There’s nothing more delightful than an ice cream cone on a warm summer evening. Strolling along and licking at a scoop of chocolate gelato as the sun sets is one of the season’s great pleasures – a pleasure unknown to anyone with a life-threatening dairy allergy, where the joy of a cold treat can swiftly be cut short by having your throat swell up and your breathing cut off.
Anaphylaxis is the most severe reaction to a food allergy, and the most dangerous, but even milder reactions can cause discomfort and frustration. Allergy-sufferers who experience severe, life-threatening reactions from common food allergens such as peanuts, shellfish, eggs or dairy often carry a device called an Epi-pen which contains an antidote that can be used if they accidentally ingest a food they’re allergic to. But while the Epi-pen will save the life of a person suffering from anaphylactic shock, there is no ongoing treatments for food allergies as there are for other allergens such as mold or dust where weekly injections of the allergen can be administered to build up resistance. Avoidance is the only real option for people who find that certain foods make them sick.
Which means no ice cream, no peanut butter, and for a lot of allergy sufferers, confusion and frustration in the home kitchen and while eating out as they try to figure out how to enjoy the foods they love while avoiding the ingredients that might kill them.
Cookbook author Lucy Waverman, whose husband Bruce suffers from a severe peanut and nut allergy, has recently teamed up with the folks from Epi-pen to offer a selection of tasty allergen-free recipes that omit all peanuts and nuts, shellfish, dairy and eggs. She offers a pad thai recipe that is free of the eggs, nuts and shrimp typically found in the dish, as well as brownies, and chocolate cake that are free of eggs and milk.
From my own experience with a dairy allergy that was not life-threatening but was still quite painful and frustrating, I’ve found a great deal of support within the vegan community. When I asked Waverman about her recipes, particularly the dessert recipes, being very similar to vegan versions of the same dishes, she dismissed vegan recipes as dull, “You are right these could be considered vegan recipes but I did not base them on the vegan style as I find many vegan recipes to be dull – I based the recipes on fresh, seasonal food using some Mediterranean and Asian influences.” However, people with allergies to animal products such as eggs, dairy or shellfish will likely find that vegan cookbooks and vegan restaurants offer a plethora of options that make eating enjoyable again.
Vegan restaurants such as Fressen (478 Queen Street West) and Live Organic Food Bar (264 Dupont Street) offer a variety of options that are shellfish, egg and dairy-free, although not necessarily nut-free, but because of their overall philosophy are often very willing to modify a dish to accommodate a customer with a food allergy.
Food allergy sufferers must constantly check to ensure that when eating out, the ingredients they are allergic to are not used in their meals, or even come in contact with their food. Waverman recommends calling ahead. “We always tell the restaurant when we phone to book,” she says. “A few restaurants have difficulties with allergies and it is better to know ahead of time. If we don’t book and walk in we tell the server right away and ask him to check with the kitchen that it will not be a problem. We have only been turned away twice and we eat out a lot.”
Also important for the home cook dealing with a food allergy is to read labels – diligently. Waverman created her recipes without the use of mock cheese or tofu, but soy-based dairy products have been a lifesaver for many a dairy allergy sufferer. In my own experience, items like soy milk, soy cream cheese or soy sour cream work as well – or better – than regular dairy products in items like baked goods (seriously, soy sour cream kicks the butt of regular sour cream in a cream pie). However a lot of fake cheese products use casein as a coagulant, making them not so friendly to people with casein allergies.
Likewise, the majority of processed foods contain some form of eggs or dairy. People suffering from gluten allergies or celiac disease may have an even tougher time finding foods made without wheat. Peanuts tend to be easier to avoid because peanut allergies are so widespread that many restaurants and processed food companies avoid them completely. After announcing a few years ago that their west-end Toronto chocolate bar factory would no longer be a peanut-free environment, Nestlé Canada received such a huge backlash from the parents of kids with peanut allergies that they were forced to maintain a peanut-free facility.
The bottom line is that it is tough to have a food allergy, especially if you’re a food lover. Waverman’s recipes (which can be found on the Epi-pen website) focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, with Asian and Mediterranean influences; diets that have been proven to be extremely flavourful, not to mention healthy, and that employ a style of cooking and eating that everyone can enjoy.
It is possible to live with a food allergy and not feel completely deprived of all the good stuff. It might mean having to forgo the ice cream on that evening stroll, but there’s always sorbet, and even a few places that offer soy ice cream by the scoop. Having a food allergy means a lot of extra work, compromise and knowing everything about your food before you put it in your mouth, but it’s not an impossible chore. Hopefully Waverman’s involvement with the issue will provoke other cookbook authors, chefs and food manufacturers to start thinking about how to make their dishes more accessible to the many of us who suffer from food allergies but still love to eat.
Some additional resources for food allergy sufferers:
- The Allergy and Asthma Information Association – offers information to Canadians living with allergies and asthma
- Dining Allergies from Allergy-Free Lifestyle – tips on how to eat out with food allergies
- Get It Ripe – a recently released vegan cookbook by Jae Steel with plenty of recipes suitable for people with egg, shellfish or dairy allergies
Photos of Lucy Waverman’s chocolate birthday cake and pad thai used with permission.