Seriously, Whole Foods? Or Should I Be Mad at HuffPo?

Today’s Huffington Post featured a story about an error at Whole Foods. Basically, a bunch of stores carried a curried chicken salad and a vegan version of the same salad that had mixed up labels. In addition to this being annoying for die-hard vegans or chicken lovers, the article also notes that the vegan version contained soy, and the chicken contained egg, and due the mislabeling the allergy information was also incorrect.

And then the article says, “The company, based in Austin, TX, says no illnesses have been reported.”

Um, right. Because most people don’t call up Whole Foods mid-anaphylaxis and say “Hey, any chance your chicken salad was mislabeled? If so, I’d like to report an illness” Most people take epi and then spend their days wondering what got them sick and how.

I once called Trader Joe’s to get answers to why I had a reaction to their food. This was actually the incident that spurred my new allergy testing. I got cheese and crackers from Trader Joe’s for lunch, and a few bites in, starting losing my eye sight. I went to get water, and was shaking as I walked back from the water cooler. Then, BOOM, something happened to my breathing that felt, seriously, like a BOOM, like someone punched me in the lungs and in a Nate Dogg circa Next Episode voice was all “Hold Up!” and I threw my benedaryl at my friend/intern T and he scrambled to open the benadryl and my boss at the time asked if I needed to go to the hospital and I said no and then a minute later was all “I think I should go to a hospital” and my coworker got me a mug of water and looked up directions to St. John’s and T opened the benadryl with his keys and I went to the hospital and they gave me more medicine and asked what I’d eaten and I’d told them that I didn’t know why cheese and crackers did this to me and I decided it was probably the rennet because I didn’t know what rennet was. (If you’re wondering why that was a the world’s longest run-on sentence, it’s because that’s what the moment felt like). Anyway, a little while later, I had T unhook the oxygen from me and tell the nurse I was going back to work. We bought a box of donuts, I went back to work and felt like shit for a while. And then my best friend told me I needed to go to see an allergist because my constant reactions were getting ridiculous, and finally I agreed.

Anyway, after that, I emailed Trader Joe’s because I was super curious. I have done this like a handful of times in my life, and I’ve had way more than a handful of allergy attacks in my life.

This is the conversation we had:

Me:

“Last week, I ate the mozarella balls, and had a severe allergic
reaction. I had to be rushed to the hospital. I have many food
allergies, so I always check ingredient lists prior to eating food. I
double checked the cheese, but none of the ingredients listed match my
allergies. Please let me know if there are any ingredients not listed
in the cheese, or perhaps what “herbs and spices” are used so that I can
make sure I am not at risk in the future. It’s very dangerous to leave
ingredient information off of products, as not all food allergies are as
mainstream as treenuts, milk, soy, etc.”

TJ:

Thank you for providing this valuable feedback. We would like to extend
our apologies for the disappointing experience you had. We believe that
quality is essential to good value, and that’s what we are all about!

I have notified the appropriate department regarding your experience,
and we will continue to monitor this product for future trends. Please
be assured that we do take quality control issues seriously and all
ingredients are fully disclosed within the ingredient list. Trader
Joe’s does not hide ingredients in any product.

I also wanted to make sure you are aware of our “Product Guarantee.” If
you are dissatisfied with any product purchased in our stores, you can
take it back for an exchange or full refund. We stand behind our motto,
“We tried it! We liked it! If you don’t, bring it back for a full
refund, no questions asked.”

Me:

Can you let me know what specific herbs and spices are included in the product, given that it only lists “Herbs and spices?” If I’ve developed a new allergy, I need to know, as this is potentially life threatening.

No response, as their email address doesn’t actually accept incoming messages. Just an auto reply that I should talk to someone in the store. But come on, we all the know the cashiers in the store didn’t make the cheese.

Anyway, after a conversation like that, why would I bother talking to another company? I’m sure the people who ate this soy chicken and got sick probably didn’t call Whole Foods. Or if they did, it wasn’t when Whole Foods was aware of the issue and they probably got a stock response. That doesn’t mean no illnesses occurred. And it sort of bothers me that the article suggests that. It makes allergies — and especially allergy labeling — seem like no big deal. But really, it’s just not the sort of thing you call people about. That’s a big difference.

