Accidental Chef: Allergist Mom Learns to Love Cooking

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: December 5, 2013


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.

First published in Allergic Living magazine.

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.

Next: The Scientist Joins Kitchen Bootcamp