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Beggar's Choice: It's (Not) (Always) (Never) About Food

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It's not about food.

When my son, Eden, was in second grade, his teacher announced a class trip to a Chinese restaurant, culminating their studies on China. Eden has anaphylactic food allergies to dairy, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and some fish and shellfish, and most Chinese restaurant food contains all of those ingredients. In fact, it's likely that even a special request, for example steamed vegetables, would be cross-contaminated with Eden's allergens. But after discussing it with him, Eden preferred to attend the trip toting his own food, rather than skipping it all together. So I approached his teacher with that plan. And while we planned his safety measures, at one point, she felt compelled to offer me the following logic: "It's not about food you know? It's the experience that matters."

That phrase has been a recurring theme in the eight years since Eden's diagnosis. It has been offered up as solace to many a festive occasion involving food Eden could not eat. And at that moment, I finally understood the conundrum of it. Food is sustenance layered with sensation and emotion. But I know few people capable of stripping food down to sustenance. As Eden's parent, I've learned that when children cannot eat communally with their peers it brings out a host of unpleasant emotions, the primary one being "I'm different." Moreover "I'm different because I can't share the pleasure I see." For Eden, food allergies are about how food makes him feel singled out.

It's always about food.

The other day, my brother drove into New York City from New Jersey and here was his plan: A visit with our mother coordinated with a shopping spree in Eatily (a hip Italian open food market and restaurant mall) during which his family of four would procure a carload of fresh pasta, dried pepperoni and baked goods. "I find this stuff where I live!" he pointed out. Later, I wondered how far a family in Tuscany would have driven to stock up on typical American American food fare. I doubted it. We live in a food obsessed society, so much so that most Americans eat food in their cars, on the urban streets, at sporting events and in the privacy of their living rooms while watching those sporting events. For Eden, food allergies are also about other people's culinary cravings and rituals.

It's never about food.

Some people believe that modern food practices cause food allergies. Factory farms, genetic intervention of our produce and grains; these are the culprits for the ever-increasing number of children with food allergies. When parents ask me about Eden's allergies, they often begin with, "Do you think it's our food?" While I do my best to feed both my children nutritious food, if food allergies were solely a result of ongoing diet, wouldn't there be a clear correlation showing that children fed an organic diet have a lower incidence of food allergies? But that isn't the case. And wouldn't the reverse hold? Instead, current research points to food allergies as a multi-generational phenomenon that occurs spontaneously between particular genetic codes and interactions with changing environment, ending for now with sensitivity to particular foods. Moreover, once an individual's genetic coding is altered, it creates an inheritable genetic expression for allergies. For me, food allergies are about a medically complex condition that is just beginning to unravel.

Steve Jobs implored Americans to think different. Many argue that to think different is not the same as thinking differently. In Eden's case, he may never embrace his food allergies as an opportunity to think differently about food. And the people around him may continue to view particular foods as either culinary necessity or inherently unhealthy. The fetishizing may continue on both sides. But as Eden's parent I can show him ways to create something -- be it an allergy-safe food, a tool to improve the lives of those with food allergies or an expression of the food allergy experience. As my son grows towards becoming a teen I want him to think different -- to choose exactly what to make of his life, not just his food allergies.