Sunday, March 9, 2008

Are Food Allergies Kosher?

When you first learn that you or someone in your family has food allergies, grocery shopping suddenly becomes a much bigger challenge than you ever expected. Shopping trips take twice as long because you’re standing in the aisle reading every label. You’re rethinking all those recipes you’ve made for years. You’re dreaming up new ways to cook.

It’s overwhelming at first. Unless you are freakishly well-adjusted (and don’t talk to me if you are because I don’t want to know) you will go through every one of those infamous “five steps of grieving” – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Eventually (believe it or not), we all make it to that fifth step, acceptance. We are creatures of habit, so we simply begin to make new ones. After a while, we learn how to shop again. We rebuild a little repertoire of quick dinner recipes. We slowly restock our pantry with a new selection of snacks. We fall into a lunch routine. Grocery shopping becomes an ordinary activity with no-brainer purchases again.

So it’s really interesting when a new wrinkle gets tossed into the routine.

Last week, my oldest friend – wait, “oldest” is wrong (she’s a year younger than me)…I’d better start over. My “longest-enduring” friend came to visit me! We met in junior high school when I lived in Maryland. That was more decades ago than I really want to say out loud. Just before twelfth grade, I moved to Utah.

Despite the miles, we’ve stayed best friends, even though we’ve only seen each other in person once in the last eighteen years or so. So when a convention finally brought her out west last week, she finagled a 36-hour detour to Utah to come see me. It was wonderful, as if no years had passed – we picked up right where we left off, and never paused for a breath (so my husband says).

What made this quick visit a little more interesting is that in the decades since she last stayed with me, she began keeping kosher and I had a son with food allergies.

Some Jewish people keep kosher at sort of a nominal level. Others, like my friend, keep very strict kosher. It’s not possible to explain all the details of kosher cooking, but suffice it to say, I’m not Jewish so my kitchen isn’t even nominally kosher. Therefore, I can’t use my dishes, pans, utensils, or stove. So right away I know I’m going to have trouble feeding her, and I haven’t even set foot in a grocery store yet.

I called around to find out if Utah has a kosher restaurant. We don’t. We have a kosher caterer, but it was less than convenient and very expensive. More searching revealed a grocery store in Salt Lake City that actually has kosher sections marked. I went there and walked around. The good news was, I saw lots of kosher choices! The bad news was, it all needed to be cooked, and I didn’t know how we were going to do that if I couldn’t use my stove, oven, or grill. Our choices were going to be pretty limited. Then I picked up several packages and started reading labels to see if any of the kosher snacks and treats were nut-free. They weren’t.


After about five packages, I got discouraged and went home. It felt like the old days, when I first learned I had to eliminate nuts from our food and it suddenly seemed like every single food item in the store was contaminated. I had almost forgotten that feeling. Now here I was, right back in “food is the enemy” territory again.

My friend had assured me that if came right down to it, she could survive on an apple and cottage cheese. But I wasn’t sure any of the cottage cheese in Utah would be kosher. I hoped my friend REALLY liked apples.

I picked her up at the airport and drove her directly to the grocery store with the kosher sections. She calmed me down and told me how we could clean and purify my microwave to make it kosher, or how if we really needed to, we could double-wrap a kosher pizza in aluminum foil to heat it in my oven. She showed me how to interpret the little kosher symbols. She found pretzels that were nut-free. We bought apples. We found kosher cottage cheese. We bought carrots and Cheerios and milk and bagels, all of it kosher, and all of it nut-free. We ate off paper plates and used plastic forks, and even discovered one sweet treat that both she and my son could share – Oreos.

Then the really amazing discovery -- we found a package of kosher Ramen noodles that appears to be egg-fee and milk-free, which will be great news for my son's best friend!

For both me and my friend, shopping for our own needs has become second-nature. Adding in the wrinkle of each other’s food issues ratcheted up the challenge, but we managed to work together to solve even that.

I have new-found respect for people with food allergies who also must keep kosher (or any other type of special diet). But human beings are pretty amazing. As overwhelming as it must seem at first, we all have to play the hand we’re dealt, so if that were my lot in life, I suppose I’d eventually get to the point where grocery shopping once again became a habit, and food became a routine instead of an enemy.

Thanks to my calm and unflappable best friend, I learned two things this week. Upping the challenge every once in a while is a good reminder to appreciate how far you’ve already come. And sometimes tackling new challenges brings rewards you weren’t expecting… like a simple little package of Ramen noodles.

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