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Web Only ArticleSeptember 26, 2012

Confessions from a Dinner Party

Food Allergies, Special Dieters and a Finicky Eater

Mid-way into Antonya Nelson’s novel Living to Tell, a single woman views her blind date from a bar doorway. Listing off his probable failings, she concludes, “He looked quite lactose intolerant.” This line cracked me up when I read it, and not just because I happened to be sitting in a hospital waiting room, readying myself to drive a friend home from a gastrointestinal procedure. That said, my circumstances might account for why I then flashed on a New Yorker short story in which a character’s face is described as “trenched with anal retentive misery.” 

Denial, control. It’s so … unfestive. And yet there’s this urge to have a party.

So picture me in my Maine kitchen. We don’t serve fish, nuts or sesame seeds here, as my five-year-old son has anaphylactic allergies to all three. Sometimes when I mention this, people tell me that cats make them sneeze or that onions are bad for their digestion. Once a person even said to me, “Oh, there are so many allergies now. I think they were always there. People are just starting to notice them more.”

Hmmm. My son could die if he eats an almond. I think mothers, even in the unenlightened past, might have noticed something like dead offspring on the floor. I certainly noticed when - on a summer evening, haddock for dinner and gold finches landing on the bird feeder - my son’s face went from that of a toddler to Boris Karloff in the span of five seconds.

Of course, it’s no problem to cut a few foods from one’s menu.

But my parents were driving up from Boston for the weekend. I wanted a celebration, and in my family, a party means good eats. Indeed, the title of my as-yet-unwritten family history is Black and White: A Memoir in Cookies, since a cookie has accompanied all our ups and downs. There were the unenlightened Oreo years, the decade of the instant diabetes cookie (a peanut butter cookie with a Hershey’s kiss shoved in the center), and then the short-lived (but entirely classy) span when we favored two shortbread cookies sandwiched together with brown sugar paste and dipped in chocolate.

At any rate, my family’s favorite cookies are out for now - that will be the shocking coda to my memoir - as my father is newly diagnosed with celiac disease. That means no gluten, no wheat. I can’t fall back on the Maine staple of lobster, because my father has a shellfish allergy. Years ago, he tried to eat lobster, even though he knew about the allergy. This was when he met my mother’s family and was trying to impress by being agreeable to the future in-laws. As for my grandmother, her daughter had landed a Jewish Yalie headed for medical school; she was going to the make the grandest meal she could think of. My father had a few bites of lobster and then almost died in the guest room.

“He seems like a nice boy,” my grandmother allowed when the evening was over, “but he does seem a little sickly.”

My father wasn’t sickly, but he has, in his later years, and perhaps because of the long-undiagnosed celiac disease, become woefully thin. So like a Grimm’s’ fairy tale witch, I wanted to plan a meal that would fatten him up, though it would also be nice to prepare a meal that allowed my mother to stick to her diet. Actually my mom is the easy guest, for despite her desire to slim down, she’ll eat anything, even mint (which she doesn’t much like). Cilantro, however, gives her a stomach-ache. So that’s out. Ditto tomatoes, white potatoes and eggplant, as my husband has some arthritis and largely avoids nightshades.

As for me, I’m the biggest problem of all: I’m lactose intolerant and I also don’t do caffeine, red meat, high-fat food or egg yolks. Not because I’m a food fanatic, thank you, but I’ve had a non-stop stomach-ache since I was 17 and it was only when I stumbled across a diet that suggested getting rid of all these things that I started to feel better.

Given all this, probably none of us should have liquor, but I break out the wine and start to think. What can I possibly make? Sorghum and seaweed? 

I gather up the relevant cookbooks. Excuse me, Deborah Madison; pardon, Joyce Goldstein and Ina Garten, this looks like a job for the American Cancer Society’s The New American Plate Cookbook and Heather Van Vouros’s Eating for IBS: 175 Delicious, Nutritious, Low-fat, Low-residue Recipes to Stabilize the Touchiest Tummy.  Now how attractive does that sound? “I’ve been thinking about cancer and bowel disorders; would you like to come to dinner?”

But we must do what we must do.

My father always complains that people who work at health food stores look sick. Still, it is to the health food store I head first. Little purple and yellow Johnny-Jump-Ups and orange nasturtiums have been cut into the mix. Later, I’ll dress them with a super-easy vinaigrette.

The meal itself will be a black bean, corn, rice, pepper and chicken salad, from The New American Plate Cookbook, though I make some substitutions. Cucumber for the jicama, because how good is a jicama bought in Maine going to taste? Parsley, cheese, baked corn chips and avocado slices for sides, so people can enjoy or avoid, as they like. As for dessert, I find it in the Eating for IBS cookbook: rich chocolate pudding made with soymilk and cocoa powder.

A few weeks after I made this meal, my mother had hip surgery. Laura, my twin sister, says that when she was offering to help with post-surgical care, my mother demurred, saying, “But Debra’s such a good cook.”

I don’t know if this conversation really took place. My mother’s refusal to accept Laura’s help probably had more to with her twin toddlers. Even so, I’d have taken my mother’s words as a compliment, a mark of the success of my family dinner party, if not for one thing: My son won’t eat anything green. Not because he’s allergic and not because he can’t. He simply hates green food. So when my parents visited and I put my carefully planned, gluten-free, lactose-free, low-fat (but with high-fat accompaniments) meal on the table, my son cried - in real horror - “There’s something green! There’s something green!” I had dutifully peeled the cucumbers but an errant fleck had made its way to his plate.

When he writes his own memoir, I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it.

This essay by Debra Spark first appeared in Living Without’s Spring 2006 issue.

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