On a Friday night a little more than a year ago, my hands blanched to white and began to shake as intense nausea hit me over dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant. My gums and tongue tingling, I nearly yelled to my boyfriend as we walked out, “I think we need to go to the emergency room. Now.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had developed life-threatening food allergies that would change the way I eat and the way I live.
I was diagnosed with severe food allergies to hot peppers, including chili, cayenne, paprika and tree nuts. Eating even small amounts of these foods leads my body to start producing an anaphylactic reaction with the potential for closed airways, shock and cardiac arrest. I lost the ability to eat as I had known it.
I soon learned that “spices,” as listed on ingredients labels, can mean a whole lot of different things. For me it meant no more Extra-Cheesy Goldfish, my beloved childhood snack. I became the high-maintenance guest with special dietary requirements, quizzing friends, family and waiters before taking the first bite. Some nights, going hungry was preferable to the stress of trying to find something to eat.
The food allergies upended not just my stomach but my social life, my romantic life, my spiritual life, my family life. I was the only bridesmaid who didn’t eat at a wedding in the remote Catskill Mountains, for fear of taking attention from the bride with a potentially dangerous allergic reaction (and no cell service to call an ambulance). I chose not to attend my sister-in-law’s birthday dinner at a new restaurant and gave a pained, “No, thanks,” when co-workers ordered my favorite, pepperoni pizza. Traveling anywhere became close to impossible, and I began telling friends who live in Britain that I couldn’t visit, knowing that a transatlantic flight might always be too risky. I even questioned whether I could eat the communion wafer at church.
Frustrated and fearful, I no longer knew how to feed myself. Like many young adults, I had relied on convenience for dinner. Now I found myself walking away from the familiar aisles of mac-n-cheese boxes and cereal, over to the unknown aisles of basic flour, oil and the produce section of my local Wegmans, aisles that I had barely knew existed. Fresh onions, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cheddar cheese…what could I cook with baby spinach? What can you do with quinoa and how do you even say it? I was clueless about how to turn them into something edible and safe – forget about delicious.
I started asking friends for recipes and what kitchen utensils they found helpful. My childhood friend made me a personal cookbook. My brother taught me the correct way to hold a chef’s knife, and my sister called with her favorite crock pot recipes.
At first, I assumed that developing a medical condition as a young adult would force me to depend on others and take away many of the joys in my life. In some ways, of course, it has. I always have a friend or family member who is “on-call” in case of emergency, and I still inhale deeply for a jealous whiff of pad Thai when walking past the Thai restaurant down the street. But in many more ways, food allergies have encouraged me to grow not only into a decent cook but also a more self-sufficient adult.
In delving into cookbooks and new aisles of the grocery store, I found new joy in the creation of a recipe. I could pick out the sharpest cheddar and the crispest apples of the season and find the flavors that best match. I now had the opportunity to cook whatever I wanted, just for me! I could bring home fresh garlic from Mom’s garden with the dirt still on it, and add the cloves to whatever dish I wanted. I could wield a knife and manage boiling pots on the stove without causing grave injury (as I had once feared). I could turn raw ingredients into exciting sauces and meals, and feed myself with a new key element that no food manufacturer could possibly provide me. I gained control, and peace of mind.
I have become a gracious host, taking pride in the food I serve others and offering empathy for other eaters with restricted diets, whether for health reasons or by choice. I have become a more mindful eater, and a healthier one. I was shocked to find that the loss I associated with the diagnosis was morphing into success — and in the kitchen, no less.
Now as I prepare to make a meal I turn on some Sara Bareilles in the kitchen and sing along as I chop the onion, dancing just a little with the prospect of a new cooking adventure. Olive oil starts to sizzle in the saucepan on the stove as I prepare the apple, cheddar and quinoa. I’m not a very fancy cook, but I’m not a fancy eater, either.
Here it is — my kitchen, my safe space. And the result is my own Autumn Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”).
I may have lost the ability to eat as I knew it, but I gained the ability to eat – and to cook – as I had never imagined.