Guest Post by Laura Allnutt
Food is a universal language. What and how and with whom we eat are unwritten essays on our personalities, cultures, and emotional psychology. It’s a language so easy to speak that we often use it as a replacement for actual words, as a buffer between family togetherness and family tension. Rather than I’m sorry for what I said last week, here’s a bag of your favorite chocolates. Instead of Let’s talk about it, let’s order a pizza and scroll through Netflix.
Food is a safe space where humans of all backgrounds, preferences, religions, achievements, and politics can unite and enjoy the common experience of filling their bellies to stay alive another day and avoid the conflicts another moment—until the food becomes the conflict.
I am among the estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies. My stomach likes food far less than my mouth does. I have a taste for almost every food I’ve ever tried, and I used to never pass the chance to try something new. But as I became more and more tied to the bathroom, I knew something had to give, so I began what has been a three-year process of elimination diets and a blood test to figure out which foods my stomach doesn’t like. Here’s the shortlist of offensive foods: corn, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant), garlic, red meat, some nuts, dairy, and gluten. The nightshades cause me the most trouble, second only to corn, which is my mortal enemy. The other foods are tolerable in moderation and only if my stomach has had several good days in a row.
My stomach likes food far less than my mouth does.
There is nothing I hate more than being invited out to dinner or, worse, invited to someone else’s house. Consider how many meals involve some form of tomatoes alone. There’s hardly a recipe for chicken that doesn’t invite paprika or other peppers. Potato and corn starch are in just about every baked good, even gluten-free and vegan varieties. And let’s face it: if you cut open Americans, they bleed waffle fries and corn syrup.
I don’t like telling people that I have food allergies. No one likes to be the oddball, the person who requires special exceptions, the one who adds a layer of inconvenience. But here I am. To make matters more complicated, Sarah and I decided to cut processed sugar from our diet, a lifestyle change that segued into the Keto Diet.
Recently, Sarah and I joined a Small Group at our church. When we arrived at the house, our friendly hosts led us to the kitchen where awaited a countertop of cakes, cookies, chips, sodas, and, off to the side, a tray of vegetables that looked as uncomfortable to be there as I was.
Sarah selected a few chips and a thin slice of bunt cake. I grabbed a bottle of water.
I sat in the far corner and hoped no one noticed my lack of food, because food is personal. To reject the food is to reject the person behind the food.
To reject the food is to reject the person behind the food
It doesn’t help that we live in a culture of fad dieters, vegans, and so-called health nuts. Culture mocks these people rather than acknowledging its sick obsession with food or cheering for those brave enough to choose a healthier lifestyle.
Fifteen million Americans is a lot, and that number doesn’t include the 1 million vegans, 1.6 million vegetarians, 30 million diabetics, and 45 million other dieters with food limitations. Altogether, people with food restrictions make up roughly one third of the total US population. This statistic means that one out of every three people you know likely has a food restriction.
I’m somewhat limited in foods, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy food. I even consider myself a foodie. Sometimes, learning to cook new things or cook old things a new way is an exhilarating challenge! Over the past few years, I’ve learned that food restrictions don’t have to restrict hospitality and companionship.
Here are ways to maintain togetherness regardless of food restrictions:
- If you have food restrictions, tell your friends and family. Most people will be glad you told them. Otherwise, they’ll perceive you as snubbing their food offerings or possibly starving yourself. They’ll also feel terrible for serving you food that might cause you suffering. A cranky nurse once left my arm with black-and-blue bruises after she jammed a needle around the crease of my elbow to draw blood. Because she labeled the vials wrong, I had to go back the next day to have more blood drawn. A different and much kinder nurse did the job, and when she saw my bruises, she cupped my chin in her strong hand and said, “You don’t let nobody hurt you. It’s your body, and you got to walk around with it.” I’ve carried her words for several years now, and I’ve since applied them to my inward and outward health. Though I hate to make things awkward, I have to tell others what I can’t eat. It’s my stomach, and I’ve got to walk around with it.
- If you don’t have food restrictions, start the habit of asking your guests if they have food allergies or restrictions—even if you’ve known those people for years. You’ll be surprised at how many people have kept their dietary needs private.
- Don’t avoid group gatherings because you have food restriction, and don’t stop inviting your friends with food restrictions to those gatherings. Isolation and segregation solve nothing and aggravate everything.
- Keep in mind that some people have much more serious allergies than others. I have a friend with severe allergies to shellfish, so much so that she can’t be in a room where shellfish oils might go airborne during the cooking process. Respond to each case appropriately. You may need to plan a different meal entirely if you’re the host, or you may need to politely decline the invitation if you’re the guest. In either case, don’t neglect to invite the friend with allergies or at least explain how you can’t invite them, and if you’re the one with allergies, be sure to explain why you can’t come rather than just saying no. Practice honesty, consideration, and tact to preserve relationships.
- Learn new recipes. Recently when a coworker invited us over, we were relieved when she asked us if we had dietary needs. For two weeks she wrote back and forth as she planned her menu around my dietary needs. “I like a good challenge!” she said. Her joy over cooking for a complicated person put me at ease—and the food was great! Cooking outside the box is fun and creative and sometimes stressful and annoying, but it’s worth it.
Sometimes, on my especially bad days, I feel sorry for myself because I can’t eat like a normal person, can’t just grab a pepperoni pizza or a sandwich and fries from Chick-fil-A. I grouse through the grocery store, thinking of the mashed potatoes I can’t eat for Thanksgiving and the Chinese carry-out I can’t eat on Friday nights. But this thinking is toxic and misses the point about food entirely. Food is not about the things we eat but about whom we eat with. It’s about the company, not the carbs. As long as we’re together, life is a feast.
Laura Allnutt is my best friend, apartment-mate, fellow writer, and dearest inspiration. She holds an MFA in fiction from Fairfield University and has recently finished writing her first novel. She works as an online teacher and editor and enjoys being adventurous in the kitchen. Learn more about her in just about any of my posts, and follow her blog Thinking With My Mind Full.