By Susan Weissman
My kitchen shelves hold almost every allergy-friendly cookbook known to man. But "Learning to Bake Allergen-Free" by Colette Martin is one of the most instructive, specific and foolproof for me . Let's face it: We allergy moms are dealing with a new medium when we try to fiddle our way to batch of breakfast muffins or a decadent chocolate mousse. And that's why I love Colette's book. She doesn't simply share the fruits of her labor - the stellar recipes she developed over the years of baking for her son. In her book, Colette teaches her readers concepts and methodologies of allergen-free baking and empowers us should we want to adapt or create new baked goods, based on different food restrictions. As a Veteran Food Allergy Mom, Colette understands that feeding our families is a long term proposition. The old adage comes to mind: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
Q: How long have you been managing food allergies? Which allergens does your family avoid?
A: We’ve been managing food allergies for more than a decade. Because my son didn’t have the most typical food allergy symptoms, he was ten before we discovered his first and most severe food allergy – milk. It took a combination of skin biopsies (Patrick developed a severe rash on his palms during a summer where he ate peanuts by the handful), endoscopies, and blood tests to put the whole story together. By the end of 2001 we had determined that he was also allergic to wheat, eggs, soy, and peanuts.
In the beginning I was focused on eliminating those foods just for my son – which often meant preparing separate dishes. Over time my approach changed. I realized that my son was feeling left out outside of the home and wanted him to be able to eat freely at home. Today my goal is to make meals that everyone can share safely.
Q: What was the hardest thing for you and your family in making the adjustment to eat differently?
A: Initially, the hardest task was finding foods we could eat. In 2001 our pantry was chock full of processed foods that contained wheat, dairy, and soy, and as busy working parents, dinners were usually thrown together quickly. Take-out pizza and Chinese food were no longer options, and we had to switch to gluten-free pasta.
But the hardest thing was dealing with breakfast and lunch. Patrick usually rolled out of bed seconds before the bus went by, so breakfast had to be grab and go. He was playing sports after school and needed a lot of calories to get him through the day. He would fill a large grocery bag with Gatorade, fruit, and potato chips to take to school to get him through the day. Even with the bounty of gluten-free and dairy-free off-the-shelf foods we can now find, there are very few breads made without eggs; when we did find one he could eat, he would add two roast beef sandwiches (no mayo) to his grocery bag lunch for school – and he’d make one for the road. Whatever safe foods I did bring home from the grocery store disappeared in seconds. And, like most hungry growing boys, he just never seemed to have enough food to eat!
Q: Was it that lack of available food options that brought you to a baking book?
A: Yes. I’ve always been a baker, but first and foremost I am a problem solver. Traditional bakers use wheat, eggs, milk, butter, and sugar in nearly every recipe. Learning to make baked goods that taste great without four of those key ingredients was a challenge – and I was driven by necessity.
My kitchen was often filled with science experiments as I went about testing different products, varying ingredients, and learning what worked – and what didn’t work. I decided to write the book so that I could share what I had learned with other food allergy parents struggling to find the same answers. And I know that many parents who receive a diagnosis of multiple food allergies for their child may not be comfortable in the kitchen; my goal is to empower these parents with the information they need to feel comfortable – and even enjoy – baking! I don’t assume previous baking experience, and I even include some examples of how to adapt off-the-shelf baking mixes for those that can take that route.
Q: What has changed since you first began your baking adventures?
A: Two very important things have helped tremendously in terms of being able to find safe foods and ingredients. The first was the food allergy labeling laws, the FALCPA (Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act). When I first started searching for allergen-free products “milk” may have been listed as “whey” or “casein.” Today, the top eight food allergens need to be listed clearly on the label with their common name – in this case “milk.” For anyone who suffers from the most common food allergies, this is a huge step forward.
The second thing that has helped (ironically) is the market. There is simply a greater need for products without common food allergens, and there is also a corresponding trend in consumers seeking out both gluten-free and vegan products by choice. Companies are responding with more gluten-free choices, more dairy-free choices, and more products manufactured in dedicated facilities so that cross-contamination cannot occur.
Q: What HASN'T changed?
A: What hasn’t changed – at least not enough – is the perception of food allergies. Food allergies are a hidden disability, yet those who suffer from them appear to be completely healthy and “normal,” making it too easy for the illness to be dismissed by those who aren’t aware of how serious (and too often life-threatening) a reaction can be.
The other thing that hasn’t changed is how food allergies are treated. While there are medications to stop a reaction once it has occurred, the only preventive measure is to avoid the foods that cause the reaction.
Q: If you could go back in time what would you do differently?
It’s so easy to look back and know that my son suffered as an infant and a toddler. Despite constant visits to the doctor, we struggled with many misdiagnoses. Knowing what I know now, I would have suspected food allergies much earlier. But hindsight is 20-20. I think all parents of children with food allergies (as well as other diseases) doubt themselves and feel guilty:
I should have breast-fed longer, I shouldn’t have breast-fed so long, I should have fed my child peanuts sooner, I shouldn’t have fed my child peanuts, My house is too clean, My house is too dirty, I shouldn’t have had my child vaccinated… the list goes on.
The truth is, we all make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. My approach to keeping my child safe is to find great foods that he can eat!
Susan Weissman is the author of "Feeding Eden," an inspiring food allergy memoir. And she greatly appreciates talented bakers who help allergy moms take care of their families.
Colette Martin is a writer, speaker, and thirty-year veteran of Corporate America. Colette is also a food allergy mom and an expert on how to bake allergen-free. When her son was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis in 2001, triggered by allergies to wheat, milk, eggs, soy and peanuts, she had to reinvent how her family ate. Having first learned to bake in her grandmother’s kitchen with wheat, butter, milk, and eggs, Colette understands first-hand what it means to transform her kitchen to accommodate multiple food allergies. You can reach Colette on Facebook, Twitter, her blog, and on YouTube.