So Cindy, What Can You Eat?

When people find out about my food allergies, one of the first questions they ask me is: “What can you eat?” That seems like a perfectly acceptable question, but the truth is, I can eat a lot of foods and I probably can’t think of them all on the top of my head.

In fact, I believe I probably have a more varied diet than the average American. Because  I can eat fewer foods (though still many), I eat most of them. Whereas, when you have the whole world of food open to you, you make select choices based on what’s easy, what you prefer, and what’s familiar. There’s got to be a term for this, but I just came off a 12+ hour day on set (fabulous shoot btw) so all I can think of is the tyranny of the majority. Which, if you think of certain food groups as the oppressed minority sort of maybe makes a little bit of sense if you’re willing to really stretch for it.

Think about what you ate this week. Maybe not you, loyal readers, as you probably care quite a bit about food (you’re reading a food blog, after all) and that separates you from the masses. But think about the people around you and what they eat. Same lunch day in and day out? Similar dinners? Making a large pot of food on Sunday and spreading it through the week? Probs.

In a typical week (I’d count this week, but I’ve got a cold and had an allergic reaction yesterday so I’m all out of sorts), I eat:

chicken

turkey

lamb

beef

cheese

eggs

beans

rice

corn quinoa pasta

potatoes

sweet potatoes

squash

zuchinni

eggplant

cereal

bread

green beans

pineapple

apples

pears

grapes

chocolate

chips (either corn or potato)

And that’s not counting lentils, millet, carrots, quinoa, tomatoes, and peppers which make regular appearances in my diet.

I don’t always use the same recipes, I don’t always eat the same combos at meals, and of course, I only eat each food item 3 times a week.

I feel like I have a fairly diverse diet each week. Fine, so I can’t experiment with new foods (except weekly, when I experiment with new foods at the doctor’s office), but I eat what I can. I’m not saying I don’t get bored. Oh, boy do I get bored! But most of the time, it’s easy as switching out Honeycomb for Captain Crunch. Or eating white beans instead of black beans. Yams instead of sweet potatoes. Meatballs instead of pepper steak.

I think back to two years ago, when I was overdosing every day on pasta (with sauce and cheese for lunch and chicken or beef for dinner…occasionally subbing pasta for rice). I could eat a lot more (sort of, I mean, since no doctor had told me I couldn’t yet), but I actually ate a lot less.

Too often, I think of my allergies as a burden. This week, especially, when I reacted to nothing, simply because I’m already under the weather. But then, I realize that in a lot of ways they’re a gift. Today, I’m focusing on how they’ve taught me to broaden my horizons, care more about my daily food intake, and pay more attention to nutrition in general.

Now excuse me, as I plan for tomorrow’s lunch…

Food Challenge Round 1: Cindy vs. Wheat

I went to the allergist’s office this morning for the first of what will be many food challenges. Box of whole wheat matzah in hand, I was half-nervous, half-thrilled. I thought I knew what to expect — all the research I did indicated that the food challenge would consist of the following elements:

1. Rub the food on my arm

2. Rub the food on my mouth

3. Eat the food in small bites, over the course of a couple of hours

4. Wait to see if I stop breathing/swell/etc.

It was nothing like what I expected.

The doctor called me into his office – not the examination room, his actual office, and asked me what I intended to try. He wrote down the specifics of the matzah – company name, where it was made, ingredients. Asked me how much matzah I typically eat. I said 2 pieces, though I don’t really know since matzah is a once a year type food, usually. He said cool, eat up.

I asked if I needed to stagger it. Or do it slowly. He said not to do it quickly, but however I would normally eat matzah, I should.

So I chomped away, trying not to get irritated by the loudness of my own chewing, and ate some matzah. The first bit was awesome. After that, it tasted like old whole wheat matzah, which is really nothing to get excited about.

The doctor went to check on another patient (also a misconception on my part, I had heard that there would be no other patients), and returned to find me starting the second piece.

“How is it?”

“It’s fine, but it’s not April. It’s not Passover. Matzah is like fine.”

He pulled out a mezuzah because we were having a seriously Jewish moment.

I asked him, “What do people who aren’t aware of matzah do their food challenges on?”

He said, “Pasta.”

I nearly spit the matzah out of my mouth. “I COULD HAVE BROUGHT PASTA?!”

He said, “Don’t worry, we’ll do pasta next week.”

HOLD THE PHONE.

Seriously, hold the frickin phone.

Was he implying that my matzah wheat test wouldn’t permit me to eat pasta?

Yes, yes he was.

I stopped eating the matzah. I asked him what the matzah test would allow me to eat and he said, “Matzah.”

“Bread?”

“Nope, come back for bread.”

“Who wants matzah?! Why do I care if I can eat matzah? It’s not April. The nurse said I had to bring in something that was just flour and water, no yeast.”

“You can have yeast. Do you want bread?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Go get bread.”

And he called the Rite Aid around the corner and asked if they sold bread. They did, so he sent me off to buy some.

First of all, I was leaving the doctor’s office in the middle of what I expected to be a life/death event. But clearly, it wasn’t. I mean, I knew matzah wouldn’t kill me and I wasn’t feeling even a hint of sick, so I was comfortable going. Except I was nervous, because a)a lot of packaged breads have traces of other things that I can’t have and b)in LA, it’s almost impossible to find bread that is kosher certified that doesn’t come from a bakery.

I called my mom, and we discussed that, because it was a medical test, it might be possible to use kosher (albeit non-certified) bread for it.  We were uncomfortable, but hey. It’s bread, not pork, and I can’t have most oils anyway. 

