Tag Archives: food allergies

How I accidentally terrified my peanut-allergic friend

trader-joes-sunflower-seed-butter…and you can, too—not that you should—in three easy steps:

Step 1. Buy sunbutter.
Step 2. Make buckeyes.
Step 3. Serve.

See, I like peanut butter. I like peanut butter a lot. Give me Thai peanut sauce, Reese’s cups, Nutter Butters, any flavor of Peanut Butter & Co.—if it’s peanuts, I’ll eat it.

I have a friend, whom I’ll call B., who is allergic to peanuts. When I discovered that sunflower seed butter (or sunbutter) has a taste and texture like peanut butter’s, I was surprised to learn B. had never tried it. No peanut butter and no peanut butter substitute? How did he live?

Sprue Jr.—that’s Althea, who thought she should have a special name on my blog, and should be more careful what she wishes for—loves peanut butter, too. We always have a jar in the fridge, and we sometimes even make our own. (Lightly salted Planter’s peanuts make the best peanut butter ever, and if you add in pumpkin puree and pie spices, it’s all over.)

So, at a party we threw, we decided to show B. what he was missing. We made all the food not only vegetarian and gluten-free, but also peanut-free, tree nut–free, and soy-free (because a soy-intolerant friend of ours was also attending). We wanted to ensure everyone could try everything, without feeling nervous. It’s just nicer that way.

Now, buying groceries with gluten in mind is annoying enough, but this was harder still. I’ve never been more grateful for my smartphone. I scrutinized package labels and manufacturers’ websites until I thought my eyeballs would fall out and roll away down the aisle. It seemed every brand of chocolate that wasn’t processed alongside wheat was processed alongside nuts—or, failing that, contained soy.

Once I had found acceptable ingredients and resecured my eyes in their sockets, Sprue Jr. and I had a wonderful time rolling slightly-too-warm sunbutter balls around in not-really-tempered chocolate. By the way, the forks method only works for the first dip.

Clockwise from top, we've got white-chocolate- and dark-chocolate-covered no-bake cake truffles, dark-chocolate buckeyes, more truffles, marshmallow-swirl brownie bites, and milk-chocolate buckeyes. And you probably recognize the berries.

Clockwise from the top, we’ve got white-chocolate- and dark-chocolate-covered no-bake cake truffles (made with KAF vanilla cake mix), dark-chocolate buckeyes, more truffles, marshmallow-swirl brownie bites (made with Bob’s brownie mix and marshmallow fluff), and milk-chocolate buckeyes. You probably recognize the berries.

Despite the not-fit-for-the-Cooking-Channel preparation, the buckeyes, once set overnight in the freezer, tasted perfect. When I carried the desserts platter around at the party (to collect the oohs and aahs and you-MADE-this?s), I thought B. would be thrilled.

Instead, he took the candy with trepidation and said, “It smells like peanut butter.”

Silly me, I nodded enthusiastically. Sprue Jr., who was standing by, did too. We know!, I suppose we were both thinking. Isn’t it great?

“Are you sure there’s no peanuts in this?” B. said, and it finally dawned on me he was nervous. We assured him it was safe—not processed alongside nuts or anything—and he took a bite.

“It feels like death coating my tongue,” he said.

Crestfallen, we began a chorus of apologies and oh-nos.

“No, it’s good,” B. continued, “but it tastes just like what I imagine peanut butter would taste like.” Later that evening, he exclaimed—more than once—that he couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead.

He later elaborated, in email,

At the time it felt really strange…I had this visceral sense that I was eating poison. Whenever I smell peanut butter there’s this burning in my nose—not because of an allergic reaction, I don’t think, but my body just knows it’s poison, and it mixes my immune system with a fear reaction and the adrenaline starts pumping and I just know something is terribly wrong. And sunbutter smelled exactly the same way to me, or at least my body had the same response, so it was hard to force myself to just eat it…

Of course, I didn’t intend to scare B., or make him feel like he was being poisoned. All I wanted was to share something I enjoy with him, the best way I could. But he hasn’t had sunbutter again since the party, and though he said that the aftertaste was clearly sunflower seeds, not peanuts, and that he’s not opposed to trying it again, he clearly didn’t respond with the “here’s what I’ve been missing all my life” sense of joy I’d been expecting.

