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Going Nuts

Passover is about freedom, so let’s not encourage our kids to be slaves to their allergies

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I have a fatal nut allergy. I’ve gone into anaphylactic shock twice, once as a 2-year-old after my mom gave me a pecan muffin, and once as a twentysomething after a bored waitress told me that no, there were no walnuts in the pesto.

These days I carry EpiPens. I bypass fancy pastries, since they often contain vile marzipan. I don’t eat in Indian restaurants anymore, as bits of cashew and almond often seem to find their way into even ostensibly nut-free dishes. Once, on a cross-country flight, I accidentally bit into a nut in my airline meal and panicked. The flight attendant took me up to the first-class bathroom and taught me how to make myself vomit: She got a saltshaker, filled a teaspoon and said, “Swallow this, fast.” I did as she said. It worked. When I reported back to her, eyes watering, she told me, “All flight attendants over 35 know that trick; airlines used to have mandatory weigh-ins.” How odd that the sexism and sizeism of a bygone era saved my life.

Passover is probably the biggest holiday challenge for folks like me. Many Passover desserts rely on tree nuts for texture and heft. Swanky seder salads invariably have walnuts hidden in them like bombs in The Hurt Locker. And of course there’s charoset, known to the nut-allergic as the Mortar of Doom. So, when I began hosting the seder, I started experimenting with nut-free charoset recipes.

In 2006, I tried a Yemenite variant with figs, dates, wine, fresh ginger, coriander, cayenne pepper, and sesame seeds. (Sephardic Jews and some Ashkenazim—including me—eat seeds and legumes on Passover.) But the charoset it yielded was simultaneously not nuanced enough and too coriander-y. In 2007 I tried an Israeli version with apples, bananas, dates, lemon and orange zest, cinnamon, wine, and honey. But that charoset, as those without nuts frequently become, was an icky-textured glop, and banana-scented baby-food glop is not enticing to anyone. We left it for Elijah, but he didn’t seem interested either. In 2008, to avoid the glop issue, I used big chunks of granny smith apples to provide the crunch other charosets get from nuts. I tossed them with cardamom, Slivovitz, dates, raisins, and cinnamon. Finally, triumph!

But because I am the Lindsey Vonn of nut-free charoset, I was not content to rest on my laurels. So, I continued experimenting. In 2009 I tried mixing Yemenite and Ashkenazi traditions in a version with apples, raisins, dates, wine, pine nuts, cardamom, and cayenne. The pine nuts were too oily and added a greasy mouth-feel to the dish.

This year I’ll be trying two new recipes. One is adapted from the Jews of Curacao; it will have peanuts (I can eat those, because they’re legumes, not tree nuts), brown sugar, dates, raisins, figs, wine, honey, cinnamon, orange, lime, and watermelon and tamarind juices. Yes, it could be completely disgusting. So, to be safe, I’ll also revisit the Great Charoset of 2008, a combo of apples and cardamom.

You might think I’d be advocating for all charoset to be nut-free. Or that I’d attend a seder at other people’s homes only if they promised not to serve the vile indehiscent items. You would be wrong.

Of course I believe infants and toddlers with hardcore food allergies should be kept away from foods that could make them sick. But the rest of us, including school-age children, need to be responsible for our own eating. My parents didn’t make a big deal out of my allergy; they taught me to always find out what I was eating.

Today’s parents, I’m afraid, try to control everything in a child’s environment as if casting a spell at Hogwarts. They succeed in panicking their kid, convincing him that danger is everywhere, and making matters worse for these very few kids who really are that allergic. What’s up with the parents who claim their child is allergic but haven’t had him tested? Or the parents who haven’t done blood tests as well as scratch tests and food challenges? Or who dismiss doctors who tell them their child may have a sensitivity but not a true allergy?

