Like other American families, mine will celebrate Thanksgiving mostly by eating. However, because of food allergies, we will do so very, very carefully. The younger of my two daughters is allergic to eggs, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, and flaxseed, so before I buy a turkey, I’ll read every ingredient listed on the packaging, as I read every ingredient on every item I bring into our house throughout the year. For our family feast, we’ll make green beans and sweet potatoes with “nondairy buttery spread,” Pillsbury crescent rolls (that buttery flavor isn’t from butter), and vegan pumpkin pie. If we make salad, it won’t have nuts in it, and if we put out crackers, they won’t be accompanied by cheese. As for the bird: If you’ve never needed to consider the issue, you might reasonably assume that turkey contains, well, turkey—but in fact it can also contain an array of other ingredients, including milk and soy.
I have always been a hearty eater, and, growing up, our family dinners represented the intersection of large appetites and raucous conversations. However, there are few meals from my past, including the traditional Thanksgiving one, that I can share with my daughter in their original form.
Since my daughter, now almost 3, was diagnosed with food allergies just before her first birthday, my relationship with food has changed completely, and eating, especially outside our house, requires great caution and planning. Ironically, the more “festive” the situation, the more stressful it tends to be: We go to restaurants as a family only every few months, and though I attempt to do so politely, I always interrogate the server about how the food is prepared. We take our own cupcakes to birthday parties, and when we went to a neighbor’s house for pizza night recently, my daughter and I brought our own pizza (while my husband and older daughter sometimes eat food in front of my younger daughter that she’s allergic to, I try to avoid doing so; based on anecdotal evidence, this pattern seems common among mothers). Another family’s holiday party where the dining room table is loaded with glistening platters—a sight that once would have activated my salivary glands and filled me with delight—is now a source of anxiety. At such parties, I consider myself to be my daughter’s bodyguard.
And yet, in spite of the challenges, I believe my daughter’s allergies have made me a more thankful person. To begin with, I am thankful for everyone who makes life for people with allergies easier and safer rather than harder and more dangerous—the medical researchers trying to figure out why allergies have increased in recent years and how they can be treated, as well as the doctors and nurses actually caring for allergic patients; the relatives and babysitters who must be coached on where the EpiPens are kept and how to use them, just in case; and especially the teachers who every day try to keep their classrooms safe without making allergic students feel singled out.
As most parents of allergic children do, I communicated with my daughter’s teachers and school director before classes began this year to make sure we were all on the same page food-wise. I was touched when, on their own, the teachers decided that birthdays in my daughter’s classroom would be celebrated not with cake or other edible treats but by the students together decorating a paper “birthday crown.” I get that a crown isn’t the same as a sugary snack—in fact, the first time a child in the room received his, it was my own daughter who asked, “Where’s his cake?” But it’s because it’s not the same that I’m grateful. I understand that a trade-off is occurring and that my family members are the beneficiaries.
I am similarly grateful to the friends who matter-of-factly help me figure out ways our family can safely visit their family’s house. This usually means discussing the menu ahead of time so that we can bring allergy-safe versions of the food they’re serving, or their saving packaging on foods so I can read the list of ingredients. Just as with the classroom accommodations, it’s not that I don’t realize that my family is, frankly, a bit of a pain in the ass; it’s simpler when people don’t have allergies than when they do. But my daughter is like other children, our family is like other families, and we want to participate in the world—to play at playgrounds and dress up for holiday parties and see what the inside of other people’s houses look like. We appreciate when we can do so without risking our health.
I’m also thankful for the ease with which the Internet allows people affected by allergies to find one another. My personal favorite blogger is cookbook author Kelly Rudnicki, who blogs as the Food Allergy Mama. I love Rudnicki. Her cookbooks avoid exactly the foods my daughter is allergic to—eggs, milk, nuts—which are also the foods Rudnicki’s son John is allergic to. Rudnicki’s recipes inspire in me a gratitude akin to what I experience flying from New York to California, when I think of the American pioneers: Just as I get to enjoy in mere hours a trip that required my hardy forebears arduous years to complete, I imagine that I’m benefitting from Rudnicki’s extensive trial and error in her own kitchen.
I’m not a sophisticated or intuitive cook, and I didn’t know before acquiring The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book: Great Dairy, Egg, and Nut Free Treats for the Whole Family that it’s possible to make a cake without eggs or butter. On my daughter’s first birthday, her “cake” was a mix of pureed sweet potatoes with nondairy yogurt I’d spread on top to resemble icing. Even with a glowing candle, my daughter was about as tempted by this concoction as you’d probably be. But since then, with Rudnicki as our guiding star, we have baked not only cake but also muffins and pancakes and cookies, pies and doughnuts and pretty much every other tooth-rotting, decadent dessert that makes childhood, and life, sweeter. (One of Rudnicki’s secret weapons is shortening, about which she writes, “If plain Crisco was good enough for James Beard, it’s good enough for me.”)
I also appreciate the cheerful pictures of Rudnicki’s family that appear in her cookbooks; she and her husband have five children total, four of whom don’t have allergies. I wish that everyone who imagines kids with allergies, and their parents, to be Purell-dispensing, hazmat suit–wearing freaks of nature could see these delightful photos. (And by the way, hand sanitizers such as Purell don’t actually remove allergens from hands or surfaces—wipes or plain, old-fashioned soap and water are necessary.)