A Food Editor Opens Up: How to be open and honest about food allergies
When I was in my early 30’s, I ended up in the emergency room: my lips had swollen up beyond imagination. A nurse took one look at me, whisked me out of the check-in line, and urgently commanded me to say what I had eaten. Confused and scared, I actually began to cry. Nothing like this had ever happened before and I was at a loss. I couldn’t possibly be allergic to food. I dined out in New York City restaurants about 3 to 4 times a week. I also had just decided to re-start my career—chasing a passionate dream to create and cook food for people to enjoy. But, after too many trips back to the emergency room and steroid treatments, I got serious with skin tests and food diaries and found out I was allergic to walnuts and peanuts.
In cooking school and my early years working in the food industry, I hid my allergy. I can’t explain why, but I felt ashamed. Some of my close friends and family knew, but I secretly stashed my epi-pen in my backpack and artfully avoided nuts as much as I could. But as my career developed and I became a food editor, I had to come clean about my allergy. Luckily I’ve always worked with people whose palates I trust and who can step in and taste or develop a recipe when I can’t. (Right now I have a peanut butter pancake recipe to create, so I’ll develop the idea on paper, and one of my colleagues will try it out and let me know where the recipe needs tweaking.)
Along the way, I discovered that the easiest way to keep clear of walnuts and peanuts was to cook what I eat. And that remains the best solution. It is fun finding ways around my allergy in a recipe when I am at the helm of the stove. I sub-in nuts I can eat that have similar characteristics to the two I can’t have. I like almonds or cashews for peanuts and while not really the same, I often use pecans in place of walnuts. Plus, I find that sometimes adding in grain in place of the nut gives me a satisfying texture and nutty flavor. Since reading labels is an automatic habit when I buy ANY item now, it unfortunately puts a lot of prepared foods on my no-buy list.
Eating over at friends used to be stressful when I was underground about my allergy. I still get a little embarrassed about having caused so much controversy—upsetting a host who felt they’ve made some entertaining faux pas by serving me an offending nut. Dining out was a challenge, too. I would ask probing questions about how menu items were prepared but never reveal why I was grilling the server. It took an annoyed chef friend, who knew about my allergy, to tell me to just be direct and let the kitchen know. Wow! That changed everything. Suddenly the nerve-wracking ordering was over. I simply stated my allergy and people bent over backwards to make sure I still had a great dining experience. Sometimes chefs are overprotective and won’t serve me any nuts whatsoever, despite my assurances that I can have certain ones. Sometimes my mouth waters over what I missed even if the alternative is pretty fabulous, too. Now I apply the advice to my friends. Upon an receiving an invitation, I let the host know about my allergy. Everyone’s happy, and no one gets hurt.
Unlike little kids, I can speak up for and police myself. But having a food allergy has upped my empathy for parents of children with food allergies. I used to get a little annoyed when parents in my daughters preschool used to complain about nut-free policies. I do hope those attitudes change and become as accepting as my friends, restaurant chefs, and my colleagues are with me. I wouldn’t want young kids to feel that embarrassment I used to carry about my food allergies. I have come to learn that food allergy shame just isn’t necessary at all.
Check out these three recipes and how I would go about adapting them to make them safe for me to enjoy.
Zucchini-Walnut Cakes I adore zucchini and love the idea of these veggie dinner patties with their tangy sauce. The uncooked quinoa gives the cakes texture. Almond flavor would probably work better than pecan in this case so i would sub that in. Or I might try the cakes without nuts--maybe upping the quinoa by a couple of tablespoons.
Spicy Soba Noodles with Chicken in Peanut Sauce One of the things I really miss about not eating peanuts (but not nearly as much as peanut butter cups) is that the Chinese take-out dish, cold sesame noodles, are a no-go. Here's a recipe that's in a similar vein. I sub in cashew butter for the peanut butter. It's not the same, but it makes me pretty happy. Folks who can't eat any nuts at all might enjoy this dish with soy butter in place of the peanut butter.
Wheat Berry Salad with Goat Cheese Here's an example of a dish that gives me satisfaction when I am yearning for nutty flavor and nut-like texture. Grains like wheat berries and farro really deliver on that front.