Are there children who are so desperately allergic they can’t be in a room with nuts? Absolutely. Are they common? Doubtful. I say this as someone who is allergic enough to have stopped breathing, lost consciousness, and required intubation. Once, after I made out with my college boyfriend after he’d eaten a walnut brownie in the cafeteria, my lips swelled up so much I looked like Amanda Lepore. Yet I tested only at level 4 (on a scale of 0 to 6) on the blood test that determines just how allergic you are. My doctor said that in over 30 years of practice, he’s never seen a 6. Here’s my proposition: If you can produce test results saying your kid is a 4, you get a nut-free table in the classroom. If your kid is a 5, you get a nut-free school. And if your kid is a 6, you get whatever you want, because that blows. (As an aside: All parents of allergic kids should teach them to be judicious about swapping spit and eating while drunk—it sounds like a joke, but adolescence was when I had to learn new lessons about living with a serious allergy.)

As most parents of young kids know, food allergies have been on the rise for the last two decades. Some immunologists think the “hygiene hypothesis” is responsible, that we’re all so clean and purified and antibioticked and antibacterial-soaped that our immune systems have lost the ability to do their jobs right. Others think a lack of exposure to nut products in early childhood may be the culprit. I’d love to hear from Israelis who were raised on Bamba, the peanut-based Cheetos manqué that’s a childhood staple. Were you shocked when you learned that most American parents would no sooner give a 2-year-old a peanut snack than they would a bag of broken glass drizzled with botulism toxin?

In any case, Passover is a good time to think about how we respond to nut allergies, and not just because of those farkakte flourless hazelnut tortes on every seder table. It’s because this is a holiday about freedom. Our sages ponder the part of the Exodus story in which God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Was Pharaoh responsible for his own actions? What role does free will have in the story? Can children become actualized, differentiated adults if we don’t give them the tools and chances to control their own lives? The Israelites moved from slavery to freedom; we don’t want children to be slaves to their fears. And we don’t want them not to feel responsible for their own health because everyone else in the community has been handed that responsibility. Ultimately, we all own what we put in our own bodies. If we encourage kids to live in fear or rely entirely on others for protection, aren’t we condemning them to slavery?

I know what it’s like to be scared. For weeks after I nearly died as a young adult, I’d sit quietly outside my superintendent’s apartment after I’d eaten dinner. My heart was pounding. I could feel my throat closing up. I was flushed and having trouble breathing, because I couldn’t be 100 percent sure that I hadn’t accidentally eaten a nut. And a panic attack can look and feel an awful lot like anaphylaxis. And I know what it feels like to worry about your child. My kids, thank God, didn’t inherit my allergy (I had them tested), but Josie has spent several nights in the emergency room with severe asthma, and as a 4-year-old, Maxine wandered out of my in-laws’ backyard and got lost in a neighborhood with a deep ravine. Parenthood is terrifying. I understand wanting to do anything, everything, to protect your child.

But Passover is a celebration of becoming your own master. Don’t we want to offer that gift to our children?

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I have a fish allergy that is similar to nut allergies. My mother told me I wasn’t allergic, but as an adult I got tested and the doctor was so alarmed he called me before my results appointment and said, “Come in for your appointment, but seriously, no fish, not even tuna!” So no gefilte fish for me, and no veggies or anything else that has been sitting on the gefilte fish plate either.

Once I was helping a friend prepare for Passover, and she started handling the matzo balls just after handling salmon, which is one of the kinds of fish I’m the most allergic to. I had to ask her to throw those balls out and wash her hands. At least I was there to see what was going on instead of getting a surprise when I tried to eat the soup.

The author is right that you can live with it; you just have to pay attention to what you’re eating. At least fish is a lot easier to avoid than nuts.

Ruth Gutmann says:

We deal with a gluten free,and egg free seder and use oat matzos from Golders Green, London. You could probably get 30 lb regular matzos for the cost of 1 lb of the London type. Oat matzos taste a bit like cardboard, but some of my guests actually like them.

We do not have the worry that someone ingesting the real matzos by mistake will go into shock — it saves us that horrible anxiety.

Jmundstuk says:

Fire the headline writer.

Ellen Levitt says:

I outgrew my peanut allergy. As a kid, I had a few bad reactions (super-swollen eyes, tight throat, etc) and my parents never thought to take me to the ER.
(I’m 45 y.o.– different era of coping?) I tested myself, with a friend observing, at age 22, and I am okay. Don’t most adults outgrow food allergies, or is this naive thinking?