The experience showed me how different it is to have celiac disease, diagnosed in my twenties, than to have anaphylactic food allergies from birth. There are specific things I have happy memories of eating, and therefore want to recreate now. For someone who has never had anything but scary or painful memories associated with a food, there’s understandably less reason to find a substitute. And, although I can certainly relate to being nervous that something I’m eating might turn out to contain gluten, accidental peanut exposure poses a more immediate risk for B.

The lesson here is this: If you, like me, love peanuts, and have a friend who can’t eat them, by all means make and serve these delicious buckeye knockoffs (taking, of course, the same cross-contamination measures you’d want someone to take for you).

But remember: one man’s favorite is another man’s poison. Your friend may not run right out to buy a year’s supply. If not, well, more sunbutter for you. And the only thing scary about that is how quickly you’ll go through it.

Do you like to eat “free from” substitutes for old favorite foods? Is there anything you draw the line at trying? And are you a peanut butter or sunbutter fan, too?

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Don’t know much about chemical sensitivity?

Have you seen the movie Safe?

It’s about a woman (Carol, played by Julianne Moore) who develops a mysterious and steadily worsening illness—most likely multiple chemical sensitivity.

I watched it in college. Though it was a great film, it encouraged me to dwell on my own mysterious illness, which had begun earlier that year. The film set up questions like, “Is her illness even real? Will she ever get better?” Watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder the same things about me.

Later, of course, I found out I have celiac disease, and that it could get better. I just have to not eat some things (okay, a lot of things). Except for avoiding crumbs, I don’t have to worry too much about my environment. I won’t find gluten in the air anywhere besides a bakery, and the worst chemical I contend with is natural flavorings.

cover of Allergic to Life by Kathryn Treat

But I remained curious about chemical sensitivity, which I didn’t know much about beyond its portrayal in the film.

Now, I’ve learned about it from Kathryn Chastain Treat, one of my earliest readers and strongest supporters. She blogs about her extreme chemical sensitivity, and she’s just finished a book: Allergic to Life.

To celebrate her book’s release, I asked her a few questions about what is still a misunderstood and mysterious disease.

Readers, we’d love to hear your answers to these questions, too!

What do you feel your experience has in common with the experience of people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or food allergies? What’s most different?

Kathryn: I feel that in some ways we are very similar. We can’t just go and eat anywhere or anything. I have food allergies, which causes issues similar to those that someone with celiac disease encounters when dining out or with family and friends.

What makes me different is that I have not only food allergies, but also sensitivities to chemicals (perfumes, colognes, fabric softeners) and mold. I do a lot of dining at outdoor cafes if they can tolerate my food allergies (which include foods that may contain mold, like vinegar and soy sauce) and if I can manage to find seating far enough away from someone who is very scented.

What misconceptions do people have about your illness? Which get you mad? Which do you think are just funny? How do you respond?

Kathryn: I believe people, including many in the medical profession, feel that my sensitivities to chemicals and mold are not that serious. They believe that if I can manage a short time in a store (with my mask) that I should be able to go anywhere anytime I want. I also feel that people believe because I do not work and stay at home that I just sit and watch television and eat bon bons in my fluffy slippers.

What makes me the maddest is not taking my symptoms seriously. I think the perception that I have all the time in the world because I don’t work is probably the funniest. They have no idea how much work it takes to stay as well as I have managed to get and how long it takes to clean my house.

I have responded that my total load of what my body tolerates varies from day to day. If I am having a good day, then I can make a trip to the store. I can’t do this every day or spend all day doing this because despite my mask, my body gets too overloaded with chemicals and I end up sick. Sometimes I just ignore it all together because it is hard to convince someone once they have their own preconceived ideas.

What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you as a result of being ill?

Kathryn: My younger daughter was here for a visit and we were scheduled to visit my older daughter. My younger daughter had her hair done earlier in the day. Not thinking (I blame my off and on again companion—brainfog), we just jumped in my car. Of course she put on one of my required tyvek suits to avoid bringing any fragrances or chemicals into my car. We started down the road, and about ten miles into our trip I was having difficulty. I was getting a headache, congested, and my voice was slowly getting more of a crackle in it. Suddenly it dawned on both of us that her hair was making me ill.

As soon as possible I pulled to the side of the road and we both jumped out. How were we going to make it safe for us to continue on our journey? We couldn’t go on the way things were and I couldn’t call anyone to come help us. We searched the back seat and then the trunk to find something we could put over her hair.

