Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thankful for fun scares instead of food frights

Spooky music greeted us as we walked through the dimly lit room, ghostly beings swinging above our heads. Pamela tightened her grip on my hand when she heard the sound of rats squeaking as they feasted on severed hands during a dinner party attended by a stylish skeleton and pumpkin head creature. As we rounded the corner, we saw a skeleton that had donned a witch’s hat to sit and read the local newspaper. Then, through dark strings that formed a type of curtain, we spotted the creepy face of a Guy Fawkes mask staring at us while the person dressed all in black clutched a skull and knife. He startled us as he suddenly stood up. Some kids ran from him screaming, especially when he would pretend to be a statue then jump up as they peered for a closer look. Once the secret was out that there was a live person behind the intimidating mask, he started to show up at random spots to scare people walking through the haunted house at the Pawling Free Library.

My 12-year-old son Joseph had a blast watching people’s reactions to him from behind his Guy Fawkes mask during the library’s haunted house. He worked with other kids to plan the event and set it up on Halloween.

Halloween can be extra scary for kids with food allergies because of the ubiquity of candy and treats that are filled with potentially life-threatening allergens. While lots of kids revel in the huge piles of candy they collect trick-or-treating on Halloween night, kids like Joseph focus more on costumes and fun that doesn’t relate to food. He is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, strawberry, cantaloupe and watermelon, along with having asthma.

Over the years, Joseph has enjoyed dressing up and checking out other people’s costumes. When he was younger and we lived in North Carolina, we enjoyed food-free Halloween parties through the local food allergy support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) where he could play games and get fun prizes instead of candy. We have always made our own treats free of all of the foods to which he is allergic, such as Halloween-themed cupcakes, cookies and chocolates in the shapes of pumpkins, witches, bats and ghosts.

As for trick-or-treating, he did that, too. But his goal was to collect candy to leave for the Halloween witch, who would replace the candy with a gift for him to find the next morning. This year, my daughter Pamela collected lots of candy trick-or-treating — enough to leave for the Halloween witch to bring gifts for her and her brother.

This year, Joseph decided to focus on the fun scares that go along with a haunted house. Nicole, the youth services programming coordinator at the Pawling library who was leading the teens in planning the haunted house, made the extra effort to ensure that the event would be safe for him. Especially with Joseph being there for several hours, I had worried that kids might be eating candy during setup or while walking through the event, and she had no problem making sure that wasn’t the case.

As we begin the month when giving thanks plays a prominent role, I am so thankful for the empathy exhibited by people like Nicole who help make it easier for Joseph to enjoy events like the haunted house.  He was thrilled to be able to dish out fun scares instead of facing candy-filled frights.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sibling support for food allergy walk

In one week our team, "Nuttin' We Can't Overcome", will participate in the Westchester FARE Walk for Food Allergy. My 7-year-old daughter, Pamela, wrote why she walks each year and donates her own money to support my 12-year-old son, Joseph, who has multiple food allergies. Here is what she wrote: 

I think it is important to support my brother in the FARE Food Allergy Walk because I love my Joey. I feel bad that he misses out on eating some food because of his allergies. I also get scared sometimes because I don't want  foods to hurt him.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Annual walk a reminder of kind gestures

Pamela and Joseph at the 2014 walk
in New Rochelle, N.Y.
The arrival of a package is usually greeted with excitement. Is it something fun, a new outfit, or one of our favorite allergy-friendly products? My favorite packages represent kind gestures, such as a letter, funny item or gift from a great friend or family member. Those packages bring an instant smile no matter what is in the box because they let us know that the person who we likely haven’t seen in a while and miss terribly, is thinking of us.

My sister Linda during the walk this year
in Indianapolis.
We recently received such a package from my sister Linda. The box was full of coupons for allergy-friendly brands, a FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) Walk T-shirt, snack samples and a gift card to fuel my caffeine obsession. The package was a tangible representation of my sister’s support for my family as we navigate life with food allergies. She sent the items after recently participating in the FARE Walk for Food Allergy in Indianapolis in honor of my 12-year-old son Joseph, who has multiple food allergies and asthma. While she started attending the walks with us when we all lived near each other in North Carolina, she has made a point to attend the Indianapolis walk since moving to Indiana.

My dad and Linda with
Stormy, the Carolina Hurricanes mascot
at the walk in Cary, N.C., in 2009
We are so grateful for the support we have received from Linda, other family members, and friends through the years for our team “Nuttin’ We Can’t Overcome”, whether they have walked with us, made a donation, or sent well wishes as we take our annual walk to raise money for food allergy research. The support for our participa
tion in the annual event is one of many ways others have shown us consideration and kindness.

My sister Beth and Joseph
during a rainy walk in Cary in 2012
During a recent discussion with my children about kindness, we listed the many ways our friends, family, colleagues, and community members have exhibited kindness regarding Joseph’s food allergies. They include ensuring only safe food is served at an event; washing hands without complaint after eating unsafe foods while hanging out with Joseph; taking the time to find a non-food treat or prize that Joseph would appreciate, especially on candy-heavy holidays like Easter or Halloween; learning how to administer his life-saving epinephrine; being cautious about safety measures we have in place in our home or at a restaurant; or even just taking a minute to listen.
Our family bundled up for a cold walk in Cary in 2011.

