Food Allergies and Communal Meals, Rant 1: Hosts

A hot topic lately has been the role of the guest vs. the host in a communal meal, when the guest has dietary needs. The New York Times covered this issue in some respects in this article and there’s a great blog post about the perils of potlucking that I discovered in September’s Living with Food Allergies Blog Carnival.

That, and the never ending Jewish holidays that have been cycling through, has got me thinking about this issue – does the host need to accomodate the food allergic guest?

I honestly don’t know. I’m not much in the way of etiquette, and I believe “to each his own” and I’m always grateful to dine with others. I mean, keeping kosher in Hollywood essentially means I’m left out of meals half the time, and I’m totally cool with that. I don’t expect my friends to bring in kosher food (though it’s extra nice when they do) and I’m comfortable bringing my own food to restaurants, parties, and homes.

Why then, am I less comfortable doing so when the issue isn’t kosher, but rather my food allergies? To rephrase: I am comfortable bringing my own food places — and I had to until very recently, doctors orders, etc. — and I’m grateful for any invitations to co-dine, and grateful when people make food I can eat even if the entire menu isn’t suited to my needs. But I’ve been noticing an interesting trend lately, and it’s got me thinking about how people tend to host.

See, almost every communal meal I’ve participated in as of late has involved a host who has been super nice about my food allergies. BUT, the host almost always asks if he or she can make a dish I am allergic to and serve it as well, or the host agrees to cook food for me, but to cook other food for the rest of the diners.

That’s fine. That’s nice. But…I don’t quite get it. The reasoning is twofold: 1, will there be enough food, and 2, what if they make a mistake?

I sort of buy the first reason. My diet isn’t what people want to eat, but they enjoy my company, so they invite me over. It’s nice and I’m grateful, though I do sort of wish people would be more creative in their kitchens — it’s fun! And then I don’t have to be uncomfortable or scared but too polite to say anything!

I don’t really buy the second reason. If you’re scared you’ll make a mistake, wouldn’t it be better to only cook food I can eat? Making two separate meals is extra work, more expensive, and doubles the likelihood of cross contamination. So many people have opted to do this when hosting me, though, that I feel like I’m missing something. As Carre Bradshaw would say: I wonder, is the fear that you will make a mistake, or is the fear that the food I can eat won’t taste good enough for the rest of the guests?

Look, I’m totally fine eating special food, not sharing, and delighting in delicious food other people are too scared of. Good company is more important anyway. But I feel like there’s a disconnect. People think they can’t make the right food for people with food allergies. I don’t believe that. A friend of mine’s mother once said, “Look, there are a lot of things I say I can’t do that I know I could do. I just don’t want to. Do I think I could learn how to work the thermostat? Sure, I’m smart. But would I rather just put on a sweater? Yes. So I say I can’t use the thermostat. It’s just easier.”

I think hosts feel that way about food allergies. Trust me, it’s not that hard to cook differently. It’s annoying, it’s daunting, but it’s not hard. Making green beans isn’t any more difficult than tossing a salad — in fact, it takes less effort! But if you always make salads, branching out to green beans seems hard and intense. We’re creatures of habit. We don’t like to break molds.

People with food allergies — and I’d venture to say, especially parents of kids with food allergies — are good at adapting because we have to. We learn to cook for ourselves and for others. I try to accomodate every dietary need of anyone who comes to my home for a meal, even if it’s a diet for fun/weight loss/choice/etc. I’ve almost always succeeded, and in the cases where I haven’t been able to, it’s been the rare instance of my allergies mixed with a squash sensitivity mixed with Paleo. Maybe I could have done it, but considering this was back when I was on the super duper strict diet and basically only eating squash, I didn’t have enough foods to avoid corn for the paleo eater. But with allergies, sensitivities, diabetes, and new babies, I find I’m able to make a menu work. Yet, I can imagine that someone who isn’t used to making substitutions would find the task too difficult.

I don’t know whose responsibility it is to prep for the food allergic person — I think it is the food allergic person’s, because you can’t ever trust that someone isn’t going to make a mistake, and you always need to be prepared to a)get sick and b)avoid foods. It’s best to eat a little bit in advance if you’re attending a meal elsewhere, just in case you discover your host totally forgot about your onion powder allergy, or can’t quite remember the ingredients to the sauce but thinks they used the bottle in their trash and nothing else, maybe, but the ingredients in said bottle are cryptic and involve words like “spices.” Plus, if you don’t look out for you, you can’t expect others to.