Aha! There it was, a white plastic garbage bag in my trunk. I always keep some in the car for emergencies or having to put someone’s belongings in it before they can ride with me.

We got the bag out of the trunk and tried to put it over her hair. The wind was blowing and gusts of air would get under the bag and fill it like a balloon. We fought and fought the wind and the air in the bag. Here we are on the side of the road, she is already wearing the white tyvek suit, and we are now trying to put a bag over her head.

Enter the highway patrol cruiser. Just as I thought things couldn’t be worse or crazier than they were, the officer gets out to see if we need assistance. I have to explain as simply as I can without appearing to be a lunatic that I have sensitivities to chemicals and my daughter has just gotten her hair done, making me ill. I also explained that we were trying to cover her hair up with the bag but the air kept getting inside the bag. I purposely tried to ignore the fact that she was dressed in this white suit. The officer, however, noticed and made some funny comment about her tyvek suit and Ghostbusters and then calmly walked over and helped us get the bag on her hair. I was then asked to move aside so that he could write down my license plate number, which was required because he had stopped to check our status. As he walked away, he said it bothered him too when his wife got her hair done.

The story doesn’t end there. A few weeks later our tenant came to pay rent. He was talking about having coffee with his highway patrol officer friends. One had commented about these two women on the side of the road and how he had to help one put a bag over the other one’s head. I immediately started laughing and told him that I was one of the women he rescued that day. Our tenant knows all about my sensitivities and about my story. He started laughing and said he couldn’t wait to tell this particular officer that he knows the women.

I knew the officer would most likely go back and tell the story to all his buddies. I mean, how often does this kind of thing happen?

Okay, now what’s the least funny?

Kathryn: The least funny thing was when I made a quick trip with my daughter into Target. We were getting what she and I needed when we ran into a woman pushing her shopping cart with a little girl trailing alongside her. She saw me with my mask and made the fastest turnaround I had ever seen someone make with a shopping cart. I am sure she thought that I was contagious, and what she never knew was that I was more likely to get sick being around her than her from being around me.

What book or movie character would you nominate as the mascot for chemical sensitivity?

Molly: This was my final question, but we’ve both been wracking our brains and haven’t come up with anyone yet (there’s gotta be a Harry Potter reference in here somewhere). I don’t want to nominate Carol, because Kathryn and Carol don’t seem too similar (watch the film and you’ll agree).

Can you think of one? Let us know if so! Also, be sure to share your own funny and unfunny health stories. And, of course, check out Kathryn’s book.

She is offering a giveaway of three autographed copies through Rafflecopter, and her book is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon (prices vary). Autographed copies (US Only) will be available on her website.

This is stop #7 on her book blog tour, and you can find the rest on her blog.

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R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y

Find out what it means to me…over at My Life With Food Allergies, where I just contributed my first post. If you haven’t heard yet, it’s a new website run by Living Without magazine. It features the work of gluten-free and food-allergic writers from around the blogosphere.

My post is about our rights and responsibilities as (reluctant) members of the food-restricted community. Do allergies or gluten sensitivity give us special responsibilities? And is one of those responsibilities to avoid making the rest of the community look bad? I touched on this topic way back when in this post about Dean McDermott, but now I’ve reopened the case. I hope you’ll check it out and share your own opinion on the matter.

While you’re there, take a peek at the other posts—there’s some great stuff on the site. It also has a nifty star ranking system, so you can objectively let me know how much you love the post in a single click.

Check out the post now HERE.

It’s the responsible thing to do.

picky eater who doesn't want to eat green beans

Do we have the right to remain “picky”? You tell me!
Photo © Clay Bitner | Flickr

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Up your waiting game! 5 ways to better serve gluten- and allergy-free restaurant-goers

Some restaurants don’t compromise. “No substitutions,” their menus declare, and their waiters seem to think patrons should put up or shut up. Unfortunately, for customers with celiac disease or food allergies, neither option works. Most of us would sooner get up and leave.

Any restaurant is free to choose to lose my business this way. I’m concerned, though, with those that do try to accommodate us. Third-party programs exist to train their staff in safe food service. But judging, for example, from the name of one of the big ones—NFCA’s GREAT Gluten-Free Kitchens—these programs focus primarily (though not only) on the food preparation.

