Food Allergies, the Holidays, and Non-Pecan Pie

I should have known much better.  And yet I didn’t.

When purchasing chocolates for a realtor open house the other day, I read the ingredients carefully to make sure there were no nut products in them, as well as to ensure they weren’t processed with nuts.  It was all clear.  The ingredients included only chocolate, sugar, and dairy and there were no cross contamination warnings on the outside of the package.  I hadn’t bought them for my severely nut-allergic daughter to eat, but there were a few leftover in the bowl and I wasn’t listening when she asked later if she could have one. I must have nodded along and she ate one.  (Blame it on the stress of selling a house, I guess.)  When my mother looked at the individual wrapper after my daughter ate it, she saw in the fine print on the foil that it said “May Contain Bits of Peanuts or Tree Nuts.”

This is why parents of children with food allergies are more prone to panic and anxiety than most.  A wave of guilt and fear came over me as I watched my daughter for any visible hives or swelling.  I didn’t feel calm until several hours went by without any major symptoms.  The guilt was strong — I am always the one warning everyone else about labels and ingredients, pestering teachers and relatives about what she can and cannot have.  And yet, here it was.  It was me that put her in danger.

I am part of a growing group of parents dealing with food allergies, which have become increasingly common, especially among children.  According to The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN):

Food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein. Ingestion of the offending food may trigger the sudden release of chemicals, including histamine, resulting in symptoms of an allergic reaction. The symptoms may be mild (rashes, hives, itching, swelling, etc.) or severe (trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc.). A food allergy can be potentially fatal. Scientists estimate that as many as 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies … Eight foods account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions. They are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy.

It is important to note that food allergies are not simply dislikes or even intolerances.  In someone with food allergies, the immune system mounts a response thinking the protein in the offending food is dangerous.  Food allergies are not something that someone can control and those making special requests aren’t simply being picky.  In the more severe cases, they can be deadly when anaphylaxis (a closing of the airway) occurs.

My daughter happens to be one of those severe cases.  She carries Epinephrine injectors at all times.  Two in a hip pack.  Two in my purse.  Two in the nurse’s office at school.  We go nowhere without it, and while it makes me feel safer to have it, food allergies are a very tricky thing. Something that you tolerated previously may send you into shock the fifth time you eat it.  And while Epinephrine generally reverses anaphylaxis, it doesn’t always work in certain cases and sometimes can require multiple doses.  To have food allergies is to live in a world of fear that something so pleasurable — food — can kill you in a few minutes time.

The holidays present special challenges, because so many of our holiday rituals and celebrations include food.  Class parties, holiday open houses, candy canes at Christmas tree farms, chocolate coins and Santas, platters of Christmas cookies, and bowls of party mix filled with nuts are all potential offenders.  And when you don’t know the ingredients or trust for sure that someone else does, it usually means restricting your child (or yourself) and not allowing him/her to have that cookie everyone else is enjoying.

As difficult as it is for the victims and families of those with food allergies, it is also hard for those trying to entertain them.  No one wants to put someone in danger, least of all a small child who just wanted to eat a cookie.  Fortunately, there are many strategies everyone can use to keep people safe from allergens.  There are also many wonderful products on the market that allow those with allergies to enjoy similar treats to what everyone else is having.

Christa Hobson from Bloom Naturally told us that her store carries many food allergy friendly products.  On the list are soy nut butter or sunflower seed butter, which can be used very successfully in place of peanut butter in candy or cookie recipes.  (Warning though! The chlorophyll in the sunflower seeds can react in some cookie recipes and the inside of the cookie gets a green tint.  It doesn’t affect anything and you can’t see it from the outside, but it’s shocking if you don’t know. Kids love it though!) In addition, they carry Earth Balance margarines for those with dairy allergies.  Coconut oil can also be used very successfully in baking recipes to eliminate dairy products.

Bloom Naturally also carries the Enjoy Life brand of products, which include chocolate chips that are guaranteed to be free of dairy and nuts. This is a big help when making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.   For those with wheat/gluten allergies or those with Celiac Disease, Hobson said, “We have a huge selection of gluten free foods, frozen foods, breads, baking mixes, and even things like gluten free pumpkin rolls for the holidays.  Also, make sure you know that genetically modified wheat can cause stronger gluten reactions, so organic and non-genetically modified products can help those even with gluten intolerance.”

