I was playing in the kitchen. The frying pan was hot with olive oil, and the onions were browning. I had already cut up the garlic, brown shitake mushrooms, and brussel-sprouts. I was boiling sweet potatoes on another burner, and red quinoa on yet another. I spiced the onions with some salt, black pepper, and thyme. The Chieftains were crooning from the stained c.d. player, the one we have to rig up to our kitchen scissors when we want to listen to the radio, the baby was sleeping upstairs, and the older kids were in school. I had a swim to look forward to later in the day, and all was well in the world. I added the veggies to the onions, cut the sweet potatoes in cubes, added them, and then mixed in the quinoa. It looked beautiful, and smelled delicious. I could have stopped there. But in a moment of inspiration, I decided the dish needed chopped toasted pecans to be complete. I looked around me. Coast was clear. I tiptoed toward a far cabinet, stood on a stool to reach the highest shelf, and stretched long. Hidden in a dark corner were bags of nuts. Walnuts, pecans, almonds, pine nuts, cashews. Previous cooking staples in my mostly vegetarian diet. I took a deep breath, and, terribly, irresponsibly, immaturely, sprinkled the dish I knew my two year old wouldn’t touch anyway with the forbidden fruit. 

Last month, my two-and-a-half-year-old was diagnosed with a nut allergy. She had picked cashews out of a salad, and her eyes had gotten red and “fluffy,” as she calls it. We had her tested, and were introduced into a new world. We were told to rid our house of nuts. We were told that though our daughter is not allergic to peanuts, we should rid our house of peanuts and peanut butter, peanut granola bars and peanut-butter crackers, ice cream with peanut butter, and peanut butter cups. Why? Because peanuts are processed in plants with other tree nuts, and one never knows when a renegade, devious cashew, with dreams of peanut greatness, may make its way into a peanut delicacy. This is the point when I began to suspect that today’s allergists are closely related to the Rabbis who re-interpreted biblical verses to create modern kashrut. Then we were told that, if we truly loved our daughter, and wanted to really be as safe as possible, we should avoid all foods that say “processed in a plant that also processes tree nuts.” Then we were told – “read all labels, all the time, twice.” Then I was convinced that the allergists all worked for the OU on their days off. I went through my fridge. Everything we bought, from hummus to bread to cereals to snacks, said “processed in a plant with tree nuts.” Many labels also said “we practice good segregation policies.” I imagined the walnuts muttering under their breath about racist assembly line workers at Trader Joe’s, and the pecans having a sit-in on the front of the animal-cracker bus.

I also knew, and am in the process of digesting, that the doctors are right. That this, potentially, is a matter of life and death, and concerns my child. I vacillate between rationalizing putting chopped pecans in food that I know my daughter won’t eat anyway, and wanting to stand over her every second, examining with a microscope each and every morsel she puts into her mouth. I am dreading Passover, when nuts are ground into flours and used in everything. I fear each excursion to the park – what if a child shares food with her when I’m not looking? What if it has nuts? And what if I have forgotten the epi-pen at home?

The inconsistent behavior which tends to dictate my personal food choices suddenly seems terribly irresponsible. I am a “mostly” vegetarian, though I eat meat and chicken when I really crave protein. We keep a strictly kosher home, but I will eat raw vegetarian food, and sometimes cooked vegetarian food, in places I trust practice good “segregation” policies, out of the house. Can I be similarly inconsistent about my daughter’s nut allergy? Where should we draw the lines? Do we put our complete trust in the “authorities,” and rid our house entirely of nuts and all products made anywhere near nuts? Do we create our own compromises, gingerly testing the limits?

The quinoa dish was good. Really good. But we didn’t put it on the table (what if something knocked against it, and some of it spilled into the pasta, which our daughter was going to eat)? My husband and I felt so guilty eating it in our house that it ruined the taste. I kept imagining the allergist showing up at our door, eating the food, chewing, and asking, incredulously, “are there NUTS in here???” I’m not going to cook with tree nuts again. Perhaps I will start reading the “nut free mom” blog, and enter an entirely new universe. In the meantime, I haven’t been able to prevent myself from feeding my daughter peanut butter, one of the only foods that she consistently eats. So far, so good. Maybe this is how life always is. Tentative, terrified steps forward, into the murky unknown. Praying, all the while, that it will be good.

–Maya Bernstein

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