly weekend on duty. But we did, and like always, I am so glad we did. Hospitality is a lot like exercise, I've decided. Rarely do you feel like you have the energy, but then the doing of it gives you far more energy and love than it takes.
We made pinwheels (the advantage of having an art teacher for a friend!), ate lots of food (egg tarts! I made egg tarts! They were easy, and I figured out a dairy-free, gluten free crust that was actually flaky), and then went outside with sparklers and a floating lantern. We felt blessed to have new friends to share this with, and happy that Chinese New year will continue to mean something to Finn. Even though I missed the flower market, my (indoors, forced) forsythia branches bloomed just in time. And though our little sparklers paled in comparison to Hong Kong fireworks, they were perhaps even more beautiful for the little hands that got to hold them.
All in all, it was an auspicious beginning to the Year of the Dragon, a down payment on what we can only hope will be a year of continued feasts with new friends, and more beauty than can be held in one's hand.


We're not starving.

Cumin and garlic scented carnitas, braised in their own juices, then made crispy in the rendered lard and piled on corn tortillas with avocado, cilantro and lime.
Cornmeal-battered fish sticks with corn muffins, oven fries, and coleslaw.
Mushroom risotto and roasted, brined chicken with crispy kale.
Roast beef, yorkshire pudding, and roasted root veggies.
Crepes with creamed spinach and prosciutto.
Steaming bowls of pho, filled with rice noodles, bean sprouts, rare sliced beef, cilantro, mint and lime.
Individual baked egg custards, rich with coconut milk and cinnamon.
Peanut butter rice krispy treats.

This doesn't sound like deprivation, does it? We're certainly not starving.

I can't say we've never eaten better, or that I don't miss soft runny cheese and a good baguette. But -- I can say, and say truly, that we've eaten better the past month than we have since moving to Ohio. School started, Matt's evening duties piled up, and pretty soon our evening meals were thrown together affairs that were fine, perfectly nutritious (and to be honest, probably better than most people's thrown together meals.) But there was little love put into the planning or execution of these meals, and the mealtime showed it. Oh, not that there was chaos or anything. But it perfectly coincided with a picky stage in Finn's eating journey, and so without our even realizing it, dinner was spent discussing how much Finn should eat of any particular food and how long he should stay at the table. And you know that once big brother has left the table, little sister isn't far behind.

But then. Then wheat and yeast had to make a speedy exit from our kitchen, and along went many of our quick meal standbys: ramen, pasta, sandwiches, french toast. And once I got serious about eliminating all the soy, most conveniences foods disappeared as well.

In truth, it's not a hard diet to follow. There are plenty of available foods out there. You just have to cook, and mostly from scratch.

That first night, I made pho, something we had eaten often in Hong Kong but rarely since coming home. And you know what? Matt and I couldn't stop exclaiming over it, Finn told me I made the bestest pho in the world and we all had second helpings. An hour later, we got up to start bath time. An hour later! Finn told us about preschool, Willa made us all laugh, and we felt like a family.
The next night, homemade fish sticks and oven fries and crispy kale accomplished the same miracle. We stayed at the table, we ate, we laughed.
It hasn't stopped. Forced to pour more energy and effort into the food we ate, that food transformed itself again at the table and became a harness, keeping us there, lingering, enjoying both the meal and each other.

It's an old story, really, and hardly unique. A story about restrictions inspiring creativity, and love changing mere food into a meal. You'd think I wouldn't be surprised by this, seeing as how I've studied and written about the many meanings food has in our lives, how often I've said that the best way to get kids to eat is just to cook good food and enjoy eating it yourself. You'd think that with culinary education and years of professional cooking I wouldn't let myself get into a rut. I know it sounds Pollyanna-ish to say this, but it's true: Willa's allergies have been a gift to us.

And as for the allergies themselves, well, eliminating those foods has been a gift as well. She is sleeping through the night for the first time in her life, and we are sleeping through the night for the first time in 15 months. A wonder, it is.

A few specific notes on gluten-free cooking, in case any of you face this, or want to bake for someone who does.
1. glutenfreegirl.com is my go-to site for recipes, ideas, information.
2. I actually do very little gluten-free baking. It's just easier to concentrate on everything that we can eat, like rice, oats, and corn, than worry about making substitutions.
3. The exceptions to this are quick breads, things like muffins, popovers, pancakes, and waffles. Thus far I have found that I can use gluten-free flour blends (like this one from KAF or this whole grain one) in all my regular recipes, without the addition of gums or other weird things, as long as I measure by weight, not volume. This does mean primarily sticking to KAF cookbooks, since they include weights in the recipes.
4. Lunch has been the hardest meal for me to figure out. This diet really requires cooking, and I'm used to cooking breakfast (oatmeal has been our standby for years) and dinner. But lunch has been for so long cheese and crackers, peanut butter sandwiches, or a cup of yogurt. And yes, there are many gluten free convenience foods out there, but since we also can't do soy, dairy and yeast it eliminates a lot. So I've started doing more "breakfasty" things at lunch--pancakes, waffles, eggs. I also make up extra pancakes and waffles and keep them in the freezer to use like bread for making sandwiches or little snacks.
5. Coconuts. This really pertains more to dairy free than gluten free, but can I just say that we might in fact be starving if not for coconuts? We use the oil for almost everything, but especially as a butter substitute when I want a solid fat for creaming. And we use the milk in everything too: mashed potatoes, smoothies, pumpkin pie, frosting, rice. And my best coconut success story: if you scrape the thick cream part off the top and chill it, you can whip it into something very like whipped cream, which goes a long way towards making Thanksgiving feel like Thanksgiving and Christmas feel like Christmas.