Ah, nothing like dissecting journalism.

Introducing Christy-Made, a New (Allergy-Friendly, Vegan, Gluten-Free) Baked Good Catering Service

It’s really hard to find quality baked goods that meet all of your allergy needs and still taste like baked goods. For instance, I can have gluten but I can’t have nuts, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bakery that’s nut free but not gluten free or vegan or both. Like, maybe I want an egg and butter filled brownie made of wheat that just doesn’t have traces of nuts. And is baked by someone competent who I can literally trust with my life.

Enter Christy-Made. Christy is an incredible baker (though, moment of truth, her baked goods aren’t kosher so I’m going based on smell and heresay from dozens and dozens of people who I’ve witnessed eat her baked goods) who just started a new catering business where she handmakes baked goods for any occasion and delivers them straight to your home or office or wherever! While her baked goods aren’t necessary specialty (meaning gluten-free, vegan, allergy-friendly, etc.) they can be. She’s really knowledgeable about food allergies and intolerances, and she’s very eco-conscious, too — all the ingredients are local and organic.

Christy was instrumental in helping me understand my bevy of new allergies back in March. Even though she is not an allergy sufferer herself, she knows how to adjust and tweak her recipes to cater to people with special dietary restrictions. She walked me through baking once gluten, eggs, dairy, and xanthan gum were all out of the question. So if you’ve liked my pumpkin oat muffins or anything in that variety, know that I built those recipes using tips and tricks and inspiration from Christy. She helped me figure out foods I could use to replace old staples in my diet, and taught me how to tweak old recipes. So while I haven’t had the joy of actually eating her food, because technically her kitchen/equipment isn’t up to my standards of kosher, I know it’s good, and I know it’s made with care.

So check out Christy-Made. And next time you’re in LA and need a nice dessert, call on Christy. Whether or not you need her to go the extra mile and adjust the recipe to your restricted diet

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

I’m Finally Not Allergic to Milk, and Now It’s Not Kosher?!

I’m going to take a brief detour from the main focus of this blog — my life with allergies — to discuss a whole other food issue. And that is, the question of whether or not cow’s milk is kosher.

For the record, everyone paskens (rules) that it is.

But that doesn’t stop some public figures from expressing their personal stringencies, and what I’d like to discuss is: 1) why that’s a problem for the kashrut-observant Jewish population and 2) why dairy is important and community-wide veganism is unhealthy. And a disclaimer, before I get into it  all — the article I’m referencing was written by Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz, who I know personally and quite like. I think Shmuly is kind, has the best of intentions, is generous, and smart. But I also think his article in this week’s Jewish Journal was very, very dangerous.

The Backstory

This week, Los Angeles’ premiere Jewish publication The Jewish Journal published a cover story called “When You Drink Milk, Does the Cow Matter? Why a Leading Rabbi Believe Milk Today May Be Treif (unkosher).” And I’m betting 98% of the reasoning behind this article was to stir controversy, increase ad sales, and get a ton more clicks to their website. (Has working in journalism made me too cynical?) Even though I really, really, really don’t want to drive traffic to obvious link bait, I also think once controversy is stirred, it has to be addressed, and the below won’t make much sense without reading the whole article. Two sides, and all that. So, with great reluctance: read the full article here.

Fine, these cows are on an organic farm, but don’t they look totally milkable?

some experience).

A few things from the article particularly stood out to me:

In the first paragraph, Rav Shmuly mentions how he and his wife decided to stop consuming dairy products when they got married, but kept it private. Until now, when they found out that the Rosh Yeshivah (head Rabbi of a school) at Yeshivah University, Rav Hershel Schachter, also doesn’t consume dairy products. Apparently, the weight of two people – and as I infer, two people from very different Orthodox Jewish approaches – makes this an issue worth discussing.

