Almonds, Walnuts and Eggs-Oh My A Food Allergy Passover
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
(This article was written 13 years ago when my son Ari was first diagnosed with food allergies and while things have changed since then regarding research, products and information, it is nonetheless still difficult at times-especially for the newly diagnosed. I hope this somewhat anecdotal piece put some of those anxieties to rest).
Passover is the incredible story of the Israelites extraordinary escape from slavery to freedom. It’s a powerful account highlighting a flawed hero (Moses), an obstinate Pharaoh (Ramses), a spectacular array of plagues, a suspenseful high-speed chariot pursuit, not to mention a sea that miraculously parts in two. It has all the makings of a campy, over the top movie featuring Charlton Heston. Clearly, I'm not a biblical historian.
When the Israelites fled Egypt, they didn’t have enough time to let their bread properly rise for the upcoming journey. They were fearful that Pharaoh (who originally agreed to release them) would reverse his decree. Therefore, they took the dough for their bread, carried it on their backs, and let it bake in the sun in order to high tail it out of Egypt. This yielded a hard and crunchy like cracker we call matzah. In fact, even with all the twists and turns of this story, matzah is the critical and overriding association for many people on this holiday.
Eating matzah extends itself to abstaining from eating all bread products, pasta, not to mention items that have potential fermenting or leavening power, i.e., soy, flour, rice, beans, corn, grains, to name a few. Baking for Passover without allergies presented its challenges for me over the years because I wasn't a great baker, or rather, a bake-o-phobe-so having a son with an egg allergy was/ is a real anxiety for me.
Eggs are the heavy lifters during Passover because they provide the lift and binding in the absence of flour. Matzah meal without eggs yields very dense results, which is why practically EVERYTHING on Passover requires a heavy load of eggs. My Bubby's matzo balls required cartons of eggs, especially when cooking for an entire clan. A regular serving is normally two matzo balls per person. Realistically no one ever eats just two matzo balls. They’re like potato chips; you just can’t stop at one, or in this case two- which is more realistically four since I have seen people serve three and everyone wants an extra. It's what we call-Seder Math. Depending on how many guests at your seder, one could use up to three dozen eggs just for matzah balls and that's just the first course.
Nuts are a foundational ingredient as well. At the Passover seder, there is something called haroset, which can only be described as sheer ambrosia consisting of chopped or grated apples, wine, walnuts and cinnamon. Haroset represents the mortar and brick that the Israelites were forced to make as slaves while building Pharaoh’s cities. It eludes me how something so delicious is supposed to remind us of something so painful. Along with Haroset, cakes, macaroons, literally a majority of desserts use nuts especially on Passover, and for the one who is anaphylactic to nuts as well, seder becomes a literal minefield.
So you see why Passover can be a food allergy nightmare.
Shopping with food allergies is a real struggle. Recently, I found myself muttering the whole time while directing my anger at Moses and having a huge gripe with the Israelites. Seriously, if they had just taken dried fruit on the journey, none of this matzah stuff would be an issue and we could eat what we wanted, and not have to rely on eggs or nuts. I was most definitely acting a little self-absorbed.
As I perused the aisles in the kosher supermarket, I mentally began ticking off all the things we couldn’t eat. There were the matzo balls (eggs), desserts (eggs), haroset (nuts), not to mention the eggs themselves, as they were a huge staple in the absence of cereal or oatmeal for breakfast. It was staggering that probably 80% of what we normally consumed on Passover contained almonds, walnuts and the star ingredient…the egg. Every boxed item, macaroon , candy container and chocolate bar contained nuts, eggs, or required eggs in the recipe. I felt that hot, panicky feeling again, like on the day we received Ari’s diagnosis. How was I going to pull off a safe eight- day, two seder holiday without the regular staples?
I was wearily leaning over my shopping cart letting gravity pull me down until I felt my head resting on the handle. The cool metal felt good on my forehead as I was sweating under my winter coat, which only added insult to injury. Another name for Passover is Holiday of Spring. It represents re-birth, a new beginning, the promise of spring and all its warm weather possibilities. There I was in my heavy winter coat and boots. Passover was right around the corner, and yet there were no signs of rebirth. There were only black traces of snow in the parking lot, and bare branched trees that clearly weren’t ready for their debut.
I use to love Passover. Now, I resented it and at that point, I didn’t care who saw me. It felt like me against the world. I was already painfully aware of the general- public’s attitude toward food allergies. Nobody came close to getting it. Even an epiphany of epic proportions couldn’t penetrate this invisible force field of negative energy. I was alone in my misery with my head in a shopping cart. As I slowly pulled my head up, I noticed an older woman in the aisle beside me. Her cart was loaded with huge blocks of bitter and semi- sweet chocolate, along with a buffet of white, dark chocolate and butterscotch chips in a variety of sizes.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing correctly, as all the blood had rushed to my head and I felt a little woozy. When I finally got my bearings, I took another look and when I say loaded, I don’t mean five or six bags, I am talking enough chips and baking chocolate to feed dessert to a third world country! I must have been gawking at her, because she nervously laughed before launching into an unprompted explanation. “Passover chocolate doesn’t contain any soy lecithin, so, I stock up on it in order to bake all year round for my grandson who is severely allergic to soy. I bet this looks funny, but at least I can make him his favorites all year long. “
Admittedly, to the general onlooker, a cartload of chocolate would look funny, but to me, she was a real life Willy Wonka, making her grandson’s wishes come true. I almost cried right in front of her and all her chips. She got it. She understood. I wanted to tell her about Ari, and how I was a wreck, and didn’t know what to do regarding food and Passover. I wanted to cry out of relief that someone on this planet understood, but I didn’t. Instead, I held my tears in check and managed to eke out, “Your grandson is a lucky boy to have you as his Bubby.” I was moved by this grandmothers’ resolve to focus on what she could do, rather, than what she couldn’t in order to help her grandson. It was definitely a new approach. If I could focus on the foods we could eat on this holiday, I had a chance to turn things around in order to feed our Jewish selves again and restore our sense of holiday and with that resolve, I rolled up my sleeves with renewed vigor and started to shop.