No Way Through It But to Do It

kids-and-homework

She is at the kitchen counter, tongue jutted out over her top lip, pencil in an awkward grip, tears rolling down her face.

“There’s so much of this!” she says, between strangled sobs.

I chop carrots, a profile at a counter perpendicular to the one where her science book, notebook, tablet, and half-eaten bowl of cheese crackers are scattered. Her hair is in her eyes, and she keeps angrily tucking it behind her ear. I put down the knife, rinse my hands, wipe them on the back pockets of my jeans, and walk gently and slowly around the edges of the counter. I pull her hair back and wrap it into a quick ponytail, and then I kiss the top of her warm, slightly-sweaty head.

“No way through it but to do it,” I tell her.

She falls forward, her head in her arms, and cries, still gripping the pencil. I rub her back, softly, and rest my cheek on her neck to whisper in her ear, little useless things about getting a drink of water, taking a five minute break, finishing her snack. She growls and rises, determined through tears to get it done.

I straighten and make my way back toward the carrots, noting that her sister is on the couch in the next room, laptop propped on her knees, papers everywhere, water bottle cuddled against her side. She’s absentmindedly eating a package of dried seaweed, listening to music, and occasionally holding her phone up at just the right angle for a photo containing only half her face. She looks up, and I blow her a kiss. She smiles, waves, and catches it.

The battle rages on at the counter.

I wonder what made my two daughters so different: the older one go-with-the-flow, flexible, arched toward satisfaction; and the younger one frustrated, questioning, mourning, her happiness easily won but equally easily lost. Continue Reading…

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How to Feed the People You Host

holiday-table

I’ve spent some holiday dinners eating dry bread and salad.

In front of me on the table were platters piled high with other food, but because of a combination of my vegetarianism and allergies, only the bread and salad were real options for me. In those moments, I harbored no ill will toward my hosts; having hosted holidays before, I knew that it took a lot of work to accommodate the preferences and allergies of a complicated group of guests. It’s not a job for an inexperienced or inexact home chef. I knew all this as I sat and ate my undressed salad, nibbling on my plain bread, and I wasn’t bitter.

Still, I’ve tried never to do that to a guest in my own home unless I had no other choice. Over the years, I’ve had guests for Jewish holiday meals who ate no carbohydrates, no grains, no gluten, no dairy, no beans, no soy, no tomatoes, no nuts, no broccoli, no cinnamon — not to mention the years when my own child was on the six-food-elimination-diet or the chylothorax diet. I’ve managed, in most cases, to offer at least two tasty options to each person — even options that others at the table would enjoy, too. It takes planning, but it’s not impossible.

Here’s how I’ve done it: Continue Reading…

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Lemonade Out of Gluten-Free Lemons

grocery-cartSometimes, I just have to laugh at the way the universe answers the questions I haven’t even asked yet.

It’s half-way through the summer of 2017, and here I am, suddenly aware that I live with one foot in the summer of 2010. I spent that summer in a cloud of specialty flours: tapioca and arrowroot, garbanzo and white rice and coconut and and sorghum. I sprinkled xanthan gum like a gluten-free fairy into all the creative ideas I had for how to make food for my daughter, whose health challenges required that she cut out dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, meat, and gluten. During my deep-dive into specialty cooking for what I called the “joy-free” diet, I dreamed in recipes and grocery store trips. Along the way, I picked up several dozen grey hairs, but I also became an unwilling expert on food challenges.

Though my daughter’s health issues resolved without any need for her to continue with food restrictions, the knowledge I gained never went away. In some ways, it’s not unlike a spare tool in the garage; though we seldom need that particular odd-shaped wrench, the neighbors know we have it, and they can borrow it any time. Even though we may have bought that wrench to put together a hospice bed or to tighten bolts in a subfloor that collapsed beneath our feet — and seeing it brings back every memory of that awful time — we’re glad it’s going to use for someone else who needs it. That wrench — my reluctantly-gained knowledge — shouldn’t go to waste.

Because of this, my friends call me when they need to follow an unusual diet or avoid a common food. And because I want to make lemonade out of those gluten-free lemons, I always help. Always. Continue Reading…

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The Teal Pumpkin Project: Because We Remember

teal-pumpkin-remember

When my daughter Sammi was five, Halloween could have been just horrible.

Just a few months earlier, Sammi had been diagnosed with a disease called eosinophilic esophagitis. An inflammatory condition of the esophagus — the tube that runs between the mouth and the stomach — it is poorly understood and responds to only a handful of imperfect treatments. The treatment we chose for her was called the Six Food Elimination Diet, a set of food restrictions that required her to avoid anything with dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, fish, or wheat. We were already vegetarians; this was a huge lifestyle change for our entire family.

Sammi had just started kindergarten, learning to read and write and follow instructions in a classroom that necessarily had been forced to eliminate Play-Doh (wheat) and to keep a small box with “Sammi-safe” snacks available for the days — most days — when she could not eat the shared snacks brought by her classmates. It was a rough start. And then, it was Halloween.

On this particular diet, the only kind of typical Halloween candy she could eat were Smarties and Dum-Dums. All other candies contained a forbidden item or were produced on equipment that might be shared with a forbidden item, and so I tried to figure out how to save Halloween. How would it be to walk from house to house and say, over and over again, “No, you can’t eat that one. No, you can’t eat that one either. No, no, no”?

Finally, I decided to solve our problem with a combination of money and magic. Continue Reading…

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Your Strange Diet, Day One

There are hundreds of articles on the internet and in parenting and health magazines about what it’s like to deal with food allergies. From the relatively minor challenges of mild lactose intolerance to the devastating effects of an anaphylactic reaction, there’s advice on avoidance and labeling, special medical alert bracelets and school safety plans. There are lists of substitutions for these newly dangerous foods, recipes for making things “(fill-in-the-blank) free,” and products popping up on shelves to replace the foods you used to love before they became a danger to you or someone you love.

kitchen cabinetIt’s easy to find those articles. What I felt was missing was an article to help families in those first few days. The day after a child is first raced to the emergency room with a swelling throat, or after the gastroenterologist hands over the celiac diagnosis, or after an oncologist tells someone to follow an anti-cancer diet, they stand in their kitchens and stare down their former life  — and their kitchen cabinets — without knowing what to do first.  Continue Reading…

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