When Food is Terrifying

Food has long been a major source of pleasure for me. Not in an emotional eating sort of way, (although I’d be lying if I said I’ve never drowned my sorrows in a cupcake or two, or three.) More like: I derive serious pleasure from simple kitchen tasks—grating fresh beets, stirring risotto, massaging kale leaves, and grinding spices. I get joy from the spin of a smoothie in my blender, the heady scent of fresh herbs under my chef’s knife, the sizzle of a chicken thigh in my cast iron skillet. The food and restaurant sections in our magazines are invariably the most dog-eared and fingered; I spend hours poring over them, making lists of restos to visit, dishes to make, recipes to adapt and ingredients to find. Watching my kids sink their teeth for the first time into a juicy summer nectarine—it literally (and I really do mean literally) brought tears to my eyes. Food is my happy place.

Shucking Peas

So when my six month old little guy broke into hives after he voraciously devoured his first scrambled egg, I was upset, to say the least. When the same thing happened after a teaspoon of peanut butter, and then a half piece of whole wheat toast, I panicked. Food allergies?! My kid?! Whaaaat?!

This was not part of the plan. Food allergies were always other kids’ and other parents’ problems. (Except of course to the extent that they stood between my kid and classroom birthday treats. Being a keen baker, I regarded the blanket home-baking ban as more than just a mild annoyance.) The “may contains” warnings on packaged food labels—I always ignored them, and never quite understood them. Peanuts in my pasta? Whatever.

And despite the almost-epidemic proportions with which food allergies arise these days, I figured we were probably safe. I mean hey, I ate real unprocessed organic non-GMO food (a little bit of everything and not too much of anything); I washed my hair with castile soap and cleaned my house with vinegar and baking soda; I birthed my kids the good old way, exposing them to lots of protective bacteria in the process; I avoided antibiotics; I breastfeed exclusively; I followed all the latest and greatest advice on introducing allergenic foods. I was doing it all right. Right?

But the Big Guy in the Sky had other ideas, apparently. I think he probably looked down at my sleepy little food blog and said “pffft….boring! Let’s eliminate eggs, peanuts and wheat and THEN see what you can come up with”.

There is a part of me that wants to retreat from food and cooking altogether, to stand in solidarity with my son. How, after all, can I continue to derive pleasure and joy from something that could KILL my own child? It’s the same part of me that is petrified by every bite that he takes, by every sneeze, cough, eye scratch, and red mark. I introduce new foods with two epi-pens within arm’s reach, ready to inject his fleshy little baby thigh with epinephrine at the first sign of trouble. Yes, there is part of me that is now TERRIFIED by food.

But there is another—and bigger—part of me that is brave, positive and hopeful about this diagnosis.

Brave, because this little guy deserves to love food, to derive pleasure from food just as I do, to share in family meals, to stand on a kitchen chair and roll out cookie dough with his mama and big sister.

Positive, because while there are a few foods that he cannot eat, there are so many delicious foods that he can eat. He loves steel cut oats cooked overnight in coconut milk; fresh ripe mangoes; pumpkin spice buckwheat pancakes griddled in organic butter; chicken thighs braised in Indian spices, ginger and coconut milk; lamb and sweet potato meatballs; steamed green beans; roasted sunchokes; and fresh sliced figs, just to name a few of the things he has tried and enjoyed.

Eating oatmeal, blueberries & figs

Eating chicken, avocado & brown rice

And hopeful, because many children grow out of allergies, particularly allergies to wheat and eggs. And for those that don’t grow out of them, viable treatments are on the horizon. By the time he goes to school, “oral immunotherapy” for peanut and other severe allergies—which is currently being trialled with encouraging results—may at least make food allergic children like him tolerant to traces of their food allergens. Hooray for science!

There are other “bright sides” to our predicament: we have become compulsive food-label-readers and ingredient-Googlers. We get to talk to EVERYONE from the local butcher to the chia-seed-packers about how they prepare, process and package their food. We are learning about how manufacturing lines are assembled, disassembled and cleaned. In other words, we are being proactive, careful and knowledgeable consumers of food products, which we all ought to be—food allergies or not—right?

I know there will be challenges to come: first days of school, birthday parties, play dates, and (gasp) real dates. Our parenting lives won’t be quite as carefree as I envisioned. I may even become some version of the helicopter mom that I swore up and down I’d never be.

But today my son is eating a big juicy nectarine. And I am wiping away the tears of joy.

Eating nectarine

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