Dairy, fish, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, tree nuts, peanuts, and shellfish. Seven rules for feeding me, or rather, what not to feed me—seven allergens that are ingrained in my memory. This list is a part of who I am. And no, it’s not easy navigating the world of food with a list of allergies like mine. Still, my parents never wanted my allergies to hold me back from culinary experiences; other kids I met at Food Allergy Canada meetings weren’t awarded the same comfort. It is both in spite and because of my allergies that food is essential to who I am.
Navigating allergies is even more complicated when considering my Jewish heritage, a culture that is famously food-centric and reluctant when it comes to compromising. When I asked my uncle if the Purim (Jewish Halloween) treat I wanted to eat was pareve—meaning dairy and meat-free—he gave me the go-ahead, so I dove right into a poppy seed hamantaschen. You may recall that I am allergic to poppy seeds, which landed me in the hospital for several hours.
Still, the foods I eat paint a picture of who I am, whether they’re the ones that I have to live without or the ones I can’t live without. Compiling a list of my favourite foods pulls from a thousand different sources.
This is why recipes get passed down generations, something I’m intimately familiar in the context of my Jewish heritage. My family talks about my great-grandmother’s matzo ball soup and her potato kugel with reverence. But what doesn’t always get passed down are the little things—the spices, the personal flair. Try making someone else’s recipe: It probably won’t taste the same. Highly personal and familiar, home cooking is a sign of comfort.
While eating homemade food shielded me from a scary world of dairy and poppy seeds, I still find risks exciting. Going to restaurants is an adventure I enjoy. Eating safely means giving every waiter a laundry list of restrictions and in exchange, eating safely means listening to the restaurant staff explain their processes for avoiding cross-contamination.
Because of my allergies, travel is thrilling too. My dad and I venture yearly across the United States, touring different Major League Baseball stadiums. In our time in those cities, we seek out spots featured on food shows hosted by Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain—two electric personalities with a penchant for creativity and adventure. But, for all their great choices, I have to do my own extra layer of digging. A hamburger bun mustn’t have seeds; a dessert mustn’t have nuts. It adds a twist to our search.
It has been about 10 years since an allergist told me I could eat dairy. I celebrated the occasion with a party, complete with a cheeseburger main course. Now, the food has worked its way into my diet. I stopped drinking soy milk, and I love a good plate of nachos. In fact, nine-year-old me wouldn’t believe you if you told him how much dairy I now consume. I’ve shed plenty of other allergies over too; continuously trying new foods is exciting.
With fewer allergies and 19 years worth of bad allergy experiences, I am equipped to handle my food choices independently. Food is not a restriction, but something that connects me to others. Last March, when picking out an apartment for the school year, my roommate and I settled in at Schwartz’s Deli to discuss our options. In an unfamiliar situation, I chose familiar food for me, a safe option. Smoked meat is so good—and getting to share my heritage with my roommate was pretty good, too.