Debbie Logan says:

My teenaged daugher is tree-nut allergic. For charoseth, I lightly toast raw sunflower seeds (although I know that they’re not acceptable to some during Passover)and chop them coarsely in the food processor. Also in the food processor I coarsely chop dried cranberries (one could use dried cherries, but I’m allergic to those). I mix them up with a dash of cinnamon and a bit of sweet wine. It’s the best.

My son developed a nut allergy as a young child. At first I made charoses for him with diced apple, cinnammon and grape juice. As he got older I substitued wine for the grape juice. He loved both.

Speaking as a person who has both a slew of food allergies and who keeps kosher, I have zero sympathies for the parents of allergic kids who try to control the lives of others through their paranoia. Educate adn empower your children. That’s all it takes! The school district I grew up in was largely Jewish, but there was only one other family who kept kosher. And yet, somehow, I managed to make it through all 13 years of public school without once eating a ham sandwich. On the first day of kindergarten my parents explained to me that because we were Jewish, we kept kosher, and therefore God would be watching me, and I shouldn’t swap lunches with anyone else. End of story. (Except of course as an adult I no longer believe I’ll be zapped over bacon. Nevertheless …) Why is it so impossible for today’s parents to explain to their 6 year olds “you are allergic to nuts. If you eat one, you will die, so don’t eat anything except what I send to school with you in your lunch bag?” Kids are perfectly able to police themselves if you give them a chance.

Ellen, most people don’t outgrow nut allergies. (They do often outgrow milk, egg and wheat allergies.)
Debbie, I’d love to try your haroset recipe soon! After the pignoli debacle, i was scared off experimenting with seeds in my haroset, but that sounds enticing.
LMA, I think the parents who want complete bans are worried that their child will accidentally touch or inhale nut residue. As I said, I believe there ARE people who are so allergic they can’t be in a room with nuts…but i think there are very, very, very, very few of them. And I think most parents rabid policing does more harm than good, hurting their kids’ ability to differentiate and care for themselves and also contributing to nut-allergy compassion fatigue that hurts hose rare GENUINELY super-duper-allergic kids.
This piece must not have hit the radar of the nut police yet — usually when I write anything saying I don’t usually support school-wide peanut bans, there’s a raft of moms screaming at me and saying they don’t believe I actually have an anaphylactic food allergy.

I have mixed feelings about how far we should go in accommodating food allergies. As someone with a very severe gluten intolerance I am very grateful that people take food allergies seriously (when they do)… and happy about most of the changes. This is a matter of life and death for a bizarrely increasing number of children. But you do bring up some salient points. For instance, it’s important to teach children from a young age to be empowered and take responsibility for their health.

By the way I moderate an e-mail discussion list for Jews with food allergies and I bet folks there would love your haroset recipe!

JanetG says:

Responsibility for one’s own eating. What a concept! As a vegetarian with dietary challenges of my own, I never board a plane without my own food, which usually includes protein bars and a trail mix of some kind. A couple of years ago, while we were waiting to board an Alitalia flight, there was an announcement that, “There is a child with a peanut allergy on this flight. If you have any items with you which include peanuts, you must dispose of them before boarding the plane.”

RubyV says:

My child’s classroom has a dairy ban courtesy of her allergy.

She is highly proficient, at age 6, at policing herself. She never takes food from anyone, and I do include ER docs, Rabbis, and other authority figures, without explicit consent from myself or husband. She knows that friends have to wash before touching her, and is aware of the consequences of not being alert. She can face down the most insistent adult who insists that she “just take the candy” (like the rabbi at my FIL’s shul while she was on the bima helping with kiddush). and she demands ingredient checks from the adults that are allowed to feed her.

Her allergy is not only ingested, but inhaled and on contact. No dayschool for my kid – they are a dairy facility and could not manage her allergy by their own admission. Jewish preschool – multiple contact reactions, several require epi. It was the most stressful two years of my life.

So our “paranoia” has led to a dairy free classroom, and the need for a dedicated para because teachers are not allowed to administer epinephrine.

I don’t enjoy the inconvenience, I hate the hoops, and most of all, I resent the implication that parents who request bans are a problem. My kid has had over a dozen anaphylactic episodes, and countless minor reactions. You better believe we do what we can to keep her breathing.