Rav Shmuly then argues for the ethics of animals; they are mistreated and certainly we aren’t supposed to derive benefit from the mistreatment of animals. He then states that the benefits we all believe we get from cow’s milk – calcium and vitamin C – are not necessarily the benefits we’re led to believe and in fact, cow’s milk is harmful to us. And there are lobbyists involved.

And the part that really gets to me?

“Experts estimate that if all Americans ate a vegan diet, that alone would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 percent. Changing our diets is the most powerful way to help the environment.”

He also mentions: “We must also consider moving toward almond, soy, rice, and coconut milk alternatives, until the dairy industry cleans up its act. There is no shortage of affordable, healthy, tasty alternatives, so it is relatively easy for us to make the change in accordance with our consciences.”

Why It Bothers Me: From a Jewish Perspective

Rav Shmuly is best known for founding the social justice group Uri L’Tzedek. He’s a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the most left-leaning liberal Orthodox rabbinic school. He’s a poster child for a new way of liberal observance, and is the last type of person anyone would associate with unnecessary stringencies. We expect stringencies from the more ultra-Orthodox community. Even the centrist Orthodox community. But when liberal rabbis start arguing for stringencies, we just give credence to the right and encourage them to keep doing so. While Rav Shmuly agreeing with Rav Schachter is nice and communal hugging and all that, it also gives weight to the potential opinion of “I’m going to follow Rav Schacter’s lead, [by the by, Rav Schachter does not think anyone else, even his own children, should take on his stringency,] even that liberal rabbi guy from Rabbi Weiss’ school holds by that law.” And then what happens? One Jewish Journal link-bait piece stirs up a new movement of veganism.

Additionally, Judaism is not meant to be the sort of religion that forces you to give up all earthly pleasures. It’s not a religion that tries to bind you against living life the way you want to. In fact a person who takes on extra stringencies, such as a nazir who doesn’t cut his hair or drink wine, is told to give a sin-offering sacrifice by the Torah. What’s his sin? Not living the life God laid out for him. We are not add nor detract from the Torah. And sure, maybe halachically (according to Jewish law) we can’t have milk anymore because of dairy practices. But Jewish law is supposed to be LIVED. It’s called halacha — translated from the root of the word “to walk” — because we walk with it. We move with it. It moves with us. Giving up milk — a kosher product — for an assumption about all dairy products in America — is just unreasonable and not livable. And that’s outside the spirit of the law, which includes an element for tircha d’tzivura (an unnecessary extra burden for the community). Should we try to advocate for animal rights? Sure. Should we try to buy milk from cows that are housed on smaller dairy farms? Sure. But that’s harder to rally for, and there won’t be a big enough dent in the dairy industry to make change.

But where there will be dents if milk starts being “unkosher” is in the community. First, let’s look at what giving up dairy products actually requires — and let’s keep in mind that people don’t have all that much money all the time, especially when Jewish day school can be up to $20k a year:

1. Disposing of all dairy pots and pans, and silverware, china, etc.

2. Making a kitchen where dairy was once cooked totally kosher again.

3. Throwing out ANY product in the house that may contain milk. Any dry goods, any cereals, and also any cheeses, ice cream, yogurts, etc.

4. Shutting down every kosher dairy restaurant. This means the loss of livelihoods for any restaurant owner and workers. Oh, and any kosher cheese companies, who also have workers.

5. Stopping to certify products that contain milk, which will be a huge loss to the Orthodox Union and other kosher certification organizations (especially now that the “dairy equipment” label is gone, and anything on dairy equipment would no longer  be able to be certified kosher). This will increase the price of certification on all other products, to ensure the OU and its counterparts have enough money to function, which in turn raises prices of kosher goods.

6. Families who aren’t vegan will need to buy more meat, beans, soy, and lentils to gain the protein from cheese. These items are not cheap.

7. Not everyone will adhere to this ruling, because it’s too insane. So there will be communal rifts where a person won’t eat at another person’s house, or potentially associate with them, if one eats cheese and one does not. We already have a “shidduch crisis (getting-our-children-married crisis)” from all the disparate behaviour in Orthodoxy. Now we’re going to add “Does she eat dairy? Do her parents? Siblings? When did they stop?” to the dating questionaires? Good luck solving that crisis, now.

