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Going Nuts

Passover is about freedom, so let’s not encourage our kids to be slaves to their allergies

Marjorie Ingall
March 15, 2010

I have a fatal nut allergy. I’ve gone into anaphylactic shock twice, once as a 2-year-old after my mom gave me a pecan muffin, and once as a twentysomething after a bored waitress told me that no, there were no walnuts in the pesto.

These days I carry EpiPens. I bypass fancy pastries, since they often contain vile marzipan. I don’t eat in Indian restaurants anymore, as bits of cashew and almond often seem to find their way into even ostensibly nut-free dishes. Once, on a cross-country flight, I accidentally bit into a nut in my airline meal and panicked. The flight attendant took me up to the first-class bathroom and taught me how to make myself vomit: She got a saltshaker, filled a teaspoon and said, “Swallow this, fast.” I did as she said. It worked. When I reported back to her, eyes watering, she told me, “All flight attendants over 35 know that trick; airlines used to have mandatory weigh-ins.” How odd that the sexism and sizeism of a bygone era saved my life.

Passover is probably the biggest holiday challenge for folks like me. Many Passover desserts rely on tree nuts for texture and heft. Swanky seder salads invariably have walnuts hidden in them like bombs in The Hurt Locker. And of course there’s charoset, known to the nut-allergic as the Mortar of Doom. So, when I began hosting the seder, I started experimenting with nut-free charoset recipes.

In 2006, I tried a Yemenite variant with figs, dates, wine, fresh ginger, coriander, cayenne pepper, and sesame seeds. (Sephardic Jews and some Ashkenazim—including me—eat seeds and legumes on Passover.) But the charoset it yielded was simultaneously not nuanced enough and too coriander-y. In 2007 I tried an Israeli version with apples, bananas, dates, lemon and orange zest, cinnamon, wine, and honey. But that charoset, as those without nuts frequently become, was an icky-textured glop, and banana-scented baby-food glop is not enticing to anyone. We left it for Elijah, but he didn’t seem interested either. In 2008, to avoid the glop issue, I used big chunks of granny smith apples to provide the crunch other charosets get from nuts. I tossed them with cardamom, Slivovitz, dates, raisins, and cinnamon. Finally, triumph!

But because I am the Lindsey Vonn of nut-free charoset, I was not content to rest on my laurels. So, I continued experimenting. In 2009 I tried mixing Yemenite and Ashkenazi traditions in a version with apples, raisins, dates, wine, pine nuts, cardamom, and cayenne. The pine nuts were too oily and added a greasy mouth-feel to the dish.

This year I’ll be trying two new recipes. One is adapted from the Jews of Curacao; it will have peanuts (I can eat those, because they’re legumes, not tree nuts), brown sugar, dates, raisins, figs, wine, honey, cinnamon, orange, lime, and watermelon and tamarind juices. Yes, it could be completely disgusting. So, to be safe, I’ll also revisit the Great Charoset of 2008, a combo of apples and cardamom.

You might think I’d be advocating for all charoset to be nut-free. Or that I’d attend a seder at other people’s homes only if they promised not to serve the vile indehiscent items. You would be wrong.

Of course I believe infants and toddlers with hardcore food allergies should be kept away from foods that could make them sick. But the rest of us, including school-age children, need to be responsible for our own eating. My parents didn’t make a big deal out of my allergy; they taught me to always find out what I was eating.

Today’s parents, I’m afraid, try to control everything in a child’s environment as if casting a spell at Hogwarts. They succeed in panicking their kid, convincing him that danger is everywhere, and making matters worse for these very few kids who really are that allergic. What’s up with the parents who claim their child is allergic but haven’t had him tested? Or the parents who haven’t done blood tests as well as scratch tests and food challenges? Or who dismiss doctors who tell them their child may have a sensitivity but not a true allergy?

Are there children who are so desperately allergic they can’t be in a room with nuts? Absolutely. Are they common? Doubtful. I say this as someone who is allergic enough to have stopped breathing, lost consciousness, and required intubation. Once, after I made out with my college boyfriend after he’d eaten a walnut brownie in the cafeteria, my lips swelled up so much I looked like Amanda Lepore. Yet I tested only at level 4 (on a scale of 0 to 6) on the blood test that determines just how allergic you are. My doctor said that in over 30 years of practice, he’s never seen a 6. Here’s my proposition: If you can produce test results saying your kid is a 4, you get a nut-free table in the classroom. If your kid is a 5, you get a nut-free school. And if your kid is a 6, you get whatever you want, because that blows. (As an aside: All parents of allergic kids should teach them to be judicious about swapping spit and eating while drunk—it sounds like a joke, but adolescence was when I had to learn new lessons about living with a serious allergy.)

As most parents of young kids know, food allergies have been on the rise for the last two decades. Some immunologists think the “hygiene hypothesis” is responsible, that we’re all so clean and purified and antibioticked and antibacterial-soaped that our immune systems have lost the ability to do their jobs right. Others think a lack of exposure to nut products in early childhood may be the culprit. I’d love to hear from Israelis who were raised on Bamba, the peanut-based Cheetos manqué that’s a childhood staple. Were you shocked when you learned that most American parents would no sooner give a 2-year-old a peanut snack than they would a bag of broken glass drizzled with botulism toxin?

In any case, Passover is a good time to think about how we respond to nut allergies, and not just because of those farkakte flourless hazelnut tortes on every seder table. It’s because this is a holiday about freedom. Our sages ponder the part of the Exodus story in which God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Was Pharaoh responsible for his own actions? What role does free will have in the story? Can children become actualized, differentiated adults if we don’t give them the tools and chances to control their own lives? The Israelites moved from slavery to freedom; we don’t want children to be slaves to their fears. And we don’t want them not to feel responsible for their own health because everyone else in the community has been handed that responsibility. Ultimately, we all own what we put in our own bodies. If we encourage kids to live in fear or rely entirely on others for protection, aren’t we condemning them to slavery?

I know what it’s like to be scared. For weeks after I nearly died as a young adult, I’d sit quietly outside my superintendent’s apartment after I’d eaten dinner. My heart was pounding. I could feel my throat closing up. I was flushed and having trouble breathing, because I couldn’t be 100 percent sure that I hadn’t accidentally eaten a nut. And a panic attack can look and feel an awful lot like anaphylaxis. And I know what it feels like to worry about your child. My kids, thank God, didn’t inherit my allergy (I had them tested), but Josie has spent several nights in the emergency room with severe asthma, and as a 4-year-old, Maxine wandered out of my in-laws’ backyard and got lost in a neighborhood with a deep ravine. Parenthood is terrifying. I understand wanting to do anything, everything, to protect your child.

But Passover is a celebration of becoming your own master. Don’t we want to offer that gift to our children?

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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