Ruby — a kid who has had a dozen anaphylactic episodes is who I’m talking about when i say there ARE kids who are super-allergic and their parents are entitled to be rabid. I’m sorry she has to live with this, and I do hope she’ll outgrow it. (And I can relate to “just take the candy” — I remember when Maxie was a baby, a lady behind us in line at Key Food shoved a WHOLE CHERRY into her mouth. Uh, hello, choking hazard?? Plus Josie was sensitive to cherries as a baby — hives. So I fished it out of Maxie’s mouth, saying “I’m sorry, she could choke on the pit, and we have food allergies in my family and the baby hasn’t been tested yet.” The lady glared at me and shoved another cherry into her!)

JulieP says:

Yes absolutely to empowering our kids to take care of themselves. When I was a young child, one of my friends was diabetic. Try being a diabetic in class on Halloween or Valentine’s Day. It sucks. But from the time she was very young, I’m talking 5 and 6, she knew that candy and other sugary stuff was a big fat NO. And she never tempted fate.

Yet today I see way more NUT FREE/SUGAR FREE/EVERYTHING FREE classrooms than I do kids who police themselves. A shame.

You stated, “My doctor said that in over 30 years of practice, he’s never seen a 6.” I’d be curious when he said that. Nineteen years ago my son’s doctor looked at his blood test results and said that this was “one of the 3 worst cases he’d seen in 20 years of practice.” Today, those “off the charts” test results have become increasingly common.

That said, we decided years ago not to make the rest of the family give up their favorite Passover dish: my grandmother’s walnut-based cherosets. We do, however, make a big fuss out of having everyone wash their hands when they leave the table, to ensure that the entire house doesn’t become covered in poison.

For my daughter, who is gluten intolerant, Pesach is the easy time of year! I agree with you, since she’s not anaphylactic, I’ve taught her to self-police, and I don’t tell people in advance of her allergies. The only accommodation we make when we go somewhere for Shabbat meals is I bring “bread” for her and I usually bring a dessert for everyone, so she doesn’t get left out. She’s never gone home hungry, despite my not warning people of her diet. She is so blase about not taking the ubiquitous wafflim (in Israel), and when they appear in a mishloach manot, she happily redistributes them to friends or family. Maybe some of her friends’ parents think it odd when she shows up at a birthday party with a treat for everyone, but no one’s complained!! BTW, anyone with allergies, but especially anaphylactic allergies should be getting treated with NAET. It’s phenomenal! (One day, my daughter will get it — when I move within range of a therapist.)

I still want to hear from Israelis — is Bamba still ubiquitous over there? Have there been Bamba bans? Is the incidence of nut allergy the same as here? how about the increase in the reported rate of nut allergies? (Maybe there’s another, more heavily reported story for me to do here sometime in the future…)

AT LAST- some common sense. It is hard to believe the overprotective attitude of some parents today…….makes you wonder how the older generations survived

Having lived 48 out of my 51 years with a nut allergy that includes peanuts, pine nuts and coconut (yes, I know they’re not nuts but I’m allergic to them nevertheless), I can appreciate this story. Surviving another nut-filled Pesach was always a challenge growing up. My mother was very careful with what she cooked; it was the prepared foods that usually sent me to the hospital’s emergency ward. Labelling laws weren’t so stringent back in the 60s and Epi-Pens hadn’t been invented yet.

Yes, having a child with a nut allergy is a bummer. My advice to these parents? Relax. Your kid will live. Just read the labels and keep the Epi-Pen nearby.

My nut-free charoset recipe:

2 small pears; cored and coarsely chopped
12 dried apricot halves; chopped
1/4 cup raisins
1-1/2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 oz. (2 tablespoons) sweet red wine

Make lots of it because your nut-loving friends will eat this too. Chag same’ach!

First of all, you are able to express what is inside my head…only way better!

Next, a recent study seems to indicate that Israeli kids do not suffer from peanut allergies at the same rate as kids in the UK. Read more:,8599,1968474,00.html

Another great post!!!

