Tag Archives: food allergies

La Famiglia: The food and feast continuum

I suppose there is no real definition of “normal” when it comes to family.  No two people do anything the same, so family dynamics are certainly no different.  However, if I were to bring the “Normal” label into my family adventures, I would dare say that I grew up far from normal.

First of all, both of my parents were highly educated, trained classical musician.  My father was drama-driven–by that I mean he had the combination plate of sensitive musician and being Italian.  Nothing was ever simple; nothing was ever laid back or calm, and most everything had the potential of being catastrophic, especially if the sauce cooked too long, or he had glitches while composing, working on music or working with other singers and musicians.  Of course, his drama was familiar to us kids, so we chuckled at it for the most part.

Being raised by classical musicians was certainly different.  Whenever my parents had string quartet rehearsals, opera rehearsals (which were often times weekly), or just the continual stream of piano and violin students that rolled into our home, it was not only loud, but a topic of conversation throughout the neighborhood.  There was a family of 12 that lived next door to us, and several of the 10 kids used to call my father “The crazy Russian.”  I am uncertain where the “Russian” thing came into play, but that was his nickname among the kids in the neighborhood. The best I can come up with is that my father always wore black turtlenecks (even in 100 degree weather), he had semi-long wavy black and graying hair, and sported a goatee.  Even though he taught high school orchestra for many years, he was not your typical business suit kinda guy.

With these kind of dynamics, being raised in an Italian household only added more color to the already fully-loaded palette, and as serious as my father was about his music, he was equally so regarding his food.

I suppose I should share that my mother was not Italian.  She was predominantly Welsh and French, but had to pretty much learn the “Italian way.”  I think that’s the case for most non-Italian’s marrying into an Italian family.  Sort of, “My way or the highway” theory.  She was an exceptional cook–a gourmet by every standard, in fact, some of her varied sauces for pasta were actually better than all of my Italian aunts put together.  She could cook rings around most.  Well, all except my father.  Truthfully, no one could top him.  I still don’t know if I’ve ever tasted anyone’s Italian food that comes close to my father’s creations.

Every single day was a new adventure in the kitchen with my dad.  The only time he didn’t have his hands in dough, grating cheese, stirring sauce,crushing piles of garlic (the house reeked), or squishing tomatoes with his bare hands, was because he was either at work, conducting, running rehearsing or out of town.

There is no way I can discuss my growing up years without mentioning Calzone’s. While my father’s are certainly off-the-charts, mine became legendary as well.

A calzone is basically a pizza folded in two. Like pizza, it has ancient origins and can be traced back to the beginnings of flat breads, which were already present in Ancient Egypt. In fact, flat bread covered with herbs were served at birthday celebrations for the Pharaoh.

While there are mentions of dishes similar to pizza through the history of the the Mediteranean cultures, the pizza that we know today, and what is referred to as “real pizza”, was created in Naples.

At the beginning, pizza was made with a type of bread dough, flattened with your hands and covered with cheese or lard and cooked in a very hot wood-burning oven.

Only in the 18th century, and more precisely in 1730, did someone think to add tomato as a topping, giving life to the pizza marinara. This is how the pizza we know today came into being. It was then exported to America with Neapolitan emigrants and from there to the rest of the world.

Like pizza, there are a variety of calzones circling around the globe.  Our calzones are not just about the dough, but the sauce, the cheese, and often we deep-fried them as compared to some who merely bake them like pizza.  In a nut-shell… they’re seriously calorie-laden, and totally unhealthy.

Getting both pizza and calzones out of my diet has not been easy, and I cannot honestly say that I will never have another slice of pizza.  To exclude everything familiar from your life is not realistic, but I do believe in living a very balanced and controlled lifestyle.  That being said, “If” I choose to make pizza or calzones, which is rare, I use or make a gluten-free dough.  Instead of a meat and heavy cheese-filling, I use veggies and a small amount of organic goats cheese (if any).  Instead of deep-frying calzones, I bake them.  Using everything organic and fresh for the inside.  Believe it or not, making these kind of adjustments really do make a difference.

