Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa, Please don't pass us by! (We have gluten free goodies)

It's Christmas Eve.  To me, this is the most magical time of the year. 

Tonight is the night of magic.  I treasure memories of candlelight services, and our new tradition of a Pajama Ride to help calm the kids before they need to curl up in bed (Although this year it was hard to convince them we needed to wait until dark before setting off.  The lights look better in the dark, and it's closer to bedtime.)  We were disappointed to see that our favorite house was toned down a lot.  I suppose after 10 years of awards, they deserve a rest! 

But I suppose the best part, at least for some of us, is the baking.  This year we attempted to resurrect one of my very favorite childhood memories and create a variety of treats.  (Quite the challenge when you're working with rice flour, oil, applesauce, and eggs.  With sugar.  And that's about it.)  But we managed.  And surprisingly, we even had a delicious surprise with the pinwheel cookies. 

Santa is going to be one happy man!  Although we have it on good authority that he has a few gluten free elves, which Mrs. Santa busily prepares allergy friendly goodies for.  We think these look good enough that he might, just might, slip a few in his pocket to bring home.  :-) 

After 4 years on the gluten free bandwagon, maybe I'm starting to get this thing down? 
Merry Christmas everyone! 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like...

After begging, pleading, beguiling, and wheedling, Ms, Bumblebee has gotten her wish.  We set up our Christmas tree, decorated it and have begun tucking little remembrances underneath of it.

I've been reading a lot about the evils of plastic, paint, and outdated chemicals (Not to mention the questionable current ones) lately,  So as we pulled out dusty boxes and started our decorating process, my thoughts slid from logistics and Christmas carols to lead paint and BPA.

I let my mind wander to the ongoing debate of a green Christmas.  Which is more environmentally friendly?  A fake tree, or a "real" pine tree?  When a living one just isn't feasible, anyways?

Most arguments seem to surround the length of usable time we get out of the average artificial tree.  I've seen estimates ranging from 3 to 10 years.  And since plastics take forever (yes, forever...I'm not hyperbolizing.)   to break down in landfills, often ending up in a huge plastic island in the middle of the ocean, the cost just doesn't seem worth the benefit. takes nearly as long for a tree to grow.  Even under the best of responsible farming practices. 

There are also allergies, bugs, sap, etc to contend with.  Not to mention potential pesticides and other treatments used on affordable trees.

My tree is artificial.  It's also not entirely plastic, and probably covered in lead based paint.  You see, it once belonged to my grandparents, circa the late 60's.  Well before I was born (and no, it's not glittery or pink.  It may have been crafted before technicolor trees were in vogue, I'm not actually sure.  The box itself disintegrated and the instructions have long since vanished.  But it's faux pine, intended to look realistic.)  When my parents moved, their lovely tall tree no longer fit in the living room.  They had to choose between cutting a hole in the ceiling, and replacing the Christmas tree. The ceiling won, their tree went to my Grandpa's church and my Grandma's old tree went into my parent's living room.  I have fond memories of helping my dad sort through multicolored branch tips as we spread everything out in the living room and crawled around trying to remember which color came first.  Eventually my parents tired of the stress, and we tried chopping our own, or shopping at a corner lot, but I still vividly remember "our" tree.

So when I had kids, and decided it was time for a full sized tree on a pint sized budget, I called up my parents and asked if they happened to still have the pieces in their garage.

"You don't want that old thing," they said.
But I did.

And now it just wouldn't be Christmas without a tangle of branches to ease into pre-drilled holes, a tumble of "fuzzies" to hide the wooden dowel trunk (Does anyone know how I can replace these?  We seem to lose a few every year)  and the kids teetering between "The tree, the tree!" and "I don't think it's going to work, Mommy..." and "It's looking right!  It's looking right!"

My tree is artificial.  Putting it up might be a hassle, and taking it down twice as bad, but in the end, it's our tradition.  We'll keep it in our garage, instead of the landfill, lead based paint and all.  We'll wash our hands, and avoid chewing on fake pine needles. If I were to stop using it, it would stop being "green" and end up in a landfill.

So we'll sit in front of the twinkling lights, letting our thoughts go.  And enjoy our "real" tree.

(And before anyone mentions it's bedraggled state, once it's decorated, I get plenty of comments on it looking real!)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Stress vs Snow

"I can't even go skiing!" 

"Uh, Hm, huh, wha?"  I watch as a range of emotions parade across my husbands face, not one of them shock, horror, or even righteous indignition.  He finally settles on a confused "Um, Hon?  You don't want to ski.  You'd freeze." 

My husband must have thought I'd lost my mind.  After a long day at work, followed by a long day in the hobby shop (working with metal), this was how I greet him at the door.

