November 1, 2015

Cooked: The Gifts of a Food Allergic Life.

kid eating

I’ve just finished reading yet another “your gluten/food allergy/intolerance is making me sick” essay.

Ironically, they do to me what we do to food.

I am cooked. I boil and melt at the same time.

Einstein famously said that the most important question we ask ourselves is whether we believe the universe to be friendly or hostile. It requires a leap of faith to see past the hostility of our fellow humans to, what I believe is, the inherent friendliness of the universe.

Those of us who choose the friendly option leap daily, over minefields, murder and mayhem.

But perhaps, what is equally challenging are the myriad small acts of hostility, like Mr. Cohen’s recent New York Times essay, that pepper our world like overeager waiters.

I am a member of the food allergy community. My son has a severe and life-threatening allergy to tree nuts and peanuts. I no longer eat gluten after a lifetime of heinous digestive symptoms. Today, my son and I are symptom-free as long as we avoid our triggers.

Our community cannot help but to react in the face of continued skepticism and outright abuse. Until now, I’ve chosen to notice the reactions while I pace the sidelines, unsure of my next play.

The typical response from my allergic brethren is to tell you of our challenges—how death by food stalks some of us, how we spend inordinate amounts of our paychecks on safe foods or how a birthday party can feel like a bad trip to a bad dentist.

But our typical response seems to fall on deaf ears.

So instead, I’m going to call a different play.

I’m going to tell you about our gifts.

If hearing our stories of struggle and survival provokes hostility instead of friendliness, I’ll use my energy in other ways. I could try to match you point for point, to outpiss a skunk as my mother would say. Then we’d both stink. But just because I can’t convince you doesn’t mean I can’t respond.

Our food allergies make us more aware of what we put in our bodies than almost anyone else on Earth. We are expert label detectives, in search of even the slightest trace evidence, like the crime scene investigators who find the errant piece of DNA that helps catch the bad guy.

At first, we were only looking for the offending allergen, but then a strange thing happened. We started to notice everything in our food: GMOs, preservatives and things we can’t pronounce. And we are healthier for it.

Our children are incredibly healthy most of the time. We notice parents of children with severe, chronic illnesses like cancer, heart defects and we carry their hearts in our hearts. We bake safe treats for children whose allergen list is longer than ours. We trade recipes and EpiPen vouchers. We touch each other’s forearms in the school courtyard. We count our blessings.

Our food allergies light up the smallest moments like a Disney fireworks show. A safe dinner out to a local chain restaurant feels like Christmas morning. When we find an ice cream shop that will cater to our kids, we cry tears of relief and joy. When our teachers, family, and friends make special efforts to keep our children healthy, we shower them with affection and gratitude.

We are alive in the ever-present now.

Our food allergies have made us unintentional—though not reluctant—advocates. Led by average mothers and fathers in social media communities and tireless champions like Robyn O’Brien on a national scale, we pull double-duty: keeping our children safe while also asking others to recognize that something has happened here—to our children and our food—something coated in a film of greed and complacency.

When I was a naïve and carefree twenty-something, my husband (then boyfriend) and I flew to Montana on a ski trip. The stewardess on our flight made an announcement that a young child on the plane was severely allergic to peanuts and asked for us to refrain from eating any of the allergen during our flight. I looked around me, trying to guess which child had been cursed, and then whispered to my husband, “That’s the worst thing I can think of.” I was wrong.

I have been cooked by this, but not in the way that I first imagined. I have turned from batter into bread, made more useful and nourishing by the fires of trial.



Food Allergies. Your Questions Answered.

Relephant bonus:

Five things we all can do to stop Allergies, Obesity & Cancer.


Author: Karen Costa

Assistant Editor: Donna Kuntzler / Editor: Caitlin Oriel

Image: Joseph Choi/Flickr

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