However, I think it would be cool if hosts took on food allergies as a challenge and tried to make a meal that works. It’s not like the food allergic person is moving in and eating every. single. meal. with you. It’s one meal where you have to adjust your menu. Maybe you’ll find something cool. Maybe now isn’t the time to show off your really cool cod in mushroom sauce with praline topping dish that’s become your signature. Maybe now is the time to explore your kitchen and show off your creativity.

A friend recently had me over for a meal that only involved foods I could eat, except for a non-organic veggie platter and one kind of chicken (though she just happened to be making two kinds of chicken anyway and no one was going to eat both kinds). She appreciated that she got to play in the kitchen and make side dishes she would never have thought of. And they were delicious — everyone thought so. It would be cool to see more hosts try their hand at that exploration.

Though, I’m still grateful to be included, and still willing to bring my own food. Because ultimately, a meal isn’t about the food that’s served. It’s about the company that’s kept, the conversations around the table, and the joy of being together. Breaking bread — gluten free or otherwise — is just a way to keep our hands busy.

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September’s Living with Food Allergy Blog Carnival

I’m so thrilled to be a part of this blog carnival, with some amazing posts by other writers and members of the food allergic community.

Weird that I think of it as a community nowadays, but I do. It’s as though at every corner I meet someone new with a food allergy or two…or several. And it’s kind of nice to know that people are more open about this health issue and what it means for how we eat, etc.

Anyway, check out the carnival here. I particularly connected with The Journey of Food Allergies post and I thought this teenage boy’s take on kissing with a nut allergy was just delightful. But read the rest of the posts, too — lots of great information in there! And thanks to Caroline “Grateful Foodie” for hosting!

Emmys! (and some hives)

It’s the superbowl of TV…the Emmy Awards! Only, there’s no typical food for this major American holiday, which is a shame. It’s my turn to host the Emmy’s “party” this year (read: a few friends in sweatpants sitting on a couch watching the show), and I decided to cook what will maybe become an Emmy’s staple menu.

Main Dish:

Homemade pizza — for recipe, see here.

Side:

Fried zucchini — essentially, zucchinni fried with garlic, salt, and pepper.

Dessert:

Strawberry chocolate oat muffins – a twist on my pumpkin oat muffins (vegan! gluten free! nut-free! woo-hoo!) only with pureed strawberry and some chocolate powder instead of pumpkin…or cherries

It all would have been an absolutely SUPERB dinner to accompany a really incredible Emmy show (Homeland! Homeland! Homeland!) but I erupted into hives for a reason I simply can’t understand.

Or maybe I can understand it. Last Monday, on the second night of Rosh Hashana, we had the traditional new fruits to make a blessing for the new year. I am allergic to most fruits, certainly exotic fruits, so I didn’t eat them. No one anticipated an airborne reaction, because there was no horseradish involved. And yet, I broke out into hives for a few days following that meal. My guess right now is that I had an apple that was right next to the fruits, and as with the horseradish incident of Passover, I think the apple absorbed some of the other fruits’ essences. Apples are pretty absorbent — they’re known to absorb most of the pesticides sprayed on them, for instance — and since I had definitely not overdosed on apples and that’s what I was eating when the hives began, I can only imagine they are the culprit. It’s been under a week, and I haven’t been strict about my Benadryl usage, but these sorts of hives can reappear for days. So I’m betting it’s that. Or I overdosed on wheat, with it being in the pizza, and having challah pretty regularly as part of all the ritual meals. Not that I’ve been eating a ton of challah, but I’ve had less wheat over more time than in most weeks (most weeks I eat wheat only on the weekends, in huge amounts. This week, I’ve had bread at many meals, but in small amounts).

Either way, my traditional Emmys meal was slightly marred, but very delicious, so here’s to hoping that next year:

a) I’m closer to winning an Emmy

b) my allergies are in check enough to eat the above foods totally 100% safely

Recipes: Spanish Rice and Homemade Pizza

Integrating dairy back into my diet while keeping pasta out hasn’t exactly been easy. But here are two great recipes that have become my go-to in lieu of pasta, cheese, and sauce. They’re kind of gourmet, definitely delicious, and really easy and quick.