With indignation at the idea that ski slopes are off limits to me.
He's right, I don't even want to go skiing.  Or tobogganing.  And it's not like I can sit by a toasty fireplace sipping hot cocoa while watching everyone else build snowmen (I'd probably lose my feet and most of my fingers to frostbite just trying to help unload the car.  My fingers turn a lovely shade of blue when I drop Bumblebee off at school each morning.  Which isn't as disturbing as their lack of sensation.)
But I don't think that the idea of placing corn-seeded artificial snow on the slopes is really all that hot of a plan either.  What about other uncornies?  (The ones who don't turn blue?)  What about the environment (Not that hundreds of visitors whizzing by on skis is all that hot for a mountaintop)?  What about common sense?

Where's that corn going to end up?

Oh, right.  It's environmentally friendly.

That's why artificial snow displays which include plastic snow also include corn.  And if it will be in a relatively dry area, corny soap flakes.

I'd post more links but the act of ice freezing and refreezing creates something known as "corn snow"  This has nothing to do with real corn.  Artificial snow, on the other hand, is made using real corn.  Regardless of whether it creates corn snow.  Please note that the microcrystalline cellulose referenced in one of the above articles is a corn derivative that many, if not most, uncornies react to.  It's used in a variety of medical applications due to it's otherwise apparently innocuous effects.  There's no protein, and it's inactive, so most doctors will tell you it can't possibly be the culprit. 

So if you're uncorny...don't de-stress on the slopes without thoroughly checking out their usage of artificial snow and the nucleating agent used if they do seed the slopes.  Vacations should make you feel better.  Not put you in bed. 

I hope the microcrystalline cellulose doesn't make it into the water supply. 

Friday, December 04, 2009

"Mommy, I'm scared," says a small voice beside me as I peruse websites. She's supposed to be doing her own homework, namely reading the book in her hand. Instead? She's reading over my shoulder.

I'm not reading about nuclear weapons, American troops being deployed, violent crimes or even natural disasters. The terrifying topic of my research?


Number 5 plastic, specifically. And the fact that it can be bonded with corn polymers, and coated with corny residues.

"Corn's taking over the world," she whispers. "What's going to happen to you?"

I haven't gotten that far. I joke about it of course. "There's corn in that. There's corn in that, too." But the reality...well, the reality is just too big. I know that the problem is bigger than corn. And yet, corn also makes a pretty good summary of the problem. It's everywhere, we (society) almost fail to see it even when clearly listed.  We think of it as a necessary evil or a beneficial addition or a useful but benign filler. It's environmentally "friendly", at least compared to petrochemicals.  And it's simply there, ready to be used.  So of course certain sectors seek new and ingenious ways for our throw-away society to use more corn. 

Not everyone thinks corn is all it's cracked up to be.  And it's not just the uncornies of the world who are disillusioned.  Although corn plastic is biodegradable, there's not enough space in the landfills to allow it to properly degrade.  Which taxes our resources, however allows us to think that by using a surplus of corn we're somehow doing something good.  Oh, and of course, the process of producing corn plastic and transporting it around takes it's toll on the Earth's resources, too.

Then there are Michael Pollan's followers.  These are the people who see the inherent dangers on depending on one single crop for so many uses.  The same people are concerned about the lack of variery in our apparently diverse diets (Here in CA, it's not uncommon to eat a meal from a different country every day of the week.  What do Chow Mein, linguini, Pho, Miso Soup, Pad Thai, and Hamburger Helper have in common?  Corn and wheat and soy...depending on the ingredients used, of course, there are ways to make them safe.  But chemically, commercial dishes all look pretty much the same to your body.  Regardless of what your eyes and tastebuds think.)

I'm not sure what the best course of action is.  Do we fight it?  Do we all boycott corn?  We can't simply accept it and wait for "someone, somewhere, to do something."

For now, I hugged her, and told her that corn is not taking over the world.  Good always wins, doesn't it?  Even when it's not really a battle.  And when the "evil" is an amber wave of grain. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Holidays, food and allergies

It's that time of year again. The dreaded, *ahem* I mean Much Anticipated holidays. Complete with holiday parties, potlucks, cookie exchanges, and other winter celebrations.

Every one of them seem to involve food.

And again, support boards are filling with questions. They run along the lines of "I want to make this particular kind of recipe for my child's class/neighbor/church group. But, we have a very strict no (insert allergen list here) because so and so has a severe allergy. I really want to include so and so. Will this be safe?" Sometimes there are addendums about overprotective parents. Sometimes there are addendums about being knowledgeable because of personal experience. But it all boils down to the exact same firm answer.


First things first: Don't assume that someone is overprotective or overcautious. Only the intolerant individual (or their parents) really know the extent of their personal risk. And if you've ever seen an anaphylactic reaction, especially in a young child, you will do anything at all to prevent it. (From banning peanut butter to chopping down walnut orchards.) Worst case scenario in the case of anaphylactic allergies really is death. It may not be likely to happen, but it certainly spoils the holidays for the unlucky few. And for those who simply experience food "intolerances", shall we say that some believe in fates worse than death and leave it at that? Their holidays might not be much fun even if they DO survive buttered muffin tins.

