The last time I ate at my Nonna's house I left with an itchy mouth and one less Benadryl in my purse. That was at Easter, and it's an example of why I've been so hesitant to eat there over the last couple years. It really pains me to say it, but managing my allergies at my Nonna's house has become a challenge for me.
There are a few issues at play in this situation. The first is that I don't speak Italian and she doesn't speak very good English. I have never regretted fluffing off my Italian lessons as much as I do currently. The second is that she is hearing impaired, so on top of my broken Italian words and hand gestures, plus translations through my dad, it's a struggle to communicate. In addition to this, she has lost some of her vision, making it difficult to properly clean, or read labels. And in her late eighties, this is very understandable.
There have been several times in recent years that she's insisted she bought the same brand of pasta as always, but when we check on the sly it's actually some other brand. This worries me because of the increase in availability of gluten-free pastas that I'm usually allergic to. It would be so easy for a simple mistake to happen. For cooking she uses olive oil and vegetable oil. But when I ask what type of vegetable oil she always says sesame, and I know it's not sesame. I constantly worry that it's really peanut oil, while crossing my fingers that it's just canola or sunflower. The same goes for accidentally unclean utensils, pots, pans, dishes, etc because she does not have a dishwasher and doesn't want one. My dad told me to run over and scrub my plate before eating, as soon as she left the room, the last time we were at her house. It's also hard to explain that my allergies have changed over time, that I have added new ones to the list in the last few years.
I'm not writing this post to throw shade at my grandmother. I don't think she's done anything wrong. Rather, I think it's important to share my honest experiences, fears, and worries as a food allergy writer. This wasn't an issue when I was a kid, or when my grandfather was alive, but it is now.
For years we had a standard lunch routine on rotation; pasta, veal cutlets, roasted quail, salad, fried zucchini flowers in the summer, homemade biscuits with our espresso afterwards. But ingredients change, and she's from a different time. It feels almost offensive when I ask to read the bag of flour or breadcrumbs to check if the ingredients have changed. I've sneakily gone garbage bin diving (to find discarded packages) in the garage several times when I excused myself to use the washroom.
We used to eat lunch at her house on Sundays every few weeks, but now I go there maybe once or twice a year. This weighs on me greatly. My parents understand my worry and know that it's a difficult topic to broach with her. The last thing we want to do is offend a person we love. Now we work together as a family to manage eating situations where possible. We all go out to eat on special occasions, my parents will have everyone over to their house, or Brandon and I will host a dinner at our place. My dad and I will volunteer to help her cook if the whole family is going over (like at Easter), which allows us to do our sanitizing and label reading.
Most of all, this transition has been very difficult because I miss eating lunch at my Nonna's house. It was a regular routine for us as a family, and one that I always enjoyed. She's a wonderful cook and taught me how to make so many delicious foods. I have fond memories of cooking with her and my Nonno, picking vegetables from their garden, and having relaxed lunches in the backyard with a splash of wine in my ginger ale. These new fears are the mark of change and aging, and it's hard to accept. I think it's important to find alternate solutions for seeing each other as a family because the last thing I want to do is grow distant or sacrifice our relationship. It seems ironic that someone who taught me so much about food is now someone that I don't fully trust to cook for me. I think I have a hard time accepting that.
In September we'll both be celebrating our birthdays at my family cottage. I'm really looking forward to this. It will be a situation where the food is controlled and my mom and I are doing the cooking. We'll get to see each other without the stress of worrying about food allergy safety. It'll be a time to sit on the porch, sip a coffee, and enjoy our new family tradition together.