Allison Pottern is a writer and reader of all things speculative, with a background in publishing, event planning, publicity, and bookselling. Based in Massachusetts, she can be found teaching craft and book marketing workshops at Grub Street Inc., Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and the MetroWest Writers Guild. She also co-hosts the Speculative Fiction Variety Hour virtual discussion group through The Writer’s Loft. This fall, she will be attending the Viable Paradise workshop as part of their 2023 cohort. Allison is currently working on a cli-fi novel, drinking copious cups of tea, watching plenty of cooking shows, and teaching the virtual seminar Where the Speculative and the Literary Meet: Redefining Genre through Grub Street Inc. Her writing can be found at The Rumpus, The Oakland Review, GrubWrites, and her newsletter Books, Marketing & More. Follow her on BlueSky.
Silver, winter morning. Warm incandescent light. A snick of blue flame at the stove.
The first thing I do when I start making breakfast for my kids in the morning is put on the kettle for me. If it’s Monday, it’s an eggs and toast morning. Scrambled for the youngest, over-easy for the oldest, eggs cracked and sizzling in a buttered pan with a golden slice of sourdough.
But for a long time, even as I served my kids their toast, I rarely sat down to eat with them. I’d just make myself a cup of herbal tea.
I could spend several essays regaling you with the symptoms that made eating breakfast feel impossible. The persistent gut issues that, over the course of two decades, bent my beloved relationship with food and cooking out of shape to the point where I wanted nothing to do with either. But the terms assigned to these conditions—irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disorder—are as unpleasant to say as they are to recount.
Instead, I’ll point to the height of the pandemic and my symptoms, when I had no appetite, terrible reflux, and had fully eliminated acidic, spicy, caffeinated, fatty, and alcoholic food and drink from my diet. I took refuge in homemade focaccia and cooking shows. I remember watching a chef bite into a fried chicken sandwich dripping with vibrant hot sauce and homemade pickles, and realizing: there are people in this world who can eat whatever they want.
It felt unfathomable. So much of my life then—and often, now, still—is structured around the inconstancy of my digestive system. My sleep and exercise routine, the meals I make or order, the clothes I wear, my mental health, my appetite, all hinge on the question: is today a good gut day or a bad one?
A heavy bottomed steel saucepan. A scoop of oats. Two scoops of cold water. A generous pinch of salt.
Wednesdays are oatmeal mornings. I make my kids instant oatmeal, cooled with milk, topped with brown sugar and cinnamon.
I never liked oatmeal until I saw a video of Chef Samin Nosrat preparing her favorite version. Hers wasn’t the thick, bland glop I had long rejected. Hers was chock full of nut butter, dried fruit, and spices, creamy and well-seasoned. I realized I’d been looking at oatmeal all wrong. It didn’t have to be the focus, it could be a canvas on which to play with flavor. Rhubarb compote and peanut butter. Coconut cream and blueberries. Almond butter, cranberries, and maple.
Once I started making oatmeal Nosrat’s way, I started having it every day, even if I could only eat a little. At my in-laws’ house, I tried their gluten-free oats. Then the next time I was at the store, I reached for gluten-free too. Why? The switch wasn’t entirely conscious, just a fleeting thought: it can’t hurt any more than it already does.
For some reason, they tasted better.
Clank and scrape of the pot on the stove. Flick the flame to medium-low. Watch and wait for steam.
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that the gut-brain connection is very real—that there’s two-way communication between the nervous and endocrine systems. Some doctors prescribe anti-anxiety medication for gut and intestinal issues, not because they believe the problem is psychosomatic, but because of the digestive system’s relationship to mental health.
Those with chronic health issues know how exhausting and demoralizing it is to advocate for your health. You learn to tolerate a constant level of discomfort because it’s often easier than explaining yourself to doctors and how all their prescriptives aren’t working. The gaslit feeling that you are inducing your own pain.
So was my anxiety causing my health problems or were my gut issues giving me anxiety?
Whispering bubbles. Several scrapes around the pot with a wooden spoon. A splash of water if the oats are sticking.
“Isn’t there some kind of blood test for food sensitivities?” I asked my doctor, after more specialized tests and medications and yet another kind of reflux diagnosis. I was still convinced that my problems were connected to what I was eating, I just couldn’t figure out how.
“Not really,” my internist said. “Except for celiac. But I’m sure you’ve been tested for that.”
A heaping tablespoon of almond butter. Stirring in a spiral of flecked honey brown, until it’s so thick and creamy it sticks to the spoon.
It's a common misconception that celiac disease is an allergy. Celiac sufferers will even call it that to be taken seriously. In actuality, it’s an auto-immune disease. The immune system of a person with celiac treats gluten proteins as toxic, creating certain antibodies in response; those antibodies then damage the lining of the intestines and affect the body’s ability to repair itself and absorb nutrients. It is notoriously hard to diagnose because there are more than 200 possible symptoms associated with celiac.
Most people have little to no transglutaminase antibodies in their systems. My numbers were through the roof.
A favorite bowl, turquoise and chocolate brown, hand-thrown. A generous serving of creamy, nutty oats. A sprinkling of dried cranberries, a drizzle of maple, a pinch of sea salt.
By the time you’re reading this, I will have been gluten-free for a year and a half. It can take at least that long for the body of a person with celiac to repair itself from long-term gluten exposure. I am on that road to healing. I still remember the first joyful morning, a few weeks after eliminating gluten, when I actually woke up hungry.
This oatmeal recipe has become a sacred, daily ritual. While I’m making the kids’ breakfast, my pot of oats burbles on the stove. Sometimes it’s ready in time for me to eat with them. Other days, I choose to wait until they’re on the bus before savoring my bowl in silence.
If you are on a difficult dietary or health journey, I offer up this recipe in the hope that you too can find something simple and nourishing to look forward to.
Allison’s Almond Butter Oatmeal
This recipe will get you a hot, hearty, nourishing breakfast in less than ten minutes. Prepared as written, it produces one perfect bowl of oatmeal.
Remember: Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.