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When Culture Clashes With Food Allergies

P6060026Saloni with her mom: teaching that her diet is a matter of health, not choice.

Originally published in Allergic Living’s Winter 2014 magazine.

My food allergies put me on a collision course with our big family and food-fueled traditions.

Indian extended families are, well, extensive. And we’re loud. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and everyone else once or twice removed can be expected at family functions. Once there, we enjoy giving advice (read: nagging) about marriage, school, career choices, and everything else in between.

I’m used to these things. What threw me into left field was when, after many years of getting sick, I was diagnosed with multiple food allergies (wheat, corn, lamb, shellfish, peaches, strawberries and more), and then found myself facing a whole new kind of family experience. Because did I forget to mention? The quintessential aspect of an Indian party is food.

It started out as a perfectly normal family get-together. A bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins, all yelling over each other to pass endless dishes of hot food. My mother and I had double-checked the menu my aunt was preparing, and I was being very careful. I took a bowl of rice, and happened to notice, with horror, some tiny yellow bits. This wasn’t plain rice, as I had been told – it had mixed vegetables in it, including corn.

That, according to my aunt, was the “plain” rice for me. She thought I could eat “just a little bit,” and had cooked the rest of the dinner with this mindset. My uncles insisted I was being fussy, and other relatives began to chime in about how eating my allergen would be good for me. Thus began a long, hungry, upsetting dinner. That night, I learned to always, always bring my own food – and to wear earplugs.

I’m not sure whether these problems are cultural or not. What I do know is that a lot of Indian food is now off limits – namely the tastier dishes. Many curries, naan, rice pulaos, and all the desserts are big no-no’s for me. This upsets some family members because they feel like I’m losing my culture.

In one retrospectively hilarious incident, an aunt, concerned that I could not eat “anything”,  bought me a giant box of mangoes. When I explained that I couldn’t eat “just one” as she insisted, she called my mother and yelled at her for not teaching her daughter to “eat her culture”. Although we all laugh at this now, at the time it was frustrating.

The feeling that I often get with extended family is that my allergies: don’t really exist (and I’m fussy), they’re not that bad (and I’m a hypochondriac), or they are easily cured by eating the offending foods (and I’m stubborn). This is not the ideal identity I’d like to hold in my family. When I went into anaphylaxis last year, the one positive outcome was that some relatives finally accepted that my “pickiness” was real.

It’s difficult to explain to large groups of people why I can’t eat certain foods, and gently reminding them that I am not on a diet, picky, or stupid gets tiresome. For those on either side of the coin, here are some tips to make get togethers more peaceful:

Accept that a person will not eat certain foods. If your cousin is allergic to pine nuts and you don’t understand how this can be possible, at least accept that she won’t be sampling the pesto sauce. Refrain from insisting she eat it.

If a relative with allergies asks for a certain accommodation, try your best and ask about the safety of ingredients you’re not sure about. The effort and support are appreciated.

Food is always present at Indian cultural events. It’s impossible to find a Diwali function or birthday party without dinner and treats. Although it`s a wildly radical notion, try shifting the focus of the event to exchanging gifts or playing a group game before dinner.

Those who have food allergies need to be understanding as well. Try eating ahead of events, and bring along some safe food.

Grow a thick skin about the fact that there may always be a relative or two that just won’t fully understand your allergies. That’s life. Occasionally, your host will be offended that you are not eating, despite explanations. By no means sacrifice your health, but consider that the host has put a lot of effort into preparations and is disappointed. You can help resolve this, by ignoring a little, and helping to make the party a great time.

In many cultures, food is a way to bond families together and show our love. For me, eating with family can be stressful, and often ends in hurt feelings. Families have their squabbles but, honestly, it shouldn’t have to be over food.

And so, my dear family, stop focusing on my allergies so you can get back to nagging me about saving money for retirement, getting married, and my choice of outfit for the evening.

Saloni Dholakia is a teacher who lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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