Going nowhere, slowly

I’m trying to teach my daughter to drive, but there’s nowhere to go. We order our groceries online for delivery, prescriptions come with a three-month supply, and school is taking place in our basement on a laptop. Where to drive?

Why, even?

But I’m doing it anyway, the same way I browsed grocery stores all gaggle-eyed and hopeful when our family followed the six-food-elimination diet for eosinophilic esophagitis ten years ago. My daughter was misdiagnosed, it turned out, but we didn’t know that as we ate food without dairy, soy, eggs, nuts and wheat. I pushed my cart around the store aimlessly, hoping for a surprise. Maybe, I thought, this brand will have discovered a secret combination of ingredients that tastes like what I remember, for once. 

Sometimes, that surprise DID come. I found that Fruity Pebbles, that horrible day-glo cereal my husband loved that made my throat hurt from the intensity of the sugar, fit the diet perfectly. I brought it home like a trophy, drizzled it with rice milk, ate it with a big fake smile on my face. Continue Reading…

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All the Paths from Stuck to Motion

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1.

I put on clothes before I go downstairs every morning. It’s a new rule, in my head, a ward against a world in which so many have switched to sweatpants and pajamas all day and in which I know I would roll slowly down into deep sadness if I didn’t put on real clothes. Pants, top, bra. Deodorant. Brush hair and teeth. Deep, deep drags on the morning inhaler as my city fills with the bored smoke of too many fireworks celebrating nothing. The path from the bed to the closet to the bathroom is the first trip I take every day, moving from another-day-like-yesterday to maybe-this-shirt-will-make-me-feel-better.

2.

If the clothes I’ve put on are running clothes because the air quality has passed muster outside, the path down the stairs to the back foyer is next. Sneakers. Little stretchy pouch for my inhaler and my key and, now, for a mask I sometimes pull out and clutch in my hand as I trod past Lake Michigan, making ten-foot arcs around septuagenarians walking in pairs. Go too far north and the path is clogged with people, forcing my mask over my face, so I go west, past the shoe store and the shuttered bakery and the tiny nail spas that can’t be doing well. Past the rose garden, past the funny goose statue they dress in giant bows and rainbow capes. I come back to my yard, panting, and sit at the picnic table to upload photos of flowers and waves to Instagram. All my photos are of flowers and waves and food, all the miracles I pin there to remind myself that they exist, still, even among all of this. Continue Reading…

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Accidentally Safe Six Food Elimination Diet Breakfasts I Accidentally Love

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In 2010, when my daughter Sammi was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (a misdiagnosis, it turns out, but that’s another story), I suddenly had to learn to cook without dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, and wheat. The restrictions were part of something called the “six food elimination diet,” a way to tease out if any of those major allergens (plus fish, which we’d never eaten before so didn’t need to eliminate) might be making her sick. To describe this as a lifestyle change is not so different from describing the stay-at-home orders of our current pandemic as “taking some time for myself.” It was a smackdown.

I felt like I had a handle on dinner, initially. I could do some things with beans and rice and gluten free pasta that seemed manageable. What really messed me up was breakfast. At the time, Sammi was about to turn five years old. Living, as we did, with a grown man whose favorite breakfast was highly processed simple carbohydrates flavored with chocolate or artificial colors, doused in soy milk, meant that most of the time, the ample supply of cereal was our go-to breakfast, especially for Sammi and her then-eight-year-old sister, Ronni. The first week of the diet, I spent a dejected half-hour in the “natural foods” section of the grocery store, returning with some very beige cereals that made both kids groan.

Eventually, we settled on a few things that worked for Sammi in the morning, not without a lot of trial and error. In the years that have followed — long past the end of the six food elimination diet — I’ve come to realize that a lot of what she and I both like for breakfast is still either safe for that diet’s restrictions or pretty darn close. Every summer, as reminders show up in my Facebook memories of what it was like to plunge face-first into cooking for that diet, I realize that it changed my palate, my cooking style, and my approach to feeding my family. Not all of it was bad. Some of it has made us — dare I say? — a little healthier. I thought I’d share a few accidentally safe breakfasts for the six food elimination diet here for anyone who’s searching for what the heck they’re going to eat in the strange new culinary world in which they find themselves. Continue Reading…

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Making Challah in a Pandemic

In the third week of my state’s stay-at-home order, a friend asked me to teach her to make challah via Zoom.

Challah, the traditional braided bread that Jews eat on the Sabbath and on most holidays, isn’t a complicated recipe. It’s not hard to make, as breads go, with most recipes using just flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt and oil. My mother made challah regularly, long braids during most of the year and round loafs for the High Holidays in the fall to symbolize the unbroken circle of life. When I was a little girl — ok, even for most of my adulthood — I knew challah to have only two varieties: plain or full of raisins.

I made my mother’s recipe for years, but when my daughters were just 5 and 2, I offered to host the Friday night Sabbath meal before my brother’s wedding, and I decided to make my friend Hilary’s challah. You can watch me tell the story of this very important challah here, but suffice it to say that the way I received this recipe — over email, just before she went to bed on the other side of the world — was dramatic and exciting and forced me, for one of the first times in my life, to improvise, guessing at the number of eggs I should use. My mother and I — who had never made a challah with no eggs — peered over the edge of the bowl after adding one egg, then another, and finally a third one, declaring this to be our best guess. The challahs rose in a warm oven, were rubbed with whisked egg and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked into the kind of loaves you see on the cover of Jewish cookbooks. They were gorgeous — chewy and sweet, delicious ripped in chunks from the loaf or sliced perfectly and slathered.

I made that recipe for years and years. I brought it to the Yom Kippur break-the-fast gathering to which we were invited for years, all to cheers from the other guests who remembered it from the years before. “Debi’s challah is amazing,” the hosts told everyone, and I glowed and beamed even while demurring. “It’s my friend Hilary’s, really,” I’d say. “Well, Hilary’s plus three eggs.” Continue Reading…

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I Was Made to Cook Like This

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No more restaurants, my husband and I said to our daughters when the stay-at-home order began. And no takeout. Just too risky.

But I’m a good cook — inventive, curious, mostly patient. I’ve been pressure-tested in ways that have made me adaptive and flexible. I understand substitutions on almost a molecular level because, for the first nine years of my daughter Sammi’s life, I learned to cook in a gauntlet of food restrictions I could never have predicted.

I learned to cook first without almost all forms of acid: no citrus or tomato or chocolate for my toddler with severe reflux.

Then I learned to cook without dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, and wheat (all at once) when she was misdiagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis.

Eventually, worst of all, I learned to cook without fat after a surgeon nicked her thoracic duct after cardiac surgery.

So after all of that, cooking normal, unrestricted meals every night while we’re staying at home seemed like it would be no big deal. At first, it was exciting — unlimited time to make whatever I wanted. I even started a journal for the first time since middle school: a few sentences about our day and then a note about what was for dinner and what we watched on tv. My tone was light and my dinners were pretty impressive. I felt proud of the fact that my family could eat well — both in quantity and quality — with me at the stove.

Over the ensuing weeks, I learned to be careful about planning in a whole new way than I’d learned when Sammi was little. Now she and her sister Ronni are both teenagers, and instead of planning around holes in our diet from medical restrictions, I started planning around holes in our diet from grocery shortages. It was — and remains — nothing like shortages in the history of our country or the world; the stores are full of food, and after one fraught trip to our local grocery on March 19, we’ve been ordering our supplies online. They simply arrive at our door, where we sit on the stoop and wipe down package after package of treasures, but always, there are some things the grocery store doesn’t have. Continue Reading…

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