Accidental Chef: Allergist Mom Learns to Love Cooking

in Features, Food Allergy

allergist-momI was the allergist who barely knew where to find the kitchen, and when my kids developed a long list of allergies, I began to despise food. Then a eureka moment led to a startling discovery: the joy in creating flavorful, safe meals for my family.  

GROWING up in my parents’ home, my mom and my two sisters did the cooking. They wore adorable aprons, got flour on their blouses as they baked cookies, and had hot oil splash up their forearms on taco night. In contrast, I happily spent the majority of my life on the periphery of the kitchen. I didn’t envy the aprons nor did I want to mess up my shirt or burn my arms.

Sure, I might briefly meander through the kitchen if there was a spoonful of cookie dough to be eaten, but I couldn’t have wanted to be farther away from the stir, chop, sauté, mix, blend and puree. The medley of flavors that made their way to our table without me having to lift a finger were simply perfect. I savored one delicious, hands-free meal after another: it was good to be fed, and I was well-fed.

When I moved out of my parents’ house and to Chicago for medical school, I didn’t panic. There was a restaurant around every corner. I had also managed to make a mean, albeit rare, box of macaroni and cheese and an occasional cheese quesadilla. Again, I ate well with little effort.

When I began dating my husband, we ate out nearly every night. In fact, we had a favorite restaurant that we lovingly referred to as “our kitchen”. The chef there had tweaked the marinara sauce to my complete satisfaction, and would make me “Sarah’s special sauce”. I’m actually not kidding.

New Food Allergy Reality

While I was busy completing my allergy/ immunology fellowship, we had twin boys 13 months after the birth of our first son. One of the twins, Gino, was quickly covered in hives, eczema, and vomit. I brought Gino in to get tested for cow’s milk allergy and indeed that was his diagnosis.

Our daughter was born when the twins were 3 years old, and would experience anaphylaxis to her first ounce of cow’s milk based formula at four months. But milk wouldn’t be our only food allergy diagnosis.

Among the three younger children, they would also demonstrate allergic reactions to egg, wheat, oat, corn, soy, peanut, tree nut, beans, green peas, mustard, sesame, fish, shellfish, chicken, banana, cranberry and red grapes.

As the list grew, so did my panic. How in the world was I going to bring them out to eat at a restaurant now? Who was going to be able to cook for them? I looked around the house in hopes of finding someone who would step up, but the kids couldn’t and my husband couldn’t even make Ramen noodles. That left me.

The trouble was, my killer mac and cheese would, in fact, be just that. A cheese quesadilla was no longer an option either. These meals were all I knew how to make and, to be honest, I was starting to hate food. I hated what it was doing to my precious children and now I hated what it was making me do, too. They would surely starve with me as their mother!

For the Kids, I’d Learn to Cook

Fortunately, instinct took over. I knew that I had no choice but to feed them. As much as I didn’t want to learn to cook, the survival of my children clearly depended on it. All of the quick, relatively easy and familiar meals were off the table, literally. So, I had to create healthy and safe meals from scratch to feed a family of six three times a day.

The first few years, I was turning out some pretty lousy meals. For the twins’ first birthday party, I confess to making them rice cakes with frosting crafted from water and powdered sugar. That was their cake! Only a mouth that has never tasted a speck of decent food could eat what I was making them.

We had gotten down our mealtime routine. The kids would eat first and after bedtime my husband and I would return to our old ways and order out.

One evening, Gino said to me, “It’s going to be weird to be a mommy and a daddy.” When I asked him why, his reply made my heart sink: “Because once you are a mommy or a daddy, you don’t eat dinner.”

Ugh. We do eat dinner, you little ones just don’t see it. How could I possibly model good, healthy eating behavior if they rarely saw me eat?

That night was my epiphany, something had to change. I had to stop treating food as the enemy and embrace the food that we could eat. I had to learn to cook well in order to eat with our kids.

Learn to Cook Bootcamp

My mom was willing to enroll me in Cooking 101: Bootcamp for the Delinquent and Reluctant Chef, and we got to work. First, we had to figure out ingredient substitutions. I couldn’t cook with eggs, so we needed plenty of apple sauce and ground flax seed. The kids couldn’t eat cow’s milk or soy, so what about rice drink? Are all rice drinks the same?

Gino was allergic to wheat. How do I substitute this? Many of the pre-mixed gluten-free flours had legume flour or oat flour, so we couldn’t use those. The solution? I made my own with tapioca flour, potato starch and rice flour. That is, I made my own until the day I mixed a gigantic plastic bag of these flours and the bag burst open and every grain of flour mix covered my dark wood floor, squeezing into every groove. Needless to say, when a safe, gluten-free mix came onto the market, I should have bought stock in it.

So now we had the ingredients but the luxury of a recipe that was Top 9 allergen-free plus some usually alluded us. A few of my mom’s classic recipes were safe for us without any alterations, like stuffed green peppers or Sloppy Joes. Those recipes may as well have been wrapped in a golden bow.