8. As much as almond, soy, rice, and coconut milk are “affordable” for Rav Shmuly, they’re not really that cheap. A gallon of 2% milk at Von’s is $4.19. A quart of almond milk at Von’s is $3.59. That’s almost the same price for a quarter as much product. Sure, you might be able to splurge if you’re vegan and not buying kosher meat, but it’s unreasonable to think everyone will be vegan.

If milk isn’t kosher anymore, the Miller family will need a new job. Maybe Uri L’Tzedek is hiring.

And all of the above takes into account only “normal eaters.” Sure, if you can eat everything kosher in the world, giving up dairy isn’t hard. I mean, honestly, I gave up dairy and 50 other things for the last few months, and I’m still kicking. Half my original size, more tired, and have like no nutrients, but that’s probably from the other things and not the dairy. I could live without cheese, milk, etc. FOR SURE. It’s a top 8 allergen, so many people live without dairy, and they get by just fine.

BUT they have no choice. Keeping kosher is hard enough when you’re on a restricted diet. Outlawing more foods to constrict our diets even more is just not acceptable for someone who already has biologically imposed food restrictions. And sure, you can argue that God wouldn’t want you to suffer, so you can eat dairy if you’ll be too unhealthy without it (not sure if that argument is valid, but you can argue it), but you’ll still run into problems when it comes to community — just because I can hypothetically eat non kosher food does not mean my family can nor does it mean the community can, and thus I become isolated. And, who wants a food restriction to also impede the way they serve God, or the way they are perceived to do so? The thing that hurts me most about my allergies is the fact that participating in Jewish rituals is harder when I can’t eat the foods. My heart breaks every Passover that I can’t eat the bitter herbs. It’s a reminder of a disability, and just salt in the wound that not only can I not eat properly or play properly or go to work without being sick, but I can’t even serve God to the extent to which a “normal eater” can.

Why It Bothers Me: From an Allergic Perspective

If I were a vegan, I’d live in this supermarket aisle.

Aside from the above, the thing that bothers me the most about this article from an allergic perspective is Rav Shmuly’s call to veganism.

Newsflash: not everyone is able to be a vegan. Whether we want to be vegans or not — I personally don’t believe in veganism and wouldn’t if I could eat everything in front of me — not everyone can.

For instance, if I were a vegan, and living on my current diet, I would only be able to get protein from beans.

No nuts, no soy (not yet), no lentils, no fish. No eggs, no cheese, no meat. Honestly, the only difference for me personally right now would be meat, because I’m not eating those other things anyway, but I can’t go more than a day without meat or I can’t drive properly, much less think straight. People need protein to survive, and I barely get enough of it as it is.

Not to mention calcium. Even if milk having calcium is a myth, like Rav Shmuly insinuates, the other sources of calcium in food are leafy greens, soy, almonds, and white beans. So, I guess I could eat white beans. And get a whopping 96 mg of calcium per serving…which I’m only eating 3 times a week.

And honestly, my diet is totally not sustainable long term. Cheese and eggs will be  a hugely welcome addition. If you can’t have carbs — like most vegans need to — you don’t really get very many calories. I mean, unless you eat a ton of processed foods. And chemicals. Yum, that’s SUPER HEALTHY. And I’m sure the production of those chemicals is awesome for our environment. Rav Shmuly argues that dairy cows have too many hormones and antibiotics being fed to them. That’s animal cruelty. Well, the chemicals is soy burgers aren’t that great for humans. Who knows what the next generation of humans will suffer from because of how many faux-foods and processed foods we ingest?!

Vegans can’t live without soy. And soy is a really common allergen. Now, I’m not a scientist, but I know my body, and I know I got to where I am because of overdosing on foods I was mildly sensitive to. Eating tofu, soy burgers, soy cheese, and soy milk, not to mention actual, you know, edamame, is so unhealthy when it’s consumed that often. We need diversity in our diets. How do you get diversity in your diet if you can’t eat enough? Sure, if you’re a totally normal eater, you’re fine being vegan. But if you have some food restrictions, I don’t think it makes any sense. And with as many as 15 million people having food allergies — not to mention those with Celiac, food sensitivities, diabetes, or other food-related issues — calling for all Americans to go vegan is just not okay.

