Making Room for Allergies
Someday I’d like to have a large, summer camp-style wooden table with long benches in my dining room. I love being able to have tons of people in one space and to feed them family-style meals, everyone pulling from the same big pot as it gets passed up and down. Food is a strong unifying force, allowing us to meet together in the same space and share at least one basic thing we have in common: we all get hungry.
However, some of us may feel as if we’re dining alone, even in the midst of a group of friends. The rise of food allergies has made it very difficult to actually share a meal. My friend Seth can’t do dairy; my sister can’t do egg whites; one of our farm customers is allergic to red pepper.
Six years ago, I was told by my doctor that I needed to go gluten-free. I was sad for a bit, until I realized that the best way to deal with this would be to celebrate all the many foods I could still eat – not dwell on what I couldn’t.
And yet the biggest challenge in being gluten-free was not walking on by when I came across a bakery in town. It was when I was at the table with other people.
Do I have to tell them I’m gluten-free? Do I eat the meal they made with breadcrumbs anyway? I don’t want them to think I’m high-maintenance…
I was told by a chef recently that I am “one of the kinds of customers that chefs get annoyed with.” He said it with good humor, but I understand the sentiment. Can it be exasperating nowadays to throw dinner parties when everyone seemingly has some kind of intolerance? Absolutely. But, let’s consider how we got here. Have you ever noticed that your grandparents’ generation didn’t know very many people with food allergies? It was rare, not something that happened with every other person you met. Looking back, we’ve had some changes in the last few decades – pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. Long-distance travel by our fruits and vegetables. Depleted soils. An increase in cheap, processed foods. We’ve weakened our immune systems because even our “healthy foods” don’t yield as many nutrients as they used to. As Joel Salatin says, food allergies are just one way nature is screaming to us, “ENOUGH!”
I believe we are in a phase of our world where we must accept these allergies and learn from them. I think we can return to a time where peoples’ bodies are not turning in on themselves, unable to process ingredients that used to be common.
In the mean time, let’s be gracious to each other at the table. Restaurant patrons and dinner guests? Be kind to your servers, chefs and hosts. They must go the extra mile for you, which, let’s face it, is inconvenient. Show them your appreciation for keeping you safe at the table with your kindness and your generosity (bigger tips and bigger hugs, people). Chefs? You love executing creative challenges – that’s what feeding people with allergies can be. Please know that the sudden surge of allergies and intolerances is not just in people’s heads – it’s just that we’ve finally started listening to our bodies say, “ENOUGH!”
We’re seeing the many ways industrialized food can fail us. Now let’s focus on how clean food can heal us when we share it together at the table.
Photo Credit: Tomiko Peirano
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