The point I'm trying to make is that even if you do go the extra mile to ensure that your food offering is safe, accept the possibility that the recipient will still politely decline it. After all, they are the ones who will deal with any consequences.

The less severe the potential reaction is, the more likely a person is to risk "other people's food". Especially in classrooms. (everyone wants to feed kids sugary treats.) And the younger the kids, the more important the difference is.

Before going the extra mile, it's important to know how "allergic" the potential reactor is. There are 3 general levels of food avoiders. Level 1...Will break out in hives and need benedryl if someone opens a jar of peanut butter in the same building. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. A lot. But Level 1 has a severe allergy, and will not be allowed to eat your cookies no matter how safe you think your kitchen is. Mom will need to actually supervise any food prep. Bring fruit if you really want them to be safe, unless they're anaphylactic to it, too.) Level 2 has an allergy, may carry an epi, but can tolerate low levels of cross contamination. This means they might eat a box of crackers that carries the statement "Made in a facility that also processes: XYZ" but can't eat a cracker off the same platter that has cheese slices on it, even if the cheese slices aren't touching. Level 3 is the tricky gray area of intolerance and potential allergens. Usually these parents have been advised to avoid the offending foods for a variety of reasons, and left to decide how cautious they need to be. Some will make exceptions for special occasions and deal with the ensuing reactions. Others will be super vigilant. Most will permit food that doesn't contain the allergen (or obviously contain the allergen)

The best thing you can do is talk to the parent or the sufferer ahead of time. Ask what their comfort zone is, and see if you both are comfortable accomodating their needs. Of course, this isn't always feasible, and sometimes you get vague answers. Hopefully the vague answers will lead you to an approximate reaction level (1, 2 or 3) and you can proceed with the following in mind.

For a level 1 reactor, make sure to avoid their allergen in the actual food product, bring recipe or product labels just in case, but make your peace wit the fact that the kid in question probably will skip it. Your part is to avoid putting them in the hospital just by being in the same room.

For a level 2 reactor, start with safe ingredients (preferably from a new package, since it's easy to cross things like flour and sugar by using the same measuring cup) And make sure your tools are all doubly clean. Avoid wooden spoons, which have deep crevices that may not grow bacteria but certainly make good hiding places for allergenic substances. Keep all of the potential allergens covered and put away during the prep process. (In other words, don't let your husband scramble eggs while you're carefully preparing eggless cupcake mix. The chances of cross contamination are slight, but they disappear when the eggs stay in their shell.) Think out each step of the process. It won't do to grease the pans with an allergen after you've carefully avoided it. Consider decorations, too. Powdered sugar can have wheat or cornstarch. Sprinkles, chocolate chips, frosting...all have potential red flags. Bring ingredient lists with you. Cut them out or take a picture with your phone/digital camera just in case there are questions later.

For a level 3 can relax. Read ingredients. Bring labels if you can, and try to remember brand names. But don't gnaw your nails off worrying about the cup of milk your son was sipping as he watched you whip up those top 8 free brownies. Knowing your kitchen isn't allergy friendly, but that the brownies are (and having the ingredient list) is all the level 3 person needs to make a decision. (I wish we were all level 3's)

Of course, the best thing you can do for allergy families is take the focus off of food. Bring stickers, boxes of crayons, or junk jewelry. Or jump on the healthy food bandwagon and look for healthy alternatives. Fruit skewers, veggie platters, meat and cheese platters will all help to avoid the mystery ingredient issues and they lower everyone's stress levels. No one worries if veggie trays will crumble without the egg, if fruit skewers will taste wrong without real butter, or if the crackers will fall in the middle. There's also the benefit of having "real" food available. Most kids are too excited to eat before parties...but will happily devour anything that ends up on their plate and looks appealing. Even if it's healthy. And when you've had 4 other class parties in the past week, anything that isn't covered in frosting will appeal to all the parents.

Everyone wants their goodies to get rave reviews. Everyone wants to be "That Mom". They want to provide the eye popping experience, the awesome dish that gets raved about for weeks to come. But food really does add stress to the lives of allergy sufferers in ways that "normal" people can't imagine. Kids have to be trusted to have willpower beyond their ears. Adults have to walk a fine line between precaution and courtesy. And everyone wants to sit back and enjoy the holidays.

So if you really want to do something nice for someone with allergies...relax. Make your favorite signature dish, taking reasonable precautions. Give details of the ingredients in minute detail. (Even cooking spray has potential allergens) And then turn a blind eye to those who choose not to partake. They aren't trying to spite you. And they are just trying to enjoy the holidays as much as you.

Maybe it would help if we think of it this way. Allergy sufferers aren't just trying to avoid a nasty reaction. They're also protecting the baker from the guilt of causing one, and the other guests from witnessing it.