In addition, here are some holiday food allergy tips.  If you are a parent of a child with food allergies:

  • Always bring some “back-up” treats or food, in case you can’t ensure the food is safe.
  • Go over the rules with your child (if age appropriate) before you get there.  Talk about how you will make sure the food is safe and what treats you have in case it isn’t.
  • With toddlers and preschoolers, vigilance is the only way you can ensure they won’t put something in their mouth that could be dangerous. This holds true for many things at this age and food allergies complicate it.
  • Politely inform your host or hostess that your child has food allergies.  Talk about what might be safe and what might not be safe.   If there are bowls of nuts on low tables, ask if he/she would mind if you move them up to be extra safe.
  • My experience is that you have to be “louder” about food allergies when your children are toddlers or preschoolers because they cannot articulate their own needs.  As children get older, they don’t enjoy being singled out in group setting, so I generally am a little more nuanced in how I talk with the host/hostess.
  • With an older child, walk around the party with him/her and point out the things he/she can have.
  • Always, always, always bring your child’s allergy medicine which can include multiple Epinephrine injectors and antihistamines.

If you are having a party or holiday gathering:

  • Label the food you serve.  If there are allergens in it (dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, nuts, shellfish), your guests would be very thankful if you would mention that on your label.  This is especially appreciated if someone with allergies is known to be on the guest list.
  • Separate treats with nuts from those that don’t have nuts.  Just putting things on separate platters can be helpful for those with allergies, because cross contamination can be a huge issue.  It takes only 1/100th of a peanut to cause a potentially life threatening reaction!
  • Don’t feel offended if someone asks you to put up a bowl of nuts or to go over ingredient lists.  Put yourself in their shoes. You wouldn’t want someone to put poison or a loaded gun in front of your child; for parents of children with food allergies this is no different.
  • Consider trying some substitute products in your tried and true recipes if someone with food allergies is coming to your event.  To have food allergies means getting excluded in many situations and I cannot explain the joy my daughter feels when someone thinks enough of her to make her a safe treat.
And finally, what would a holiday article be without a recipe for something delicious?  If you or someone you love has nut allergies and is missing your Pecan Pie, try out this allergy-friendly “Non-Pecan Pie” that is as delicious as it is safe for those you love with food allergies.  Your allergic guests (and their panicky mothers) will appreciate you making them feel both welcome and safe.

Brown Butter Non-Pecan Pie

Courtesy of Cuizoo.  If you have dairy allergies also, you can make a crust from a dairy free margarine and simply melt the margarine, rather than browning it in Step 4.  A gluten-free pie crust could also be used.  

Make one 9 inch pie

Butter Pie Crust of your Choice (I used this one)
2 cups of sunflower and pumpkin seeds (I liked the mix of both for better texture)
6 T butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
3/4 cup corn syrup (light or dark both work)
3 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
3 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Roll out pie crust into a circle with approximately a 12 inch diameter.  Carefully transfer to a 9 inchpie dish (not deep dish).  Trim off excess if necessary, leaving about one inch of overhang.  Fold the overhang under and decoratively flute or crimp the edges.  Using a fork, prick the bottom of the crust and place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to re-firm the butter.

3.  Place sunflower and pumpkin seeds in an even layer on a baking sheet.  Toast in preheated oven for 5-10 minutes until golden, being careful not to let them burn.  Set aside to cool.

4.  In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and allow to brown slightly.  You want it to be golden brown and smell fragrant, but do not let it burn or you will have to start over.  Remove from heat immediately after it gets to that state and whisk in brown sugar until well incorporated.  Stir in corn syrup, vanilla extract, and salt.

5.  In a large bowl, whisk the egg to break them up.  Slowly whisk in brown sugar/butter mixture (just a bit at at a time, so the eggs don’t curdle).  Mix well to make sure everything is incorporated.

6.  Remove chilled crust from refrigerator and pour toasted (and cooled) seeds into crust.  Pour pie mixture over top of the seeds.  Place pie pan on a baking sheet and bake the pie until the filling has set and it is a nice brown color, about 55 minutes.  Let cool completely before serving.  You can store this in the refrigerator for at least a day (mine’s been in there for two now and it is still great) — just bring to room temperature before serving.

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One thought on “Food Allergies, the Holidays, and Non-Pecan Pie

  1. Food allergy affects an estimated 6 to 8 percent of children under age 5, and about 3 to 4 percent of adults. While there’s no cure, some children outgrow their food allergy as they get older. It’s easy to confuse a food allergy with a much more common reaction known as food intolerance. While bothersome, food intolerance is a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system.

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