Since I was about 12 years old I have suffered from food allergies. OK maybe not suffered. That sounds like I spent some portion of time shut up in a dark room, asking Jo to show me the seagulls one last time, like I’m Beth at the end of Little Women. Let’s just say that since that time I’ve lived with food allergies. It started with cantaloupe. Eating it would leave me with an itchy and thick feeling in my throat, like my throat was beginning to close. Next it was peaches. Gradually it started happening with other fruits. One day it was oranges, but fresh squeezed orange juice was still OK. Then one day that wasn’t either. Raw vegetables started giving me the same problem; then sometimes vegetables that weren’t cooked for very long. (In other words, vegetables that were cooked well and not by some Irish prison chef.)
This developed over several years and over those years, I had a few scary trips to the ER and many trips to a slew of allergists who always had new and conflicting information. When I asked what I should do, I was given a prescription for an Epipen and told to just avoid those foods. When I pointed out that it was fast becoming ALL fruits and most vegetables I was just stared at, like it wasn’t an entire group in the Food Pyramid scheme. When I asked if I should take vitamins to supplement my nutrients, the doctors just shrugged and said, “If you want.”
The last doctor told me that they could go away but come back WORSE. AND WITH NO WARNING…like it was a scary story told at Halloween. I decided that what I needed to do for my own sanity was avoid these foods and move on. And that was a gift.
Yes, sure, it’s also a colossal pain in the ass. Even if I told you it wasn’t, anyone who’s had to cook for me or sit there while I ordered my food at a restaurant would call bullshit on that. I’m allergic to things like lemon juice, which people try to sneak into everything! Talking to a waiter is usually a series of questions. He usually has to go back and ask the chef a few things. Sometimes the well meaning staff sees how bare my plate is (No mango chutney for me, thanks!) and so they try to garnish it with a big thick juicy slice of watermelon…that leaks all over the plate, including the food I need to eat. Also, I hate talking about my allergies. There’s nothing better for me than going someplace I’ve already been and being able to order something without the usual round of 1000 questions, special instructions and skeptical glances. Because a grown woman saying she’s allergic to fruit and whatnot sounds like something I made up just to get out of eating my veggies. People love to tell you they’ve never heard of that, which they probably haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I’m lying. Plus, and here’s something one of the allergists was correct about, whatever it is that I am actually allergic to dissipates as the food is cooked and processed. I can eat cooked onions, but not raw ones. I can’t eat cooked green beans. But there is a chance I could have canned green beans as they’re cooked until they resemble something you’re more likely to find in a baby’s diaper than a Farmer’s Market, but why the hell would anyone want to? It’s why I can drink wine but can’t eat grapes. (Another thing that raises the eyebrow.) But I promise you: I would love to be able to just eat a pear and I am not doing this for the attention. I loathe the “attention.”
So yes, it’s challenging, and while I tell myself that I would probably be thinner if I could eat salads, I also know that I have the use of my legs and I should just shut the hell up. (And also, see “can drink wine” above) And now, more importantly, I’ve come to realize it’s a gift.
As it is, I can be the only one at the table who truly loves their dish. I’m just so damn happy to be eating something that’s not going to kill me, I tend not to judge things as harshly as others might. And it’s made me a good cook, as I often have to learn adjustments and substitutes when cooking at home. I have to find a way to get 100% of the flavor with 25% less ingredients.
But during a recent vacation I realized it was more than that. I was actually lucky.
Seven years ago I was planning a trip to Italy and a little nervous about it. I had been there in college, but I was so much more limited now in what I could eat. The first thing anyone thinks of when they think of Italian food is red sauce, and tomatoes were out of the diet. Ordering in America was such a process. What was it going to be like in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language well?
But in Italy, not only does everything NOT have tomatoes in it, the food doesn’t have many things in it at all. If it says it’s pasta with mushrooms and cheese, it’s pasta with mushrooms and cheese. At restaurant after restaurant I would ask cautiously in my broken Italian if anything else was in it. Sure it was mushrooms, but you’ve probably also stuck some carrots or broccoli or lemon in it, right? Any weird lime foams or plum infusions or asparagus brines? These were all the hidden secret things that I had learned to look out for in America, but in Italy they just looked at me like I three tits.
“It says mushrooms and cheese. Why would there be anything else?”
Why indeed? When you have fresh pasta, in season mushrooms and local cheese you don’t want to drown the taste of those ingredients with a lot of other crap. In America we’ve gotten used to this orgy of ingredients, as if the sheer number of things is a substitute for flavor. It’s filler for the lack of quality in our produce, the frozen food we’re defrosting, the time we don’t take to prepare it well and the chemicals and preservatives we’re pumping through all of it. We’re putting more and more crap in our food and yet we’re not eating.
I always somewhat lamented my luck when I went with friends to these 5 course tasting menus and they we’re eating their salmon with a currant glaze over a fig custard with apple-turnip chutney and carrot milk… while I hade my grilled fish, plain, but I was actually the lucky one. I know what that fish actually tastes like! And if it’s fresh and cooked well, it can be sublime. It’s the people whose food is drowned in tomato foams and kumquat infusions and pecan essence who are missing out.
On my last trip to Italy I could not stop talking about the potatoes. They’re just roasted. Half time the time I don’t even see any herbs in them, just salt, pepper and olive oil. And yet in my American kitchen, I can’t copy how delicious they taste. I don’t have the same potatoes. My friend who lives there says when she comes home to the States our produce tastes like air. I’ve had rest stop sandwiches at the Autostrada that have blown my mind with how the cheese and bread tasted. I’ve seen a man come into the restaurant with a bunch of basil he just picked from the garden. “Biologique!” he proclaimed, waving it in the air and I swear I could smell it from the doorway.
I’ve had average meals in Italy. Sure. Usually it’s touristy places that tend to use more frozen ingredients. But sometimes it’s in the exact places that are supposed to be exceptional. The places serving fish in lime coconut sauce with pepper reduction and kidney remoulade. And at one such place last week I asked The Husband how his cuttlefish – cooked the way the chef intended – was and he replied thoughtfully, but not enthusiastically, “It’s OK… Interesting.” Whereas mine, cooked the way natured intended, was delicious. And I realized that without these food allergies that I’ve been living with all these years, without these annoying dinner companions, I would miss out on the pure taste of so many foods. By missing out, I learned what I was really missing.
Rosemary White Wine Granita
This is my favorite dessert to make in the summer. So much so in fact that when a friend came to dinner recently she said it made her happy just to eat it because she knew summer was here.
I experimented with a lot of different granita recipes and one thing I found shocking was the amount of sugar they called for! The wine is already sweet and you want to taste the flavor of the rosemary. I’ve cut the sugar by over half and no one misses it.
For the wine I use a Vinho Verde which is inexpensive and has a lower alcohol content so you can eat your granita by the pool and not worry you’re going to fall in and drown.
4 ½ cups water
1/3 cup sugar
16 sprigs rosemary
3 cups white wine
Bring water, rosemary and sugar to a boil, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Once water comes to a boil, remove from heat and let steep, covered, for 20 minutes. Remove rosemary and add wine to the mixture. Once cooled, place in a shallow container and place in freezer. The mixture will need at least an hour to start to freeze. After the first hour, stir the mixture, being sure to scrape the sides, then repeat every 45 minutes to an hour, until the desired consistency is achieved. Once the granita is dry and flaky, like a slushy that will get you drunk, you can put it into an airtight container and it will keep for weeks, probably, but in our house it doesn’t last the weekend.