Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It's all about the pizza

My son always says that he “wins” whenever anyone talks about allergies--what he means, in a rueful way, is that he is always allergic to more foods than anyone else he meets--whether he's at school or at a food allergy conference. He always “wins”--but as he says, “I'd rather have the most and say 'I win,' than think that I'm a loser.” Smart boy.

But, in the world of food allergies, the sense of loss is unavoidable. From our first diagnosis, we lose the ability to pick anything we want off the supermarket shelves or from a restaurant menu. We lose a certain sense of security--that the world is a safe place. And, we lose a connection to our history, our past, our roots.

Let's face it, food is an integral part of our lives, our culture. Family gatherings, religious celebrations, cultural outings --Thanksgiving, Seder, potluck suppers, Fourth of July barbeques. Those things we do that make our lives round and full-- so many of those moments involve food. We grab a cup of coffee with a friend. We plan a special birthday dinner. We bring soup to a sick neighbor and doughnuts for the team after practice. Very few Americans think that food is simply to reboot and refuel--witness the popular TV food channels. Of course, meals do provide bodily energy--but they bring friends to our table and sometimes party hats to boot!

Food allergies can cut us off from our roots--traditions, memories-whatever you want to call those treasured moments from our past And, for me, it hurts me--yes hurts me--that I can't recreate those magical moments for my son.

I come from an Italian background and my husband a Jewish tradition, so, as you can imagine, food is an integral part of our culture. Our cultures --immigrant as they were to New York, where we live--were about recreating “home” on the dinner table. Many cultures, especially those who have emigrated, do hope to bring a piece of the old culture to the new world by keeping the old customs, which include the making and partaking of traditional meals. When I allow myself the moment, I feel a great sadness that my son can't eat lasagne or the cheesy potato soufflé called “timpana” my mother used to make. There is something about food --as love --as family --as history-- that gets all mixed up. Usually that confabulation of feelings is a good thing, but for those of us with food allergies, it is not.

The mix represents our continual struggle for balance between the feelings and the food. But, what we are eating should not be as important as who we are eating with-- and the love and gusto we bring to our table-no matter if it's pizza or rice cakes and jam. The warmth, the sharing, the connection--this is what truly matters. These are the traditions we want to pass down to our children. These are the roots we want to water so they continue to grow and make us strong.

But sometimes, I look at a plate of pasta and my eyes well up and my heart constricts. Then I look at my healthy, smiling son and know that, he is a winner and that, really, it isn't all about the pizza.

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