Customers rarely get to meet the chef or peek into the kitchen (though a chef who personally introduces him/herself, and who offers a tour of the kitchen, would be a “great” chef indeed). Though the chef, soux chefs, and line cooks could be doing everything right, we customers have no idea. We interact with the “front of house” crew: the host, the server, the bussers. And it’s there that many restaurants go wrong.

waitress with tray of tacos

Is that a flour tortilla I spy?
Photo © Give2Tech | Flickr

A special menu, though a start, is not enough. We need some special service, too. Waiters and waitresses, try these five service “ups” to get your gluten- and allergy-free guest’s thumbs up.

1) LISTEN UP.

Do this FIRST. Allow me to give you my spiel, even if you just heard the exact same thing two minutes ago from another gluten-free customer who has read the same eating-out advice that I have. I need to feel like you’re not only hearing me, but listening to me, so try a nod or two and a serious expression (not a smirk—practice in the mirror). Don’t cut me off to say, “We know all about that here.” You may mean to project confidence and competence, but instead you sound dismissive or condescending. And perhaps you missed this day in kindergarten, but it’s rude to interrupt.

2) SPEAK UP.

Remember, this comes after you’ve listened. Tell me you understand—unless you don’t, in which case ask. Explain which items are gluten-free, and which can be made gluten-free with modifications. Tell me what your restaurant staff does to avoid cross-contamination with gluten. Tell me that you will inform the kitchen of my needs. Don’t tell me, “If it’s marked gluten-free, they know to avoid contact.” That’s BS. No way is the kitchen taking extra precautions every time someone orders hummus just because hummus has a “gluten-free” asterisk on the menu.

3) ’FESS UP.

This can happen in place of #2, if, post-spiel, you feel you can’t accommodate me. Trust me: I’d rather know. I’ll go somewhere else, or sit without eating. Either way, we’ll get along better. This can also happen at any point throughout the meal, if something goes wrong. If a piece of bread went onto my plate, tell me they’re making a new one so my food will be late. I won’t blame you; I’ll appreciate it.

Italian waiter carrying tray of subs

“Hang on…this might not be quite what you ordered.”
Photo © Stephen Wu | Flickr

4) KEEP IT UP.

The game isn’t over with the order. Ideally, the same server who took my order would bring the food, and note, “This is the gluten-free such-and-such.” (That’s the time to demonstrate your steel-trap memory, by the way, not while taking the order.) For a real gold star, bring out my food in a separate trip from dishes containing gluten, especially bread. I get it, you can carry seventeen trays at once with a wine bottle on your head. But show off your octopoid dexterity to someone else. Don’t carry my gluten-free babaganoush underneath a plate of crumb-shedding pita.

5) FOLLOW UP.

Give me a chance to provide feedback. Ask how everything is, and practice #1 while I’m answering. If something went wrong, try to fix it—as you’d do for any other customer.

All of these “ups” require one important “down”: slow down. Servers need to take the time to properly communicate with me and with the rest of the staff, who in turn need to take the time required to make and serve the food safely. To do it right, the pace has to be slower. (I’ve proven this to myself every time I’ve tried to cook in a shared kitchen.)

I get that this isn’t a popular request. Servers may imagine every moment they spend with one customer as a moment in which a different customer is tapping his fork, waiting to give his dessert order, and scaling down his intended tip. But I’m not asking for a lot of time. I’m asking for what would, over the course of a meal, amount to an additional minute per step (or less): time that wouldn’t unduly impact other customers’ experience, but would infinitely improve mine.

waiters race

Although waiters’ races do in fact exist, and look like fun, I’m more impressed with slow and steady.
Photo © Gwenaël Piaser | Flickr

I rarely eat out, but while visiting my brother in DC this weekend, I tried several restaurants listed in Find Me Gluten-Free. We went to Busboys & Poets, Rasoi Indian Kitchen, and Cava Mezze. All of them had gluten-free menus, but my satisfaction varied, largely based on service.

Until more servers brush up on these tips, I’ll be eating at home, where I can source and cook my food exactly the way I like it, not worry about communicating with strangers, and throw all the dishes in the dishwasher when I’m done.

Now that’s what I call service.

Tell me your favorite tips for waiters and waitresses, and your best and worst restaurant experiences. If you are a waiter or waitress, I’d love to hear how you interact with gluten- and allergy-free guests, and what you’ve learned from it.

For more on this, check out:

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