Accidental Chef: Allergist Mom Learns to Love Cooking

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: December 5, 2013

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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.

When Gino was going to help shake the parsley into our version of Gramma’s dressing, I asked him to wait until I could take off the lid for him. Instead, he unscrewed the whole top and poured the entire jar of parsley in the bowl.

My first instinct was yell at him for not listening. That hurt his feelings, so I quickly changed my tone and started laughing. The tears sucked back up into his eyes and he laughed, too. We scooped out all the extra parsley that we could. A few hours later, we took the dressing out of the oven and tasted it. I let him take the first bite.

His eyes lit up: “Mom, I think the extra parsley was the secret ingredient. It’s amazing.” And it was.

It was my Gramma’s dressing and I knew when I served it on Thanksgiving day, I would be serving up a memory, a Top 8 allergen-free-plus-some, safe for everyone in my family, memory.

There is a deep pleasure in watching your husband, your children, your parents, your sister, your brother-in-law, your mother and father-in-law, and your grandmother enjoy a safe meal together, at one table, with no stress about cross-contamination. That, for me, was the ultimate joy I have had as a mother.

Next: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?