Five years ago when I discovered that my oldest daughter had a life-threatening nut allergy, I wasn't fully aware of the impact that this diagnosis would have on the holidays. But I should have been. Let's face it — a big part of any holiday is the food. Add nut allergies to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful situation.
It seems to me that the world becomes increasingly more infatuated with nut-containing recipes starting around Halloween and continuing until after the New Year. Food magazines, TV news segments and newspaper cooking sections are filled with nuts, nuts and more nuts. There appears to be a primal desire to stock up on foods that highlight walnuts, pecans, cashews and almonds, almost like a squirrel stocks up on acorns for the winter.
For example, as I flipped through current issues of my favorite magazines, I found recipes for caramel nut cheesecake, Roquefort salad with walnuts, kugel with pecans, green beans with almonds, broccoli casserole with pecans, pecan pie, peanut butter blossom cookies, bourbon balls with crushed walnuts, candied nuts, pine nut chutney and pecan-laced turkey stuffing. Also, a homemade front-door holiday wreath devised of walnut shells.
Yes, nuts are everywhere you look this time of year (that's not even including our nearest and dearest) and as the walnut wreath proves, sometimes tree nuts greet you at the door even before the hosts do.
Because of the recipes and nutty crafts floating around, holiday parties and dinners pose major challenges to the nut-allergic. Unfortunately those two warhorses of holiday entertaining — buffets and potlucks — can be a health hazard. Standard buffet fare such as complicated casseroles with 20 ingredients or cookie recipes with crushed pecans are off-limits. Sometimes the food doesn't even have to contain nuts but has come into contact with them. If we don't know for sure about a particular food, our daughter doesn't get to eat it, so often she doesn't get to partake of holiday treats made outside of our home.
Food isn't the only thing that's dicey about holiday dining with nut allergies. Since food is so deeply rooted in tradition and emotion, the potential to either offend or be offended during what I’ve come to view as “the nutty season” is endless. It’s almost inevitable that a nut-allergic family will encounter a friend or relative who just doesn’t believe that food allergies are real or who are certain that "just one bite" of their treasured recipe won't hurt, when in fact, it could. People who wouldn’t dream of questioning a child’s diabetes or asthma diagnosis may peg you as a “nut” for asking about every ingredient in a dish, or label your child as "picky" if you are obliged to bring them a separate meal for safety's sake.
For the most part, my family is able to focus on the fun aspects of holiday celebrations and not the food gaffes. We've been fortunate to have a lot of support from family members and friends. Plus, my husband and I enjoy entertaining at our home, which helps eliminate the need for others to concern themselves with the menu. When we do attend a holiday party, I'm always willing to whip up a nut-free side dish or decorated cupcakes.
Perhaps because an individual with food allergies is denied so many treats at this time of year, food allergies teach you how to appreciate the most important things in life. Family, friends and the good fortune to be eating a delicious dinner at all come to mind. Plus, my entire family has discovered newfound compassion for others due to our own struggles with a medical condition that affects every aspect of our lives.
Despite the fact that we sometimes feels as if "Life is a bowl of cashews," it's wonderful to be present at the table with those we love most. And even though my family has to be more cautious about what foods we place on that on that table, "the nutty season" is worth it.