Most of my mom’s recipes and recipes from traditional cookbooks had to be adjusted. How many batches of cookies have I had to throw out? How many meals tasted nothing like what I imagined they would or actually tasted like nothing?

It’s a good thing I’m a scientist because this kind of cooking takes a lot of experimentation, a little of this, a little more of that. But once you nail the recipe, you own it, and it feels good. Eventually, I graduated from bootcamp. I had learned how to stir, chop, sauté, mix, blend and puree. I was no expert but knew that I just needed to get to work, gain confidence and take ownership of my own kitchen.

Thanksgiving’s Famous Dressing

For the Thanksgiving two years after my grandmother passed away, I was craving her dressing. It was sad to think that my children would never experience its taste. I got the recipe from my mom and studied it and stressed over it. Would it be worth it to make a safe version only to have it taste “safe”?

Desire overwhelmed fear, and I set to work. I replaced butter with oil and boxed chicken broth with homemade broth but got stuck at the bread. Every option for gluten-free croutons had something wrong, whether it was processed in a facility with something or contained corn or oat. I would make my own.

Better yet, I had my kids help me make it. They too have started to feel empowered and happy in the kitchen. They ask to wear their aprons or their chef costume and they pull up a stool to cook with me. I encourage this because they are going to have to learn how cook for themselves and likely will find themselves hosting their friends and family.

I have also noticed the more they have a hand in the preparation, the more likely they are to enjoy the meal. If they helped to make it, they defend the meal, they own it, they eat it, they like it.

When Gino was going to help shake the parsley into our version of Gramma’s dressing, I asked him to wait until I could take off the lid for him. Instead, he unscrewed the whole top and poured the entire jar of parsley in the bowl.

My first instinct was yell at him for not listening. That hurt his feelings, so I quickly changed my tone and started laughing. The tears sucked back up into his eyes and he laughed, too. We scooped out all the extra parsley that we could. A few hours later, we took the dressing out of the oven and tasted it. I let him take the first bite.

His eyes lit up: “Mom, I think the extra parsley was the secret ingredient. It’s amazing.” And it was.

It was my Gramma’s dressing and I knew when I served it on Thanksgiving day, I would be serving up a memory, a Top 9 allergen-free-plus-some, safe for everyone in my family, memory.

Love Affair with My Kitchen

There is a deep pleasure in watching your husband, your children, your parents, your sister, your brother-in-law, your mother and father-in-law, and your grandmother enjoy a safe meal together, at one table, with no stress about cross-contamination. That, for me, was the ultimate joy I have had as a mother.

Serving up a good and healthy variety of food that does not contain your family’s allergens can bring you and your children great pleasure. Yet it can still be tough to feel confident enough to share this food with extended family or friends. The hardest thing has been the comments that I often get in response to the food I make. You know what I mean, right? Do these sound familiar:

“It’s actually not that bad.”
“It’s surprisingly good.”
“How did you make this without butter?”
“I am surprised that you could make this with, like, no food.”

The guests are usually holding their plates out for seconds as they utter these words, so I think they are meant as a compliment; they just don’t feel like one.

When I first started hosting parties and holidays, I would walk around with my head down, embarrassed. But I’ve since retrained my brain to happily accept these backhanded compliments. “Yeah, it isn’t that bad, is it?” I’ll say. “Oh you want seconds? Sure!”

To this day, I’m surprised to hear my kids tell their friends about my kale spaghetti or to have guests swoon over Sarah’s wheat-free, cheese-free lasagna or Top 9 allergen-free chocolate cupcakes with homemade vanilla frosting.

The truth is I didn’t expect to have a love affair with my kitchen. I didn’t expect to ever use all of the kitchen accessories we got for our wedding. Having to cook every meal for my children wasn’t in my plans. I didn’t expect to have to put off working in an allergy clinic in order to cook for my children who have food allergies. But life brings you to places you often least expect.

Life picked me up and dropped me hard into the center of the world I wanted nothing to do with: the kitchen. But when my kids and my family enjoy a meal I made, today I feel honored and overjoyed. I never would have that experience bringing home pizza or whipping up macaroni and cheese from a box every other night.

What a wonderful feeling to provide good, nutritious, safe food for my family. So, as much I may have been the most unlikely home chef, I can tell you that I have in fact mastered the stir, chop, sauté, mix, blend and puree. I’m moving on to braising, blanching and brining, and I’ll tell you what, friends, have I got the cutest apron.

Now an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, Dr. Boudreau-Romano runs the FASE (Food Allergy Support & Education) program at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
Photography by Callie Lipkin

Related Reading:
The Epic Road Trip: 1 Car, 4 Kids and 10 Allergies
Allergist Mom: What My Food-Allergic Kids Taught Me