nut allergy || kashrut?

by marjorieingall on November 5, 2010

Fascinating piece on Lilith magazine’s blog comparing coping with a nut-allergic child to keeping kosher. When Maya Bernstein’s 2-year-old is diagnosed with a tree-nut allergy (the little girl’s eyes got red and “fluffy,” in her colorful description, after eating cashews), the allergist recommends ridding the home of all nuts, even peanuts, since they’re often processed in plants that also package tree nuts.

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.

Hee. When Bernstein gives in to her yetzer hara and makes a quinoa dish with nuts, knowing her daughter won’t touch it, she’s too afraid to put it on the table. She and her husband feel “so guilty eating it in our house that it ruined the taste.” She determines never to cook with tree nuts again. But she does let her daughter eat peanut butter — still feeling anxious about it — because her daughter loves peanut butter. “Maybe this is how life always is,” she concludes. “Tentative, terrified steps forward, into the murky unknown. Praying, all the while, that it will be good.”

Such lovely writing. That’s my first reaction. My second is: You need a new allergist.

As readers of my Tablet column know, I’m super-duper-allergic to tree nuts — and not allergic to peanuts — just like Maya Bernstein’s daughter. I too had my first allergic reaction (full-blown anaphylaxis) at two. I too carry Epi-Pens. But I grew up before nut-paranoia was in full nutty bloom. I learned to be careful, but not obsessive. I worry that today’s parents are carpooling to crazytown in allergy-phobic clown cars. And there are allergy docs and self-styled experts eager to direct them onto that nutso highway. (I’ll drop the driving metaphor now. Sorry.)

I understand if a child has tested (via blood test, not scratch test) stratospherically high on the allergy scale that it’s important to try to avoid contact with nut residue. And I absolutely do believe that a small number of mega-allergic kids exists. But for Maya Bernstein’s daughter, and for the vast majority of kids out there, avoiding ANY product that’s made in any factory that processes nuts seems excessive, particularly if the child doesn’t test mega-allergic (or worse, hasn’t been properly tested at all). I know families, sadly, that make their children terrified, scared to eat almost anything outside their own homes, because a scratch test several years earlier indicated an allergy to something that may have waved to something else across a crowded room. That way madness lies. I hope Maya Bernstein’s daughter can learn that food is a source of pleasure, not a cause for regular panic.

And maybe we can make a parallel to kashrut here, too. I don’t need the OU. I’m good with a K, or even just a list of ingredients that doesn’t include swine and shellfish. We all choose how strict we wish to be and how much we value a particular hechsher.

Finally, I think that paradoxically, teaching kids to look out for themselves and ask calm but pointed questions about ingredients, rather than being a mama who rushes into every social setting demanding removal of nuts from the child’s entire orbit, makes kids feel secure and empowered. I think raising kids who think the world is a happy, safe place — and who have also been trained to look out for themselves without quaking in fear or assuming mama will take care of everything — is the definition of good parenting. (Once I expressed my belief in widespread parental nut-paranoia on someone else’s blog, and a passel of mothers rushed in to accuse me of not really being anaphylactic-allergic. NO, REALLY. I AM. I once spent Christmas intubated after an unfortunate walnut incident. I’m qualified to say you’re being batshit.)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

kathy November 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm

A voice of reason in a world gone nuts!

Maya November 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Marjorie – thanks for this. I’ve been hearing lots of “go easy on the kashrut, and tough on the nuts,” and it’s so reassuring to hear (from someone with real experience) that I should hold steady, and allow my daughter to actually enjoy food. Thanks for reading, and writing!

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