Calling for all people who keep kosher to give up dairy is not okay, either (and neither is writing an article that suggests as much). Giving up dairy is not a choice for some people. Did Rav Shmuly research how many products have traces of milk? Anyone with a milk allergy knows that it can be heart-breaking to go grocery shopping and read label after label of “Milk. Death. Milk. Death. Milk. Death.” Why impose that on an entire population who already is restricted in its diet? Why make life harder for people for whom eating is already a heart-wrenching experience? Why not have compassion for the human population to the same degree as the animal population?

I’m sure Rav Shmuly did not mean to offend the food-restricted populous with his article. I know him well enough to know that. But, I do think he didn’t consider it when formulating his argument. And that’s a topic for a whole other time — but an important not nonetheless.

Teff.

With Rabbis saying things like “only eat peeled asparagus, don’t eat strawberries, don’t drink tap water, you can’t eat lettuce unless you eat it from this supervisor, you can’t have broccoli etc.,” I imagine the kashrut-observant population will be down to a list of “acceptable foods” that’s shorter than mine. And that’s just a hell of a lot of malnourishment.

Or, I guess, a bonus to the teff-growers of Ethiopia, because they’ll see a certain spike in consumption.

Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins – Vegan and Gluten Free

There are three days a year I absolutely need to eat pumpkin pie: Sept 13 and May 12 & 13. I do this in honor of my beloved late friend Bernard Herman, who loved him some pumpkin pie. We started a tradition in May 2005 to buy Bernard a pumpkin pie for every momentous occasion, in homage to him eating my friend Elyssa’s pie when she was out of town, in the most Goldilocks of ways. It was just so something he’d do, and he loved the food so much. Plus, as my friend Zach pointed out, what college students ever got to say the sentence, “We’re going to buy Bernard a pie?” We did.

And so every year since his passing, I keep the tradition alive by eating pumpkin pie on his birthday and the anniversary of his death/the following day when I found out about his death.

Except I can’t eat pie. It’s been secretly breaking my heart since the whole “no wheat or eggs” thing started 60+ days ago. How would I eat pie today? What if I couldn’t eat pie again?

Enter pumpkin oat muffins. I’d made them before as an erroneous cookie, and I’ve experimented a bit since, but since the whole “3 times a week” diet thing started, and since I’ve been trying to avoid any contact with egg yolks so egg whites are out of the picture, I’ve steered clear of desserts. Until now.

The following recipe is based on a pumpkin oatmeal cookie recipe from Cooks.com. I had the original before this whole thing started, and it’s delicious. But if you’re looking for an egg and gluten free alternative, the muffins are great. Also, since I can’t have nutmeg, cinnamon, or ginger, I replaced those with extra sugar and brown sugar. Refer to the original recipe for the proper spices. But seriously, delicious either way.

I don’t typically measure so much when baking, especially when I’m playing around with ingredients, because you really can’t tell how many oats equal one cup of flour. So the below are total approximations, but I feel like you can sense the consistency as you’re baking. Plus, if it’s a little gooey (it was the first time) you get a great souffle. Who doesn’t like souffle?

3/4 cup corn starch

1/2 tsp baking soda

~ 2 cups oats

~ 1 tsp brown sugar

a heaping cup of sugar

3/4 cup oil

1 tsp salt

1 can pumpkin

1/4 cup applesauce (to make 1/4 cup applesauce, since I can’t eat prepared foods, I used this applesauce recipe from allrecipes.com. I trimmed the portions to 1/4 the original amount to make sure I only made as much applesauce as to replace one egg, ie 1/4 cup).

Preheat overn to 375.

Mix flour, sugar, bakind soda, salt, brown sugar, and oats. Add in pumpkin and appleasauce. Mix well.

Drop into a muffin tin. If you don’t have little paper liner things, dab a little corn starch into the tin to keep the muffins from sticking.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a knife can be removed without any residue.