My middle son is allergic to many different foods (tree nuts, sesame, grapefruit are the worst). His day school IS nut-free, but when he started, I made a point to say that I was NOT the over-cautious Mama.

Micah has learned how to be careful about all his allergy foods. He is most allergic to Sesame; yet he is fortunate that he can sit right next to someone who is eating hummus. (We have a few airborne-allergic friends; that sucks!).

I think the food bans are helping non-allergic folk become aware of how careful those of us with allergies (or Kashrut issues) need to be all the time. I also don’t think they will last forever. Micah’s teachers call me whenever they will be serving or using food in a classroom project, and they run the complete ingredient list by me. Micah is empowered to say “no” whenever he is not comfortable, or to insist on a call to me if there is a last minute question.

We made it through a trip to Israel with no problems. He was allowed to go behind the counter at a burger place, and show the cook exactly what he wanted in his simple burger & pita. He eats simple foods, nothing with too many ingredients, unless we know the chef.

While he still sometimes has anxiety attacks about his allergies, I know that we can be safe, as long as we maintain a little control over our menu.

ooh, thanks for that link, frume sarah! you confirmed my suspicions.
howard, thanks for the recipe. and francine, i love your paralleling kashrut and nut-allergy-vigilance. that could be a whole other column.
i do worry that overpolicing leads to parents of non-allergic kids acting out. infantile, i know…but there are parents who say “my kid ONLY eats peanut butter! it’s not fair that we can’t bring it to school!” and parents who let their toddler eat something with nuts during pickup and dropoff, and parents who send sesame things to camp, etc. because they think everyone who says “my kid is allergic” is full of it. to protect the super-allergic kids, i think we have get tougher on parents of kids who haven’t been tested or aren’t THAT mega-allergic.

debra walk says:

i am an American Olah. My grown children, who grew up in Israel, are convinced that Israeli children have lower rates of peanut allergies because of Bamba. I don’t know of any scientific studies on this issue, but it has been a topic of discussion at our dinner table a number of times.

nisa says:

I did raise an extremely peanut allergic child to monitor what she ate, not share food (except to give hers away), not share straws, utensils, not let others touch her at meals (hives from residue of peanut butter on skin) and when she was older, not to kiss anyone who ate peanuts! Somehow she survived both the allergies and the negligence of adults who gave her the wrong food. She is only moderately neurotic, but that is perhaps not from the allergy restrictions. I also met with the school nurse and cafeteria manager at the beginning of each elementary school year to go over precautions, emergency procedures, and gave the school two videos on food allergies. Our school nurse showed them to all of the teachers and my daughter’s teacher showed the student oriented film to her class. When she was tested (yearly) by her allergist she was so allergic he had to dilute the peanut solution by 10 before testing her. She never had a challenge as he insisted that would have to be done in a hospital, sounded way to scary to me! She is less allergic now and still avoids peanuts. I did struggle to protect her while also helping her to be self-sufficient and empowered. It’s a difficult dilemma and this article can help parents wrestle with it.

Yeah, I heard an interview about that Bamba report when I was pregnant with my first child, and I went out and got a ton of Bamba to “inoculate” her against peanut allergies! (what, you didn’t know I’m cwazy?) I also craved peanut butter thru that whole pregnancy. Yet I haven’t had the nerve to give her pb yet.

My stepson just developed a sensitivity to nuts (hives), at age 9. I had the same when I was his age, isn’t that funny? I grew out of it.

For what it’s worth, the worst part about Bamba isn’t the nuts — it has msg, tons of sodium, and fat fat fat. Mmmmmmmm. So delicious though.

Sharon Gladstone says:

Several years ago I began to substitute Passover cereal called crispy-o”s by Savion.for the nuts in Charoset. It became so popular that everyone in the family is now happy to have my Charoset as THE charoset for our seders. We all feel much better knowing that our few nut-allergic family members are completely safe.

rachel says:

I became gluten-, dairy-, fish- and nut-intolerant in my early fifties. My father was diagnosed with celiac disease in his late sixties.

My allergists suggest that GMOs are to blame.

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Going Nuts

Passover is about freedom, so let’s not encourage our kids to be slaves to their allergies

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