It’s no secret food is my love language. Food speaks to me louder than almost anything. I gave myself a bad time about this for years. “What’s wrong with you?” I’d ask, shaming myself for the embarrassing amount of time I caught myself dreaming about food.
Cooking went from comforting to cruel when gluten turned against me, and I shamed myself again for grieving the loss of something so trivial. It’s just food, Rach. Get over it, I’d say. But I couldn’t just get over it, and if you are reading this today I imagine you couldn’t just get over it either when your food life flipped upside down.
Here’s what I learned: it’s 100% totally fine to be upset when we lose things we love. Grief is part of the healing process. To deny ourselves the time and space to feel the emotions that come along with loss robs us of the opportunity to make peace with what we have left. I was sad I lost gluten. Sad again when I lost peanuts and pine nuts and pea protein and cashews, then pistachios and eggs and dairy and sunflower seeds and egg and shrimp. Things went from hard to harder until life felt miserably unfair, and I shouted at the heavens asking, “Are you kidding me?”
Deciding these foods were off-limits was easy; making peace with their absence was hard. Some eventually came back (hallelujah and hello eggs!), but I felt funny about mourning the loss of all the others. Keeping them away kept our bodies safer, but my heart was still broken. I got angry that my love for food and comfort in the kitchen didn’t prepare me for any of this.
I woke up one day wondering if my sadness would seep into the kids’ skin, irreversibly embittering their hearts toward the goodness and beauty of the gift God gave us in food. I don’t wonder about that anymore: those kids love food like I do–perhaps more so, in some ways. Emery says he wants to open an allergy friendly restaurant where anyone can find something safe to eat, and Mia wants to develop allergy friendly recipes and share them on a cooking show of her own. The kitchen became their favorite place to spend time because food speaks to their hearts too.
These Chocolate Sticky Buns called their name before they called mine. And instead of hearing an enemy to fear, they heard a question to answer: “Mom!” the Goobies called from the other room where they were watching an episode of Cook’s Country. “How can we make those?” they asked, pointing to a pan of pastries smothered in dark, decadent chocolate sauce. “Easy,” I said, confident that by now I could manage to pull off a gluten free / dairy free version of the original. Their eyes lit up and they started the episode all over again, this time Mia writing down every ingredient, every tool, every step in the process before asking, “When can we try?”
Saturday was the designated day I never saw coming. Eight years ago, rolling dough out with my daughter was a dream I couldn’t see coming true. Watching it rise, rolling it out then rolling it back up again was as far-fetched an idea as walking on the moon. But it happened.
I berated me for loving food too much at first, then I beat myself up for not knowing enough about it later. Little did I know both those things would help me define a kitchen culture that celebrates safe food and embraces trial and error as the most essential tool in my arsenal. Although sadness still ebbs and flows in all of us, celebration and adventure are foundations upon which we stand when we give new things a try.
And I’m so grateful to be here, because this is the place we heard chocolate sticky buns calling.
“We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.”
Now that October is wrapping up, all sorts of traditions are lining themselves up in a row, like dominoes, and this week will knock the first one over and set in motion a series of events that will swirl through the final two months of the year and plunge us into the new year. What’s waiting for us at the end of it all is a big heaping pile of exhaustion. As tired as I am already (and it’s not even November!), our much-anticipated New Year’s Day tradition of starting a Harry Potter movie marathon is beckoning me. Call me a nerd, but this is one of my favorite traditions of the whole year: a time to put the Goobies to bed and veg out in front of the tv without having to set up or attend a single party for the first two weeks of the year. This time around, as I look forward to the promise of those two relaxing weeks, I can’t help but think about two very specific lines from the series, lines that resonate with me in a new way: “Eat this. It helps. It really, really helps” and “All was well.”
The first is spoken in the early days of Harry’s adolescence by Professor Lupin, an older, wiser man who saves Harry’s life before they have properly been introduced. When an unforeseen force singles Harry out and forces its will upon him by sucking out hope and love and any semblance of normalcy, Professor Lupin steps in to fend off the attacker. When the danger is over, he offers Harry a piece of chocolate, telling him “Eat this. It helps. It really, really helps.” (Is it any wonder why this line speaks to me?) The second line is “All was well,” the famous last line of the 7th book that assures readers the Boy Who Lived actually continues to do so–happily, even.
I totally 100% believe Professor Lupin’s words that chocolate helps. Every time I take a bite of it I sigh a prayer of thanksgiving for its power to soothe. I am convinced God smiled as he dreamed up chocolate, and that He had a smirk on his face as he slipped the cacao bean into creation like a hidden treasure waiting to be found. The same is true in our house: the stuff is stashed in nearly every room. It’s in the medicine basket, high up on the pantry shelf, deep in the freezer and wedged between bottles of wine. Half eaten bars are strewn on my nightstand and tucked deep under piles of books; wrappers are wadded up on the counter and full bars are piled precariously on top of the checkbook. It’s on my mind and on the shopping list and in my plan for how to spend the evening. Chocolate helps, you see, so I keep it in arm’s reach at all times. I know ultimately it’s God who helps, of course, but for me, chocolate provides a way to taste the goodness of who God is. It slows me down, helps me breathe, and reminds me to appreciate the sweet things in life, not be bogged down by the bitter things.
This is what happened a few short weeks ago when I took Mia to the allergist’s office for her follow up scratch test to see whether she had outgrown her peanut and pine nut allergies or not. That brave little girl walked in a little nervous about whether or not the scratches actually hurt or not, but calm and certain she would walk out of the office that day rewarded with good news. As I watched her back erupt in those telltale firey red splotches, I panicked. Disappointment welled up from within me and silent tears came as I wondered how a little girl with resolute faith that she had been healed would swallow this bitter pill. I felt powerless to defend her against this adversary, but somehow all I could think of was what Professor Lupin says about chocolate.
