I spent the weekend as a counselor on a weekend retreat for Jewish high school students. It was basically camp for a weekend – living in bunks, communal meals, grass, lots of activities and not as much sleep, etc. (Well, more sleep than I’ve been getting, because those steroids from a few days ago came with a side effect of 48 hours of ENERGY that even extra doses of benedryl with my zyrtec couldn’t stop. But yeah, not so much sleep if you are a normal person).
I hated camp growing up. I always convinced myself I didn’t, and went back to the same camp for 7 summers, but I spent most of the time wishing I was home or sleeping through activities. But this isn’t about traumatic camp memories. It’s about going back to a childhood experience and reliving it as an adult.
That’s basically been my life these last couple of weeks. It’s becoming clearer to me that I’ve done this whole “allergic to a ton of foods instead of just 20” thing before. I did it for 12 years, as most of my allergies went away when I was around 12. But for about 12 years, the only fruits I could eat were apples, pears, and grapes, the only veggies carrots and tomatoes maybe zuchinni but I don’t remember, and then a bunch of starches – pasta, rice, potatoes – and meat and cheese. Things gradually crept in over the years but primarily, until 12, I ate cereal for breakfast, pasta with cheese or sauce for lunch, and meat and some side of starch for dinner. And it was hard, but it was also the only thing I knew how to do. I remember seeing a 3 year old order olive pizza in a restaurant one time when I was a teenager, and I was blown away because I didn’t know children could eat olives. I couldn’t, I don’t even know that I knew what an olive was until way later (I still couldn’t pick a nectarine out of a pile of fruits, consequence of staying away from things as a child), but I always thought toppings on pizzas were for adults because I couldn’t eat them, but my parents and siblings could (well, my dad could if he were able to eat cheese, but I suppose on cheeseless pizza…). I learned that most kids just eat food and when they can chew and swallow without causing a scene, they can eat whatever.
I still don’t get the concept of “eat whatever” without reading ingredient labels, but I’d grown accustomed to eating a wider variety of foods these last 12 years. And now that I’m back to a super strict diet, I’m remembering that I did this before…and it’s both harder and easier than the last time.
Things that are harder:
1. Chocolate isn’t a fantasy. It was my greatest fantasy (specifically, chocolate covered lox because bagels and lox were culturally important and chocolate is just important in general, especially to kids). I now know what chocolate tastes like, and it is heaven, and it cures all ailments, and is the greatest. And so watching kids eat brownies for snack was excruciating in a way it hadn’t been back when I was in camp and Jewishbrand Oreo-style cookies were the afternoon snack and I could only participate on the days when they had the vanilla ones, too. I’d watch my peers eat cookies and drink orange juice for about half an hour every day in camp and I’d be bored and jealous of the activity, but at least I didn’t know that I loved chocolate.
2. The wheat thing is new, and having to experiment with yeastless, yolkless, wheatless challah recipes every week so I can make the traditional blessing over bread for Shabbat is both a waste of time, messy, and not easy. I’ve tried two recipes and both times was sorely disappointed. The rye bread I tried was like thicker melba toast and not quite bread, and the millet bread I tried was too cakey to call bread until I added enough flour and then it was too floury to call food.
3. As a kid, my mom was amazing and cooked food for me, so even though I couldn’t eat certain things, I didn’t have to think about it much. Did my mom approve it? Then I could eat it. If not, no. Now, I live across the country, and I’m sure she’d help me if she were here (and she does by phone on a constant basis), but thinking of recipes and shopping for ingredients all over the city while working a full time job, and then cooking – it’s time consuming and I’d kind of rather eat Captain Crunch all day.
Things that are easier:
1. People seem to know more about food allergies. When I went to camp, the “camp mother” checked in with me at every meal time, but she sometimes didn’t seem to really know what was up and I remember the cook had a legal pad sized page of my allergies in the kitchen and I’d have to go back and verify it sometimes and I wasn’t ever made to feel like I wasn’t being super complicated. This weekend, the cook was a little aggressive and didn’t let me talk so I felt out of control, but she knew what was up. “You think this is the first time I have heard of food allergies, I cook for 800 people every summer shh, give me the food, I put it in the tin, in the oven, you come back when you’re hungry, and you eat.” Easy. No questions. And the kids didn’t ask questions too much, either. If they did, it was “Are you gluten free?” instead of “Why do you have special food?” which is a hell of a lot nicer. And honestly, the kids asked me fewer mealtime questions than my peers still do, which makes me think allergies are either more common or we’ve raised awareness with a younger generation, but either way, it’s comforting. It’s nice to not be “weird.” Sure, I’m “weirder” and yes, there were kids with mild allergies in my summer camp (ketchup was one that I remember), but when a camper asked “do these brownies have nuts?” and no one asked him a zillion questions, when we were called up to the Torah to recite the blessing in groups that pointed out something interesting but pretty common among us and I joined the “nut allergy” group because the portion was about almond trees, and it was a big group, it felt nice.
By the way – sidenote about my personal camp experience with food – I remember on one day trip, we prepared sandwiches for lunch and they got us hoagies for dinner. I prepared my usual bread and butter sandwich (I could eat peanut butter at the time but it was never good at camp), and asked my counselors if I’d be ok for dinner, and they said sure. And of course I wasn’t. The hoagies all had lettuce on them and there was no other food except cole slaw. And I remember everyone eating in the parking lot of the bowling alley where we’d stopped and a friend coming with me to find a vending machine that maybe had something kosher that I wasn’t allergic to in it (a friend, not a counselor), and I ate a bag of chips or something for dinner, maybe chocolate because by that point I could eat chocolate, and called it a day. And no one gave a shit.
2. I’m less shy about my food issues. I unabashedly walk into kitchens like I own the place, something my mom used to do, and I was terrified of doing. But it’s not scary. And food service workers are nice, sometimes. This time, it afforded me the opportunity to ask the chef what was in a camper’s favorite sauce so that he can recreate it because it’s his last retreat and it’s the food he looks forward to most. Bonus points for helping others. Booya.
3. I’m able to see how much I’ve grown since I was 12. Being surrounded by kids at a moment where I’ve been feeling like the 12 year old version of myself (a little whiny, a little unsure, a little lonely), I realized that I’m actually pretty ok. I survived the trials of childhood and preteendom, including my food issues, and came out a pretty strong, hardworking person who’s pretty relatable. And if I could make it through all that without a strong sense of self and without as big a support network, I can survive eating millet and sweet potatoes and chicken all the time as the woman I am now.
I did this for 12 years. Then I spent 12 years not doing it. It’s kind of even, and I can roll both ways. And I will.
Plus, millet is delicious, and I’m pretty glad I discovered it. That, and lamb bacon. Because OMG. Lamb bacon is orgasmic. But that’s another story.