Accidental Chef: Allergist Mom Learns to Love Cooking
From the Allergic Living magazine archives.
I was the allergist who barely knew where to find the kitchen, and when my kids developed a long list of allergies, I began to despise food. Then a eureka moment led to a startling discovery: the pure joy in creating flavorful, safe meals for my family.
GROWING up in my parents’ home, my mom and my two sisters did the cooking. They wore adorable aprons, got flour on their blouses as they baked cookies, and had hot oil splash up their forearms on taco night. In contrast, I happily spent the majority of my life on the periphery of the kitchen. I didn’t envy the aprons nor did I want to mess up my shirt or burn my arms.
Sure, I might briefly meander through the kitchen if there was a spoonful of cookie dough to be eaten, but I couldn’t have wanted to be farther away from the stir, chop, sauté, mix, blend and puree. The medley of flavors that made their way to our table without me having to lift a finger were simply perfect. I savored one delicious, hands-free meal after another: it was good to be fed, and I was well-fed.
When I moved out of my parents’ house and to Chicago for medical school, I didn’t panic. There was a restaurant around every corner. I had also managed to make a mean, albeit rare, box of macaroni and cheese and an occasional cheese quesadilla. Again, I ate well with little effort. When I began dating my husband, we ate out nearly every night. In fact, we had a favorite restaurant that we lovingly referred to as “our kitchen”. The chef there had tweaked the marinara sauce to my complete satisfaction, and knew when we came in to make me “Sarah’s special sauce”. I’m actually not kidding.
While I was busy completing my allergy/ immunology fellowship, we had twin boys 13 months after the birth of our first son. One of the twins, Gino, was quickly covered in hives, eczema, and vomit. I brought Gino in to get tested for cow’s milk allergy and indeed that was his diagnosis.
Our daughter was born when the twins were 3 years old, and would experience anaphylaxis to her first ounce of cow’s milk based formula at four months. But milk wouldn’t be our only food allergy diagnosis. Among the three younger children, they would also demonstrate allergic reactions to egg, wheat, oat, corn, soy, peanut, tree nut, beans, green peas, mustard, sesame, fish, shellfish, chicken, banana, cranberry and red grapes.
As the list grew, so did my panic. How in the world was I going to bring them out to eat at a restaurant now? Who was going to be able to cook for them? I looked around the house in hopes of finding someone who would step up, but the kids sure couldn’t and my husband couldn’t even make Ramen noodles. That left me.
The trouble was, my killer mac and cheese would, in fact, be just that. A cheese quesadilla was no longer an option either. These meals were all I knew how to make and, to be honest, I was starting to hate food. I hated what it was doing to my precious children and now I hated what it was making me do, too. They would surely starve with me as their mother!
Fortunately, instinct took over. I knew that I had no choice but to feed them. As much as I didn’t want to learn to cook, the survival of my children clearly depended on it. All of the quick, relatively easy and familiar meals were off the table, literally, so I had to create healthy and safe meals from scratch to feed a family of six three times a day.
The first few years, I was turning out some pretty lousy and repetitive meals. For the twins’ first birthday party, I confess to making them rice cakes with frosting crafted from water and powdered sugar. That was their cake! Only a mouth that has never tasted a speck of decent food could eat what I was making them.
We had gotten down our normal mealtime routine. The kids would eat first and after bedtime my husband and I would return to our old ways and order out. One evening about three years ago, Gino said to me, “It’s going to be weird to be a mommy and a daddy.”
When I asked him why, his reply made my heart sink: “Because once you are a mommy or a daddy, you don’t eat dinner.”
Ugh. We do eat dinner, you little ones just don’t see it. How could I possibly model good, healthy eating behavior if they rarely saw me eat? That night was my epiphany, something had to change. I had to stop treating food as the enemy and embrace the food that we could eat. I had to try foods I’d never eaten before and I had to learn to cook well in order to eat with our kids.
My mom was willing to enroll me in Cooking 101: Bootcamp for the Delinquent and Reluctant Chef, and we got to work. First, we had to figure out ingredient substitutions. I couldn’t cook with eggs, so we needed plenty of apple sauce and ground flax seed. The kids couldn’t eat cow’s milk or soy, so what about rice drink? Are all rice drinks the same?
Gino was allergic to wheat. How do I substitute this? Many of the pre-mixed gluten-free flours had legume flour or oat flour, so we couldn’t use those. The solution? I made my own with tapioca flour, potato starch and rice flour. That is, I made my own until the day I attempted to mix a gigantic Baggie of these flours by shaking it and the bag burst open and every grain of flour mix covered my dark wood floor, squeezing into every groove. Needless to say, when a safe, gluten-free mix came onto the market, I should have bought stock in it.
So now we had the ingredients but the luxury of a recipe that was Top 8 allergen-free plus some usually alluded us. A few of my mom’s classic recipes were safe for us without any alterations, like stuffed green peppers or Sloppy Joes. Those recipes may as well have been wrapped in a golden bow.
Most of my mom’s recipes and recipes from traditional cookbooks had to be adjusted. How many batches of cookies have I had to throw out? How many meals tasted nothing like what I imagined they would or actually tasted like nothing?
It’s a good thing I’m a scientist because this kind of cooking takes a lot of experimentation, a little of this, a little more of that. But once you nail the recipe, you own it, and it feels good. Eventually, I graduated from bootcamp. I had learned how to stir, chop, sauté, mix, blend and puree. I was no expert but knew that I just needed to get to work, gain confidence and take ownership of my own kitchen.
The Thanksgiving of 2011, two years after my grandmother passed away, I was craving her dressing. It was sad to think that my children would never experience its taste. I got the recipe from my mom and studied it and stressed over it. Would it be worth it to make a safe version only to have it taste “safe”?
Desire overwhelmed fear, and I set to work. I replaced butter with oil and boxed chicken broth with homemade broth but got stuck at the bread. Every option for gluten-free croutons had something wrong, whether it was processed in a facility with something or contained corn or oat or “natural” seasonings. So I would make my own.
Better yet, I had my kids help me make it. They too have started to feel empowered and happy in the kitchen. They ask to wear their aprons or their chef costume and they pull up a stool to cook with me. I encourage this because they are going to have to learn how cook for themselves and likely will find themselves hosting their friends and family.
I have also noticed the more they have a hand in the preparation, the more likely they are to enjoy the meal. If they helped to make it, they defend the meal, they own it, they eat it, they like it.
Next: Relatives’ surprise that “it’s not bad”