Waiting in line at the grocery store last Friday night, I surveyed the contents of my basket: frozen waffles, white wine, yogurt, cookies, sorbet, loaf of bread, crackers, pasta, and cranberry grape juice. Nothing unusual for the middle-class health-conscious mom I am—except none of these ordinary things contained wheat, cow dairy, citrus, eggs, or soy.
For at least half of our 13-year marriage, I’ve had a hacking cough my husband calls adorably habitual. My son is used to nights when Mom’s voice goes mute after reading just a paragraph at bedtime. “Are you okay, Mom?” he says with concern, patting me on the shoulder as I hack away. Allergy testing revealed I am allergic to 25 different molds, animals, grasses, and trees.
The best resume builder on an
asthmatic’s list is parents who sniffle. Both longtime hay fever
sufferers, my parents shared more allergens than years together, so
their little apple didn’t fall from the pollen-polluting tree. And if
my mother is reading this, I do so understand why you did not breastfeed
in 1962 at an air force base in
So after nearly two years of allergy shots and years of prescriptions that have challenged my core notion of myself as perfectly healthy, I found myself in the office of a naturopath. Along with some probiotic powder—full of active “good” bacteria to replenish my antibiotics-depleted digestive system—she prescribed three weeks of a diet that eliminates the top five most likely food allergens: wheat, cow dairy, citrus, eggs, and soy. An allergy or even sensitivity to one of these common yummies could be keeping my immune system in a constant state of red alert so that it mistakes non-harmful substances as a foreign siege worthy of histamine ambush.
An elimination diet is a forced meditation on food. After posting a reminder list of the offending foods in the kitchen, I then got busy focusing on the foods I could eat—shiny red peppers, creamy avocados (no lime though!), baby salad greens glistening with home-made vinaigrette, grilled salmon, shrimp pink as carnations, sweet mango sorbet, and coffee sprinkled with Mexican chocolate.
The first week I welcomed the bounty of fruits on my plate, surveying a strawberry over ten sweet bites. A vegetarian-leaning type, I investigated the small wedge of beef resting on my plate, its texture lazy and sturdy as a steer between my teeth. Who knew a crispy rice cake spread with slippery cashew butter could be so exotic? Dark chocolate, my one reliable wheat-free indulgence, became a daily habit—a single square of the 70% cocoa kind sent energy zipping through my tongue like a deep kiss.
But by the second week I had
run out of a few alternative foods, so I returned to the store. This
time, I feel like an alcoholic competing in a fill-your-cart-for-free
contest at a discount liquor store. Strolling past boring fruits like
grapes and apples, I am assaulted by the citrus aisle pulsing with
colors like a
Okay, I admit that soy does not call to me. I am one of the few people I know who actually loves the chameleon taste and texture of tofu but as it hibernates in cold white blocks in the refrigerator section, I amble past without a quiver. Same for dairy—I had already cut out this mucous-creating category of foods, doubly evil for their cholesterol enhancing qualities. Get behind me, yogurt!
But bread. What a beautiful blushing brown spreads over this ordinary loaf. And miraculously, the loaf next to it, while basically the same size and shape, swells with a uniqueness I had never before observed. Suddenly, it is revealed to me as if it is the Central Truth of the universe—each and every loaf of the fifty kinds of bread awaiting its fate on either side of this aisle is an individual even as they all share the same basic ingredients. All are products of the same process of mixing, bubbling, growing, being punched down, baking, and rising again. All around me, the air is pregnant with warmth and the alchemy that is bread, a couple handfuls of soft flour, a packet of yeast, a slosh of milk, and a few hours later blooms a sandwich! Shoppers buzz around the sample areas, tasting sesame, French, wheat, rustic, ciabbata, challah, rye, parmesan, even chocolate nut. Fists frozen to the handle of my cart, I pull myself back into focus. As far as the eye can see in this world of brown, speckled, swollen bread, there is but one slim loaf I can toast and put on my tongue. I reach out and put my hand on a loaf of spelt bread, warm as a sleeping puppy. Both it and I know its shape and color are deceiving—it tastes nothing like real bread. Even, I think, the spelling of spelt is all wrong.
Leaving the bread aisle I maneuver the cart through the cakes and cookies, a further indignity. I park near the olives to contemplate their safe variety and my breathing slows from panic to calm longing. I realize I am living inside a famous Chinese Buddhist poem which over a course of 123 couplets repeats in various ways this central idea: anyone can be a Buddha, and in fact we are already, if we can only let go of our tight hold on desires and outcomes. While my restricted diet initially inspired me to dabble in the central Buddhist practice of being wake, observing the nuances of flavor and texture, it also now inflamed my habitual desirous scream: “I WANT.” Now, I am conscious of the sheer terror I feel about my lack of bread. Giving up a kidney would be easier.
After selecting a bunch of wild
daisies to make up for my losses, I finally make it to the relative
peace of the check-out area. A dull shame washes over me as I wait in
line—because my body is too broken to eat regular food, because my
desire for real bread is homicidal, because I have just run a gauntlet
of attachment no less sticky than a red light district for a sex addict,
because I am even with all my Buddhist leanings, merely human and deeply