Seven years ago, in what proved to be a permanently lifestyle-altering moment, I was diagnosed with food allergies. Pregnant with my first child, excited and aware that my life was about to change forever, I never imagined that the birth would trigger adult onset food allergies. I figured that my sleep schedule would probably change when the baby arrived, but it never occurred to me that I might never be able to eat eggs or wheat again.
When I first came home from the hospital with the baby, there was no time to cook. So, my diet consisted of easy things to make for lunch and dinner like pasta and omelets. And then the itching began. One day a month or two after the birth, I felt a tickle on my chest that morphed into an itch so intense that no amount of scratching could alleviate it. I also developed an unbearably sore throat and a chronically stuffy nose.
A lifelong Psoriasis sufferer, I figured that I was simply having a flare and had caught a cold. However, the itching persisted and eventually exploded into an angry rash that covered my entire body. The sore throats made it difficult to swallow.
After visiting dermatologists and internists to no end, I was finally referred to an allergist. It seemed silly to go since I had never had allergies before, but I was willing to do anything to stop the itch and rash and to get back to my life and new child. When the doctor called with the test results I was shocked. He cleared his throat and said, "You are allergic to wheat, eggs, and string beans." "Impossible," I sputtered, seeing family-style Italian meals and the homemade ice cream of yesteryear flash before my eyes. "I've eaten those things my entire life." The doctor explained that it was possible but that no one is really sure why.
He went on to say that I could alleviate my symptoms but that I would have to change everything about my diet. He emailed me a list of the foods that contained wheat and eggs; to say that it was extensive would be conservative. And then he told me that I would have to read labels on everything, to eat simply and explore alternative grains. Alternative whats?! Having previously been a girl who loved to cook but lived on take-out, this was a new language.
Now, in a way, the news was a blessing. I lost all of those extra pounds that were hanging around after the birth in no time, because my daily black and white cookie habit abruptly ended. But on the other hand, the prospect of life without dessert seemed unbearable. In the beginning, adapting to this new lifestyle of closely monitored eating was very difficult. I had to rebuild my diet from scratch.
Restaurants and dining in peoples' homes were a challenge, because on top of not being able to eat much, I was suddenly the annoying friend who dictated restaurant choices and had to review the approved ingredient list before a homemade dinner at someone else's house.
The diagnosis wasn't all gloom and doom. It forced me to feed myself in an entirely new and healthier way, and I learned that many convenience foods, like the basic broth that I used to buy at the supermarket, take almost no time to make and usually taste better when I prepare them. I found that I could discreetly bring my own wheat-free Tamari to sushi restaurants or mix lemon juice with Wasabi as an alternative. I discovered that risotto is not only simple to make, but also a great pasta substitute. I learned about quinoa, millet and buckwheat soba noodles. Learning so much about food and healthy living was actually fun. I became a much better and more inventive chef.
Most importantly, at least to me, I realized that being allergic to what felt like everything didn't mean that I had to abandon my lifelong passion for baking. True, wheat particles in the air do upset my delicate constitution, but after much experimentation, I discovered that Chinese rice flour, sorghum flour, potato starch or a mix of bean flours provide a terrific alternative to traditional wheat flour. I also found that applesauce, flaxseed or gelatin substitute nicely for eggs in many baked recipes. And, through all of this experimentation,, I developed so many recipes it made sense to write my new cookbook Allergy-Free Desserts.
The fact is that my life changed dramatically when I was diagnosed with food allergies. I had to change what I eat, learn to read every label, to ask many questions, to advocate for myself. Waiters might not like me much because I do ask so many questions, but I actually think that the food allergies have enriched my life. I have tapped into a large network of people going through the same thing. I eat healthier because I can't eat most commercially prepared foods, and I have gained not only the skill of baking for people like me, but a career that feels both helpful and meaningful.