When we walk along the water during the Westchester FARE Walk for Food Allergy on October 10, I will be reflecting on those many kind gestures. Like the package my sister sent, they all will make me smile.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Nostalgia often an ingredient in my kitchen

Nostalgia snuck up on me while I was shucking a dozen ears of corn from the local farmer’s market this weekend. Suddenly I was transported back to my childhood patio, sitting with my Grandpa Al and a big pile of corn, removing the husks and placing the cobs in a huge pot, ready to cook. 

Grandpa Al feeling patriotic
at a summer cookout
Patient and kind, my grandpa was always happy to sit and chat, listening to my tales and showing genuine interest in what I had to say, while also sharing some of his own wonderful stories. I have many fond memories of Gramps, whether he was dancing around the room with me on his feet, teaching me about the flowers in his yard, or playing shuffleboard in his neighborhood. We spent many summer days with my grandparents, enjoying fresh produce from the farms in eastern Long Island. When I think about all of those family cookouts, the warmth my grandpa exuded glows brighter in my memory than the summer sun.
My dad, me and Grandpa Al 

I suppose it is natural for some wistfulness to linger at the unofficial end of summer that comes with Labor Day weekend. As colder weather looms, we reminisce about the carefree summer days and fun outings. Naturally, thoughts of my grandpa made me think of my mom. When I take a glimpse of my childhood summers, it is so easy to picture my mom donned in her bright bathing cap, happily swimming back and forth through the Long Island Sound water at our town beach, where we spent every day each summer. I love to look back and picture the joy on my mom’s face as she soaked up sun at the beach or bustled about the kitchen preparing food for our family gatherings.

Another summer memory:
My mom and me when I graduated from Penn State
Melancholy sometimes creeps into those memories, too, since my mom died almost 20 years ago. I miss her every day, but I like to share my memories with my kids so they can get to know her through my stories. I think making food from her recipe collection also helps my son and daughter feel a little closer to her. I wasn’t sure I would be able to share my mom’s recipes with my kids when I changed my cooking habits 12 years ago to feed my son Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries. But successfully substituting ingredients allows me to share my mom’s recipes along with those memories. I smile at least a couple of times a week while making pancakes using my mom’s recipe, switching out ingredients to make them safe for Joseph.

Pamela at the farmer's market
The comfort of one of my mom’s recipes was just what I needed during my nostalgic reverie this weekend, so I made an allergy-friendly version of her cinnamon braid. I always chuckle as I look at my mom’s recipes with vague notes in the steps like “add some flour” because they are a reminder of a habit we share to often wing it in the kitchen. As my kids gobbled down the yeasty bread coated with cinnamon and sugar, I told them how my mom would greet us from a day of sleigh riding with warm cinnamon braid and hot cocoa. Thankfully, it is not snowy and cold yet, but that bread gave me a delectable hug while putting grins on my kids’ faces that reminded me of the sweet smile my grandpa would share on my childhood patio. After enjoying the warm bread, my daughter Pamela said she wants to learn exactly how to make her grandma’s yummy cinnamon bread so she can bake it for her kids when she’s a mommy.  And with that my melancholy melted away.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Friday fritters for carnival cheer

Football beanbag toss, spin the wheel, paddle ball with balloons, and Nerf darts were all part of our school day today. I thought it would be fun to finish our first week of school with a carnival theme after Pamela read a fun, quick story, “Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Carnival Prize”. We used the book as an example of the elements of a mystery story during our writing workshop. Then the kids aimed their Nerf dart guns at cards with words like “alibi”, “interrogate”, and “hunch” to reinforce the mystery vocabulary.

The theme also conjures images of popcorn, ice cream, fried food and cotton candy, as crazy carnival creations are often stars of the outdoor fun fests. While those foods are not safe for my 12-year-old son Joseph to eat, we still enjoy seeing what carnival cooks come up with and use those dishes as inspiration to make our own allergy-friendly treats. For example, the Food Network show “Carnival Cravings with Anthony Anderson”, brings us to carnivals around the country, including one in our former home state of North Carolina, to see the wacky combinations that take flavors and deep-fried concoctions to new levels. But when we lived in the South, we avoided the fairs at which nuts seemed ubiquitous, making the events unsafe and certainly not fun for Joseph. He is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, watermelon, strawberry and cantaloupe, along with having asthma.

As I look back on the summer during this holiday weekend, I am reminded of a night our family spent enjoying the local firefighters parade and carnival. Our focus was on fun, rather than food, whether trying to win a prize or getting a thrill from a ride. A big bonus, which allowed us to soak up the atmosphere, was the lack of peanuts boiling and crushed nut shells all over the place. Joseph could play traditional carnival games, such as shooting a water gun to make his character race to the top the fastest, and throwing darts to pop balloons. He even let his little sister talk him into spinning around in a big, silly dragon. Sure, we went through a bunch of wipes to ensure remnants of melted ice cream or other allergens didn’t affect Joseph, and as always he had his Auvi-Q epinephrine auto-injector and inhaler in case of emergency. But as we walked home, arms full of stuffed prizes, spotting fireflies flittering through the dark sky, we all carried memories of a fun night experiencing a summer tradition.

We did include fun food for the mini carnival in our homeschool. We made dairy-free vanilla ice cream and allergy friendly apple fritters using a recipe from the Food Network’s Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond, just using substitutes for the ingredients to make them allergy safe. It was a yummy way to finish the first week of school, plus we enjoyed whetting our appetites for the fall flavors on the horizon.