The Joy of Cooking for People With Food Allergies



To try Regina's recipe for gluten-free corn-pear muffins, click here.

My husband, wonderful as he is, sometimes has this Midwestern prairie attitude that any illness or calamity can be "walked or shaken off." He vows that in his neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis, no one ever had a food allergy. It was probably too cold for anyone to have any kind of affliction. I am giving him a hard time and I have to agree with my husband that I knew very few people with food allergies when I was growing up in the late '50s and early '60s. It seems now that everyone we know has some level of food allergy: we both know many children and adults who are allergic to milk, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, shellfish, and eggs.

A chef's biggest fear is having someone become sick from something you have prepared.

Having been in the restaurant business for so many years, I am most definitely in tune to the idea of how serious food allergies can be, often life-threatening. With that in mind, as a chef I always listen very carefully when someone mentions his or her allergy. I begin to take inventory in great detail of what kind of oil I have in the fryer and what may have cross-contaminated a dish, even hidden ingredients in an ingredient I have used. A chef's biggest fear is having someone become sick from something you have prepared. I have heard it for years from the guests in my restaurants, who are often concerned they could fall victim to a server not checking thoroughly enough on ingredients and preparation.

I decided to check to see if these allergies are on the rise. I called a local physician who steered me to the AAAI. Not the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence but the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), the official scientific journal of the AAAAI, is the most-cited journal in the field of allergy and clinical immunology. I would recommend its website for the most up-to-date information.

According to AAAI research and what is noted on the website:

Food allergies are on the rise worldwide, but particularly in the U.S, affecting about 4% of the nation's population. In 2008 it was reported that as many as 8% of children under the age of 3 have food allergies". The most common food allergies are to milk, eggs and peanuts. About 2.5% of children under the age of 4 are allergic to milk, while 1.5% are allergic to eggs and 0.8% are allergic to peanuts. Other foods that often cause allergies are wheat, soy and sesame products. The good news for children suffering from milk and egg allergies is that there's an 80% chance that they will outgrow the problem by the time they hit their teens. Unfortunately, only 20% of the children with a peanut allergy outgrow it.

What brought this topic to mind is that I received a phone call from a New Jersey grandmother who has desperately and lovingly tried to provide a variety of dishes for a six-year-old granddaughter who obviously has more than severe food allergies. Mrs. Shaw found me here at The Atlantic. The particular article and recipe was my post about corn flour. She was hoping this was an ingredient she could add to the very short list of foods her granddaughter can have.

It was easy to take the time and interest in helping this nice lady as her love and commitment was so evident. It also gave me an instant appreciation of how easy my life has been to be able to eat anything I wanted with no adverse affects, and, more importantly, of how blessed those of us are who have healthy children.

It is not always as simple as finding a product like corn flour. You have to worry about cross-contamination. One provider of the product online also specializes in nut products. That could cause serious problems for this child. As I said, a chef's biggest fear is making someone sick, but what I did not say is making someone happy with food is a chef's (like a grandmother's) biggest joy. I was so touched by Mrs. Shaw's love and commitment to her granddaughter that I decided I would try to come up with a corn flour muffin that had the limited ingredients that she told me her granddaughter could have.

Here is my recipe, with corn flour, eggs, corn oil, vanilla, natural sugar, and pears. This would also work for many people who cannot eat gluten. It may not be the most original recipe I have ever come up with, but it is one of the most heartfelt.

Recipe: Pear-Corn Flour Muffins