Sunday, March 1, 2009

That Time of Year--Again

It’s Monday morning and you’re doing the final shopping for Easter (substitute as necessary: Passover, graduation) and your cousin calls and says “I’m making strudel for the holiday dessert and I know that Johnny is allergic to nuts, but it really doesn’t taste good without them, so I just wanted you to know.”

You hang up the phone and (circle one):

A. Scream

B. Cry

C. Laugh

D. Shake your head

E. All of the above

“All of the above” is the correct answer--and then you get the baking mix from the cupboard and learn how to make a strudel.

This is a typical conversation for a food allergic family. We’ve all been there, and we all know what it feels like to substitute one ingredient for another or forgo that special family recipe all together. Food allergies can cut us off our roots, our memories--and this is especially true around holiday celebrations when ritual meals, steeped in tradition, are the standard fare.

Personally, it hurts me--yes hurts me--that I can’t plunk down a plate of pasta for my son on Christmas Eve.

But I can’t. And neither can my mother or my Aunt Sadie. Instead, I can select a menu that does not include a pasta course--and no one will know the difference. I can ask Cousin Pesky to bring a green salad, since that would be ‘easier’ for her--and ditch the strudel altogether. I may feel a pinch at giving up a family tradition, but over the years I’ve already picked and chosen which traditions I keep anyway. Christmas Eve dinner is supposed to be the “fast” in Italian tradition: Fish courses before midnight and meat after. I’ve already given up that timeframe--I’m in bed by midnight--so why not serve the roast beef at 7:00?

What really makes the meal a tradition is that we gather our family and close friends to share it. That part doesn’t change.

On Thanksgiving my family always served ravioli then turkey. When I got married and some of my in-laws kept kosher, no big deal--we substituted pumpkin ravioli instead of cheese and meat. So when my son was diagnosed with wheat allergy, we shifted again--this time to an antipasto course where there’s lots of peppers and olives and meats that he can eat--and I can still include a nod to my Italian roots.

Of course, you must think ahead, prepare, and possibly substitute traditions--that’s a given in the food allergic household.

But, while the menu may need to change--the message of these meals does not. What we are eating should not be as important as who we are eating it with--no matter if it’s ravioli or rice cakes and jam.

The love, the sharing--as well as the laughter and gusto we bring to the table--are what truly matters and there is no substitute for that.

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