Spanish Rice

Ingredients:

tomatoes (2-4, depending on size?)

peppers (the more colorful, the better. 2-3 depending on size, or 3/4 a box of the tiny bell peppers)

white rice

garlic

thyme

oregano

salt

pepper

parsley

cayenne pepper

(if desired: cilantro, cajun seasoning, onion)

oil

water

cheese (cheddar, mozarella, jack — whatever!)

Cut up tomatoes and peppers. Cover the bottom of a pot in oil and heat the peppers and tomatoes. As they are heating, add in 1 cup rice and 2 cups water and the spices. Cook the rice according to the instructions on the bag. Stir occasionally to mix the vegetables and spices with the rice. When the rice is done (ie, all the water is absorbed), add the cheese. You can bake it if you like, or microwave it, or just allow the cheese to melt of its own accord.

Eat and enjoy!

Homemade Pizza

Eggplant pizza

For this one, I followed this recipe for dough: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/pizza-dough-i/

For the sauce, I heated a can of ground peeled organic tomatoes in a saucepan, added oregano, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. You could also add basil and garlic if you desire.

Knead the dough into a circle. Add on the sauce and top with shredded pizza cheese (or any shredded cheese of your choosing), and whatever toppings you like. Bake for about 20-25 minutes.

I made 3 small pizzas from the amount of dough in the above recipe, and had quite a bit of leftover sauce in my fridge.

The whole thing actually made me not understand pizza stores. It took me 45 minutes total to make the pizza, including a mental breakdown about converting dry yeast measurements into instant yeast measurements, hating myself for not understanding fractions, and celebrating when I figured out the math. This conversion website was extremely helpful: http://www.traditionaloven.com/culinary-arts/baking/dry-yeast/convert-ounce-oz-of-dry-yeast-to-tea-spoon-tsp.html

Anyway, going to a pizza store involves driving, waiting in line among loud people who are usually irritating, chancing cross contamination, eating on a dirty tray, and driving home. And for what? $3.00 a slice? For less money overall, you can bake your own healthier (read: less oily) pizza and enjoy it in the comfort and quiet of your own home.

I think my allergies have made me crotchety.

Food Challenge Round 7: Cindy vs. Tahine

This was probably my least favorite food challenge. I challenged tahine (aka tahini), a sesame paste/sauce food that I’ve always hated. Why test something I hate? Well, because it’s in hummus, and I love hummus, and have to challenge that as well. So this was like the pre-req for hummus. Hummus 101 or something.

It was also not my favorite challenge, because I’ve come down with a virus, and mixing that with new foods on a rainy day is just wrong. So while the challenge didn’t go poorly, it didn’t go well, either.

I forced the tahini – homemade, btw, not hard but I can’t recommend recipes for gross foods – down plain, and was mostly fine. Until I had crazy ear burning. It was awful. And then my tongue got a teensy bit bigger, but I was fine, coherent, and only a little whiny. I had to take a Claritin, but it was enough to get me to hummus next week and to prove I can have foods that may have come into contact with sesame (read: challah and bagels).

So, overall, C+. Not bad. Probably would have been happier with the result if I didn’t spend the rest of the day sick, but what can you do? At least I can sort of maybe kind of eat sesame.

In other good news, my friend S is visiting this week, and the last time I saw her was her last night living in LA, the day I got my original skin test results. It’s crazy to think how far I’ve come. When you spend time with a friend and it feels like no time has passed, and then you look back and realize that in that same time period, you went on a crazy diet, on a crazier diet, off the crazy diet, and started a food challenge process — not to mention switched jobs twice — it’s kind of jolting, in a good way. Last time S was here, we baked oatmeal pumpkin muffins because I was having a breakdown about never eating another baked good. Today, I ate homemade pizza made with wheat like it was no big deal. Maybe next time she comes to town I’ll eat pizza from a store?

Nah. Homemade is way better. Recipe to come!

Food Challenge Tally

Cindy – 5

Allergens – 2

Up next: Hummus