“You are what you eat.”
Right. So what are you when you can’t eat half the foods that you used to love? Or any of the family recipes you grew up with? Or your favorite dish of your best friends, or the perfect brownie recipe you spent two years perfecting?
What are you? Lost and frustrated. And others — your friends and family — are lost with you.
Our food culture today is a bizarre landscape that includes mega-star cooks, entire networks dedicated watching people cook food you will never make, “food deserts,” corporate organics, farmers’ markets, some shady corporate political maneuvering, and an entire populace generally both obsessed with and confused by food.
This article has nothing to do with food allergies; it’s about making small changes to your diet to eliminate “non-real” food additives. I think this is the kind of article that expresses our collective cultural confusion about food. A diagnosis of food allergy or intolerance means you start reading all labels and learning things you maybe wish you did not need to know about how our food is produced. While I’m all in favor of people figuring out what makes them healthy or well, the seemingly random declaration of some foods as “real” and morally superior or “good” and others “fake” and “bad” doesn’t seem to serve a greater purpose, but it does start to explain the comments that those of us who “insist” upon bringing our own food to social events hear so often —
- “Oh, you’re so good to eat that way!”
- “You’re so healthy!”
- “That must be how you stay so skinny!” or “You must be losing so much weight on that diet.”
- “I’m so bad for eating this cookie!”
As we talked about last week, it’s a different health-based reason than most people think, but allergies often seem to get lumped with diet choices and food fads, undermining their seriousness and the toll they can take on your life. A food allergy diet is not a choice. It’s not a moral statement. It’s food that doesn’t kill you.
I read a maybe more pertinent essay last year that really got into food and what it means to us, individually and as a culture. This open letter to Paula Deen from culinary historian Michael W. Twitty is really worth reading, as I’ve been thinking about it since last summer. Part of what Twitty was saying is that the conversation around food has been somewhat divorced from both its history and meaning. At its base, food is energy. We consume so that we continue; it is fuel for our bodies. But food is a much larger social construct. Food is identity, it is connection, it is love. What we eat defines us, not in the childhood mantra of “you are what you eat,” but in our connections to the world.
Culinary traditions bind families and communities together, even through migrations as Twitty describes in the large mid-20th century movement of African-American communities from the rural south to the urban north. Think about your family’s traditions. Was there a special food for birthdays, or celebrations? A Sunday meal? A holiday treat? I think I could tell the story of my life through foods, from Cookie Monster birthday cakes, that one cookie recipe my grandmother made, through my mother’s stir-fry phase, through the successes and failures in the harvest gold kitchen of my first apartment, and through that absolutely magical brownie recipe.
This is one of the very reasons that adult-onset food allergies are so difficult. When the foods that define your family and traditions are now forbidden to you — when going to a family gathering means enduring the many queries about why you are no longer participating in the sharing of history-laden sustenance, or why you brought your own food, or explaining again that, no, you cannot “just have a bite” of that — you have to work around to finding that identity again. All of the old comforts are gone, and seeking the new, while potentially exciting, is rarely comforting.
When my forbidden foods list extended just to dairy, I found that food traditions other than Midwestern American — or anything North American — were easier and therefore worth exploring. Dairy is rarely used in traditional (even “Americanized traditional”) Asian cuisines. Chinese was safe, sushi was awesome, and even Indian was navigable. Vegan cookbooks taught me to bake without dairy and without eggs, as well as how to focus on vegetables and really use the depths of my spice cabinet.
As the list of forbidden foods has expanded, the ease of eating out has decreased. I didn’t realize for the first year or so how much I had let fear of getting sick circumscribe my life. Giving up control of my plate meant the potential for getting sick — not likely anaphylaxis (or not so far), but every time I get sick I have to re-face and re-conquer the fear of eating out after I’ve gotten back to being well. I was turning down social opportunities, packing my own food, afraid of the consequences. And I was missing out, not necessarily on opportunities to get sick, but on opportunities to socialize, make and build connections, and to learn how to be a good advocate for myself in restaurants. Not that the latter always works, but it is a skill that you need to learn and practice.
The other skill is learning to balance — my need to find and take advantage of safe social situations, my ability to create food-free or not food-centered social opportunities, and my own health. The trials of learning this balance are now part of who I am, as are my food allergies, and this outlet Denise and I created online. One of the reasons we started this blog was that we both needed a positive outlet for the frustration of needing to recreate the entirety of our foodscapes. The blog — well, our editorial calendar, which changes, but gives us structure — helps keep us focused on working out recipes for foods we want to eat again. Sharing them out via the internet, and the feedback we get from our readers encourages us to keep working on new things rather than getting stuck in our own ruts.
Beyond the food, the many conversations we have about our own frustrations and triumphs and failures has lead to this series of essays as we’re starting to feel more like the food allergy online world is a community that we want to participate in beyond our recipes. We’re glad you’re here, and thanks for reading.