I go to the Rite Aid and they had seven kinds of bread.

The first six had any combination of barley, malt, sesame, and flax — all of which I have to challenge on their own.

The last one didn’t seem to me like it would work. It was Hawaiian sweet rolls from a company I’d never heard of or seen — King’s Hawaiian.

I read the ingredients. Out loud. All ok. I read them again. All ok. And I spot a certification symbol.

I will be eternally grateful for this bread.

There is a God, by the way. And He is awesome. I mean, He has to be. This was magic bread that I had never seen before. With a symbol I had never seen before. Without any of the ingredients all the other breads had.

I bought a package and went back to the office, and continued eating. I told the doctor my sad tale about not finding a good selection of breads, and he wasn’t surprised,but he was surprised the bread was kosher. (I could have a PhD in package-reading, I think).

And I ate it. And it was delicious and successful. I can eat Hawaiian Kings bread! After waiting about 45 more minutes, the doctor determined I had no swelling, hives, or breathing issues, and I was ready to go.

But not before I asked him a BILLION questions. Because I wanted to eat pasta, and I was not leaving questions for the nurse (who is lovely, but obviously my case is not standard).

Q. Can I pretty pretty please try pasta at home? It was the only food I ate as a child, practically. I’ve eaten it my whole life. When I could eat nothing else, I ate pasta. 

A: Yes, if I promised to eat it during his office hours so that he could conveniently take care of me, and just this once. But if I called him after hours about the trial going wrong, I’d be on the bad list.

Q. Can I eat other breads, or only King’s Hawaiian?

A: Only King’s Hawaiian, unless I bake the bread myself, or speak directly to the baker. Packaged breads are a no-g0. Bakeries and restaurants must be called.

Q: Can I eat cookies, cake, cereal?

A: They all have to be challenged separately, but I am free to make anything myself so I can monitor the ingredients.

Q: This will take basically a year, then, if I have to test every product in his office?

A: Yes, and he’s insulted that I don’t want to spend the quality time with him.

Q: Is it the same thing for all foods, or just wheat? Meaning, when I try olives, does that mean I also have to try olive oil separately and vice versa?

A: Yes.

Q: How does one try malt, which is in everything?

A: I bring in a product that has malt that I can have every other ingredient, no question. And then keep bringing in malt products.

Q: When does it end? How can I try every product in the world under his supervision without being crazy?

A: That’s a good question, and we will be realistic, but let’s start with different categories and see.

Q: How often can I challenge food?

A: Once a week, at least 24 hours between.

Q: Can I eat things processed with wheat or containing traces of wheat?

A: Yes

Q: Can I immediately incorporate the foods I tested negatively to that I had previously avoided?

A: Yes, but in small portions because I can’t overdo it. And yes, I can try them all at once. For instance, I can eat rice and potatoes in one meal as long as I don’t eat too much rice or too many potatoes.

Q: Do I have to stick to the 3 times a week rule?

A: Yes, and organic, and peeled.

Q: What about no processed foods or things I don’t make myself?

A: If they don’t contain a challengeable item, eat them.

Q: Herbs and spices?

A: Fine, if I tolerated them in the past.

Q: What foods do I not challenge?

A: Anything that I tested too high for (hazelnuts and fish), anything I have reacted to knowingly (walnuts, blueberries), anything that is not important to me.

Q: Can I eat at restaurants?

A: If I speak to chef or know the chef/owner. Same with bakeries, etc.

Q: Can I eat at my cousin’s upcoming catered bat-mitzvah on a weekend in NY?

A: Absolutely not. I cannot try any of these things in NY.

Q: Can I eat processed meats like hot dogs or deli?

A: Not without challenging them, and I have to challenge each company’s meats.

I think my challenges are different than the ones I’ve read about because I am an adult with a history of success with these foods, and a history of mysterious reactions. Most of the available information is for children, and children outgrow allergies quicker and have less of a case of, “But I’ve eaten it before.” Twenty fours years of pasta is good enough to try it at home, but given the mysterious reactions that were happening daily a year ago, I have to assume there are some products that just don’t work for me. Some mixtures, or manufacturing plants, or ratios, or what have you.

My new boss, like my old one, is being really nice about the fact that I will have to spend 2-3 hours a week at a doctor for the foreseeable future (though I am trying to get 7:30am appointments). So that’s good — I think I’ve determined that I should only ever work for people named Jason, because I really shouldn’t be this lucky twice in a row. Also good — since every processed cookie or whatever will have to warrant time off and I’m a workhorse, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting aboard the junk food wagon any time soon. That’s a step toward a healthy lifestyle.

It’s a little irritating that I can only eat this King’s Hawaiian bread, but it’s delicious bread — seriously, I almost cried when I ate it and I have been craving more all day, and not just because it’s the first bread, but because it’s damn good. I called two of the bakeries I like here — Bagel Factory and Got Kosher — to figure out if I have to bake challah, and Got Kosher’s is ok. Bagel Factory’s enriched flour included malt and barley.

And yes, I called up two stores and said, “What do you enrich your flour with?” and yes, it came off suggestive, and no, I’m not ashamed.

Many thanks to my mom, who spent my childhood calling up restaurants and companies to see if I could eat their food.  Having made two of those calls, I’m already worn out, and I know there are more to come. But hey. I’m educating the public and learning about food myself.

But for now…I basically got the greenlight on Captain Crunch, which was my go-to at the start of this madness. So if you’ll excuse me, the Cap’n and I have to go make it happen.