The doctor is the one who broke the news to our girl. He started with the good news that her allergy to pine nuts was gone, but quickly followed that up with the not-so-good news that she was still very much allergic to peanuts. He commended her for being so diligent in avoiding them, talked about upcoming desensitization therapies, and urged her to be brave and add almonds to her diet because they would help her body gain strength against her peanut allergy. In short, he offered her the hope that I couldn’t. But her sidelong glance betrayed her uncertainty about eating almonds at all, as if she was silently asking me if this guy was for real. “How will almonds help my body gain strength against peanuts?” her glower seemed to whisper. I smiled, rubbed her back, and told her, “I don’t know, but maybe we ought to try?”
Mia has been scared to let any sort of nut into her system. I can’t blame her: the last time she had an allergic reaction it was to cashew butter that had been contaminated with peanuts. The jar did say “May contain peanuts,” but I hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Oops is an understatement. That’s the day we learned to take the ingredient note that says “May contain peanuts” very seriously. (“May contain” now means “definitely contains,” as far as we’re concerned.) The poor little thing broke out in hives and her face started to swell, and as I cried and prayed, she apologized, saying “I sorry I had ‘lergic ‘action, Mommy.” It wasn’t her fault at all–it was mine, completely. I hadn’t read the label correctly, and she was paying the price for my mistake. From then on, that poor girl has lived with an unnecessary fear of nuts, and every time she freaks out about it I feel bad that I did that to her.
But here was the allergist–her trusted doctor whom she knew to be an expert on allergies–encouraging her to eat those dreaded tree nuts, perhaps starting by swirling almond milk in smoothies or pouring it over her morning bowl of cereal. Mia was dubious at first (insisting she hates the taste of almond milk), but she took the doctor’s orders seriously and we brainstormed other ways she might enjoy eating almonds as we drove away from the his office that day. “What about chocolate covered almonds?” I asked.
Mia’s eyes lit up and she gasped, “Ooh, yeah! Good idea, Mama!”
And so, we set about making chocolate covered almonds at home. I have bags and bags of chocolate chips at the ready almost always, and almonds are a pantry staple too. Melting those chocolate chips down and spooning it over a pile of almonds for our girl was healing, in its own way. Those little candies finally convinced Mia that almonds aren’t something to be feared anymore, that they are a safe food for her and that missing out on pre-packaged, peanut-contaminated treats aren’t such a big deal when stuff like this lingers on the kitchen counter. As she happily ate them, I finally breathed a sigh of relief, believing all would be well.
And really, all is well. Mia walked into that doctor’s office with the calm assurance that God had already healed her–not just from the peanut allergy, but from the pine nut allergy too. The scratch test was a formality, in her mind–a hoop to jump through before she joined the ranks of the other kids who don’t have to sit at the cafeteria’s allergy table at lunchtime. When the test results were in and peanuts were clearly still a problem, my heart sank. I imagined Mia’s did too. She was so confident in what she hoped for and certain of what she couldn’t see yet. What must it have felt like, I wondered, to not only be disappointed, but to also to have to face her fear of tree nuts head on too? I thought she would walk away disappointed and angry.
But Mia’s hope did not disappoint. In her classic wiser-than-her-years style, she pointed out, “But Mommy, I did get healed. I don’t have my pine nut allergy anymore!” She’s right, of course. She believed she had been healed, and she had been, if not in full, then at least in part. The whole situation buoyed her faith; it didn’t drown it. And sure, she had to face her fear of letting tree nuts back into her diet, but she did so with beautiful courage I wish I had myself. (Well, courage and chocolate, because chocolate helps.) Whatever residual guilt I feel for the fact that she has to live with a peanut allergy is washed away when I see the character she’s developing in the midst of this adversity. Time and again, this girl shows me all is well, and all will be well.
Dark Chocolate Almond Clusters
These clusters are super, duper easy. Three ingredients (or just two, if you only use one kind of almonds.) Sure, you could fuss with them and make them fancier (vanilla extract, a sprinkle of sea salt, a swirl of caramel) but as written they are straightforward enough to make on a whim. I like to melt the chocolate in a saucepan (and don’t bother with tempering it), but you could melt them in the microwave to make things even more simple. If you keep chocolate and almonds on hand almost always (like I do), you could make a batch right now and be done in less than 15 minutes. To make them truly peanut free, choose chocolate chips that are made in a peanut free facility or otherwise certified peanut free (like Enjoy Life or Guittard brands). I use Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking chips, which are made in a peanut free and gluten free facility, and do not contain milk. They are perfect for our food allergy family, but please read labels to make sure they are suitable for yours. (Ditto for the almonds.)
1 cup allergy friendly dark chocolate chunks (such as Enjoy Life)
3/4 cup dry roasted, unsalted slivered almonds
3/4 cup dry roasted, salted whole almonds
First, spread out a large sheet of parchment or wax paper (about 12″ long). Next, measure the almonds into a medium mixing bowl and give them a quick toss. Then, pour the chocolate chips into a small saucepan and melt over medium heat, stirring constantly, until all the chocolate has melted and there aren’t any lumps left. Pour over the almnods immediately and stir until all the almonds have been coated.
Scoop the chocolate covered almonds onto the parchment paper by the tablespoonful (or so), and let cool until set. (If it’s warm in your kitchen, you might want to put the whole batch into the refrigerator until they harden.) Makes about a dozen.