My earliest memories are of interacting with food. My earliest memory, in fact, is of myself chasing a chicken in my babysitter’s backyard farm when I was two years old. For a couple years, my brother and I were watched after school by an elderly Italian couple in our neighborhood which back then, was nearly all farmland. They kept egg-laying hens, a goat, and some bunnies, plus a wiry old dog to keep watch. They grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables in a small subsistence farm and would often send us home with bags full of fresh ingredients.
My Nonno and Nonna had a similar lifestyle; they taught me to appreciate where my food comes from. Their backyard wasn’t just for kicking a ball around and lighting up the grill. It had a massive concrete table housed by a canopy, rows and rows of tomatoes, fruit-bearing trees, lettuces, squash, and herbs. Nearly every inch was used for the production or consumption of food, with small concrete tiles laid in between to lead you from one patch to another. Upon arrival each time we visited, we’d immediately be led out back to the garden to check up on the progress of the crops, and to see my Nonno’s more experimental varieties in the greenhouse, like figs, pineapple, aloe vera, and an 8 foot tall cactus. Lemon season was particularly exciting, spurring us each to take a slice of lemon and eat it straight up. My Nonna would give my brother and I each a small basket and ask us to cut some lettuce and tomatoes for the salad, and a few hot peppers for the pasta. We’d happily oblige.
On special visits I’d get to watch her make the pasta from scratch; using my small hands to gently guide the soft dough through the rollers and onto the floured counter top. Then the dough would be cut and bundled, and packed up delicately in a floured cardboard box. We always enjoyed fresh pasta for lunch along with abundant greens, and either quail, veal, or rabbit for protein.
My aunt Marilyn taught me to bake. My brother and I would be covered in flour, standing on chairs in her kitchen, watching her use the hand mixer, all of us wearing aprons. We made gingerbread together and cut little holes in the top to thread ribbon through so that we could hang them from the tree. She was known for her baking, and every holiday had its specialty; lemon meringue pie at Easter or Thanksgiving, candy cane cookies for Christmas, and Rice Krispy Squares and the crunchiest most delicious chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had for nearly every other day of the year. On birthdays she’d make boiled icing or a money cake, and she always shared the recipes with me so that I could learn to make them myself. She didn’t just teach me how to bake; she also taught me to be patient with food, and that baking for others is a loving gesture.
My parents taught me to experiment. My mom would clip recipes from newspapers and magazines and tuck them into our well-worn copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. We’d spend a Saturday baking or cooking from the recipes that she had adapted, with pencil markings in the margins to indicate which ingredients would be replaced with what. There was never any worry about whether what we were making would “turn out”; we once accidentally combined two different recipes and ended up with an amazing apple blueberry loaf that we were never able to recreate. They encouraged me to take charge in the kitchen, to play around with ingredients, and to come up with my own creations. We logged many hours of food network and PBS cable network cooking shows together. Then I’d get all sorts of ideas for what I wanted to make, and we’d set out to gather all the ingredients. Sometimes my recipes were a flop, but sometimes they were incredible. Either way, my family encouraged me to keep trying and tweaking and massaging to get it just right.
Anyone who has lived with food allergy for most of their life knows that one’s relationship with food can be challenged. There have been periods of time where I’m afraid to eat because i’m worried I’ll have a reaction, or where I feel like food is pushing me away. Had my parents managed all my meals for me and never exposed me to this type of culture, it would have been so hard for me to pull myself out of my eating ruts. Knowing that I have an intrinsic relationship with food, that it nourishes me, and that I can feel in control when I eat whole foods, eases the stress of living with food allergy.
Every time a restaurant experience goes bust, I know I can make myself a fabulous meal at home. Every time someone tells me they feel bad for me because I “can’t eat anything”, I know I can throw an amazing dinner party and wow my guests. And when I start to feel anxious and isolated by food (like on a long vacation), I also can’t wait to get home so I can do a massive grocery haul and cook up a storm. Cultivating a love and appreciation for food has been my saving grace, the thing keeping me sane dspite the emotional toll that accompanies living with food allergy.