Special-needs diets for those requiring gluten-free and allergy-sensitive foods require extra effort. But as our contributor notes in retracing her own odyssey in the kitchen, it’s well worth it.
My earliest memory of cooking is when my mother went into the hospital for a C-section to deliver my sister. At home, age 10, I layered bacon between paper towels. I mixed brown sugar in water and then spooned the “syrup” into scooped-out halves of acorn squash. I microwaved both using times my mother had written down, plating it proudly. My father ate bacon and squash for two days straight.
My teenage years expanded the repertoire. I knew to sauté strips of pepper and onion to spice up a refried bean wrap. I could melt down marshmallows for a tray of rice cereal treats. Yet the culinary experiments of high school friends, such as pancakes and hamburgers, remained out of my reach. I went to college with an exactingly devised Thai chicken stir-fry, specific to the brand of “Sandra-friendly” coconut milk. The first time I tried to make it, I set off my dorm’s fire alarms.
My mother was an amazing cook but she juggled the diets of two young daughters—one with a dozen deadly allergies including dairy, the other whose favorite dish was macaroni and cheese. She didn’t take risks with spice blends or exotic proteins. Enjoying food was a luxury. Keeping me alive, free of hives and wheezing, was the priority.
So it took awhile for me to discover my inner chef. For the first few years out of college, I lived on smoked salmon, carrots and hummus. I didn’t cook, I assembled. Then one day, leafing through my hometown newspaper, a recipe caused a jolt of recognition: Winter squash. It called for squash, maple syrup, cranberries and a dash of nutmeg, all roasted in the oven. I clipped the recipe with wonder. I can cook this. Three years later, pouring juice from a pan in which I had seared lamb chops, spooning out the browned onion, Kalamata olives and parsley onto a plate for someone I loved, I realized: I enjoy cooking this.
A few years after that, over a holiday dinner, my dad looked up mid-bite into a dish of escarole and beans spiced with cumin and said, “You cooked this?”
Today, my husband and I revel in the rhythm of meals made at home. We trek to the farmer’s market. We poach salmon in curry, chop rainbow chard, and bring rice to life with vegetable broth and flakes of sun-dried tomato. We dress our salads with fresh-squeezed lemon, chile oil and a pour of champagne vinegar. We toast the evening.
I asked my mother if she ever thought I’d turn into a chef. “I was always concerned as to whether you’d really enjoy cooking,” she admitted, thinking back to my college days. (Cue fire alarms.) “You and I have both learned to be less fearful about what you eat,” she said.
Not everyone loves to cook, yet I do, although my refrigerator lacks ingredients—butter, milk, beef, shrimp, mustard—that others take for granted. I’m a better cook for becoming one when I did, outgrown of grease and salt’s easy pleasures, in an era that champions olive oil over Crisco.
Is it easy to raise a child with special dietary needs? No. Will dietary restrictions limit your child’s relationship to food? No. You just have to trust the one ingredient common to every recipe: time.
Sandra Beasley is the author of two collections of poetry and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown). She lives in Washington, DC.