A little over a year ago, I was driving my daughter and her friend from ballet to pre-school. They were in the backseat dying from hunger so I passed back packets of mini-Ritz crackers stuffed with something masquerading as cheese. A few minutes later my daughter’s friend said, “Why do my crackers have peanut butter in them?” and immediately began gagging. I swerved to the side of the road and launched myself into the backseat like Nadia Comaneci.
The little girl had a nut allergy and was already crying and saying her throat itched. I fished in her backpack to pull out her allergy kit--Benedryl and an epipen. Allergies are not to be dithered with but as I imagined jamming a needle into her tiny thigh, I realized that I needed to suss how serious the situation was. After all, kids overreact when adults overreact and there I was blocking traffic and straddling the car’s center console with a Ritz stuck to my thigh. If I saw that, I’d cry too.
So I did what smart moms do--told a small lie to get at the big truth. I gave her the Benedryl and told her that it would work immediately. She dutifully swallowed, took a deep breath and said she was all better. No itching? No throat closing? No emergency room? Whew. With the epipen resheathed and the girls already happily singing along to a pop song, we continued on to school, my hands shaking and heart racing.
My daughter’s play-dates often come with dietary instructions. Kids are dropped off with hugs and epipens. You need a decision tree to give a snack. I’m almost exclusively offering fruit.
Childhood food allergies have been on the rise for the last fifteen years. Luckily, many kids outgrow them--my son shed his toddler egg allergy. But I’m noticing another trend, one with my adult friends: a combination of food sensitivities, religious dictates, health-based choices, and cause/ethics decisions that make dining out tough and hosting a dinner party nearly impossible.
Among the friends I regularly dine with, eating restrictions run the gamut--gluten-free, vegetarian, dairy-free and kosher. My gluten-free pals bring their own vodka to parties, a kosher friend relaxes her rules when not in her own house, and my vegetarian buddy ate meat when pregnant. Frankly, it’s hard to keep track and sometimes it can feel a bit arbitrary.
Full disclosure: I count myself on that list of discretionary eaters. In 1998, after reading about how bright pigs are, I gave up pork; my husband suggested I give up reading instead. He was in no position to judge having quit all meat for a year after waking up with a self-described “meat hangover” in college. For me, it suddenly didn’t feel right to eat something smarter than my poodle. I gave up beef a few months later when a cow stared at me with big, sweet, baleful eyes that said, “Hi there, wouldn’t I make a nice pet?” In lieu of buying a farm, I stopped eating her friends.
That year at the holidays, I dug into Mom’s chili until I noticed chunks of ground meat swimming with the beans. I pressed Mom, “Um, this isn’t beef, is it?” She shooed the air with her hand as if brushing away my concerns, “Oh yes, honey, it’s okay, just a little bit adds so much flavor.” As I said that no, a little bit isn’t okay, my grandmother broke in incredulous, “Not even in chili?” I could only imagine how my refusal of pork gravy on my biscuits the next morning was going to rock their worlds.
We eat certain dishes to tie us to our families and to carry on tradition (that’s why gefilte fish goes uneaten 364 days a year). Our personal histories are laced with meals shared. The table is where we gather with friends and family. We learn about each other as we pass the bread basket or split a dessert.
At its heart, eating is social. Those little girls in the backseat sharing crackers? Social. As we age, our tastes, our beliefs, our bodies, and food fads change. Going to dinner together can get complicated. Sometimes our food rules can impose upon these situations, creating an environment of accommodation instead of conversation.
Recently we went to dinner with another couple; he keeps kosher, she’s a vegetarian, and I still don’t eat pork. As we sat down and perused the “sharing menu,” all of our talk focused on what we could and couldn’t have. Ingredient lists were verbally dissected and discarded and agreements were made: if I get this, will you have a bite even though she can’t or who could share this one with me, anyone? Anyone? Finally my husband told the three of us that we were on our own as he ordered himself a Canadian bacon and cheese sandwich, flouting all of our rules at once.
Many of our eating preferences collapse under close scrutiny. When examined, kosher rules seem outdated. Many vegetarians will give up meat but still wear leather. Our choices are rife with contradiction. If pressed on why it’s okay for me to eat chicken but not pork, I utilize emotion and hearsay and gloss over things not necessarily based in fact (the same approach that keeps religion going strong). I avoid over-questioning my pals on their edicts, just as I hope they don’t purposely expose the ridiculousness of my own. For them, I’ll buy rice crackers and tofu, and Tito’s vodka. And I’ll bake a gluten-free, dairy-free cupcakes.
Two close friends recently shared a birthday. They share another thing too: their adherence to a gluten-free lifestyle. For good measure, one threw out dairy too. I want to bake for them, to make them feel special but am hamstrung by their diets. The cookbooks lining my shelves don’t account for this occurrence--I think the Barefoot Contessa might actually add extra gluten. I turn to the more current online community to find what is supposed to be the “best” gluten-free cupcakes. To me that sounds like the “best” matzoh--no matter how good it is, at the end of the day, you’re still eating matzoh.
As cupcakes go, gluten seems like an important ingredient. But I figure my friends must be used to tasteless food by now and they’ll appreciate my efforts anyway. I buy a host of substitutes for the real thing: gluten-free cake mix, almond milk, and Earth Balance ”natural buttery spread” (which sounds super-healthy but is actually more caloric than regular margarine) and get to work on the Snickerdoodle Cupcakes. I am dubious.
My choice of cupcakes is strategic. In general, when I'm baking for others, I try to make things that I can sample before delivery. I like to know that what I'm offering is worth having. It’s hard to bring a cake or pie with a piece missing, so I choose bar desserts or cupcakes to share. In that spirit, I sample the frosting and am heartened to find it really good. Not, “tasty for a frosting made with almond milk and Earth Balance” but downright delicious. I spread it on a cinnamon-spiked cupcake and wow. Gluten-free baking, where have you been all my life?
I hold back a few for my family and my kids love them. My sister-and-brother-in-law visiting from New Jersey finish them and ask for more. I am proud to deliver these cupcakes to my friends and both are touched at the time I’ve put into honoring their choices.
Feeding others is one of the surest ways I know to show I care. Being respectful of the choices and limitations of those I love is merely an extension of that. It allows us to continue to relate across the table through the medium of food.