The truth is, you cannot live isolated from everything, but if you value your health and make a quality decision to eat healthy about 90% of the time, saving the small 10% for those moments you might want to have something like pizza or calzones, then you are still better off.

Because I have so many food allergies, wheat sensitivity, and gout, both calzones and pizza should be avoided.

Sometimes, it’s a bitch.  Food is alluring and just tastes so darn good, and especially good Italian food… You know?

Mamma Mia!

Vats of sauce, tiramisu, cannoli and pizzele’s: My food continuum

I don’t quite remember when my relationship with tomatoes began, but my earliest memories were around 4 or 5, watching my Italian aunt cook bucket-loads of sauce.  My aunt was the dearest soul on the planet–clearly a favorite aunt.  She was silly (every kid loved her), incredibly fun, generous, lively, and a great cook.  She never really seemed like an adult to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that she stood only 4′ 11″ tall.  However, as short as she was, she was near as wide.  If oompa loompa’s had been written about back then, I am sure that I would have assumed her to share their DNA.  What I didn’t know until I was in my late 40’s, is that my aunt had horrible food allergies.  In addition to obesity and food allergies, she also had a lot of rashes, which were also as a result of her food allergies.  Sadly, she never did deal with any of these issues.  It then was no surprise that she ended up with diabetes and lived in a continual down-hill health spiral until her death.

I frequently spent the night at her and my uncle’s house.  You name it, she had it, not only was her pantry filled to overflowing, they had a lot of money, no children (I was like her kid), and she didn’t seem to know the word, “No.” Oh yea, it was my favorite place to be!

The truth is, I learned how to cook Italian gravy (pasta sauce) and Italian desserts from my aunt.  While my father was an even better cook than her, she had that motherly patience to walk me through the process in the kitchen. Year after year, month after month I would hang out with my aunt and learn traditional Italian cooking–Chicago style.

Unlike my parents, my aunt was a queen at making famous Italian desserts like: Tiramisu, cannoli’s and pizzelle’s, and she made them frequently.  Tiramisu, also known as “Tuscan Trifle,” the dessert was initially created in Siena, in the northwestern Italian province of Tuscany. The occasion was a visit by Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici III, in whose honor the concoction was dubbed zuppa del duca (the “duke’s soup”). The former duke brought the dessert back with him to Florence. In the 19th Century, zuppa del duca became popular among the English intellectuals and artists who lived there Consequently, it is also known as zuppa Inglese. They took the dessert to England, where its popularity grew. Zuppa del duca eventually made its way to Treviso, just northwest of Venice, in the northeastern province of Veneto. Treviso is best know for its canals, frescoes and Tiramisu.  Of course, it gradually made its way to the United States via Italian immigrants.  Traditionally, Tiramisu is a pudding-like dessert, usually consisting of sponge cake (ladyfingers) dipped in a liqueur, then layered with grated chocolate and decadently rich custard.  Originally, the custard was somewhat loose, but it has changed over the years.  In fact, there are numerable variations on a theme.

I honestly did not have a favorite of these desserts, but the pizzele is probably the least rich and least fattening, since it doesn’t have any custard or creme filling.

Cannoli are actually a traditional Sicilian dessert, originating in Palermo.  My family is not Sicilian, but  hails from Campobasso, which is located in the Molise region of the Italy.  At one time Compobasso was a part of two mountainous regions (Abruzzi and Molise) that were joined as an administrative district under the name Abruzzi e Molise but now separated, extend from high in the Apennines to the Adriatic coast.  However, cannoli’s have become a very popular Italian dessert.  These little deep-fried shells, filled with a mixture of eggs, sugar, ricotta cheese and chocolate were a temptation to all who tasted them.

Pizzele’s (Italian wafers) were a common mainstay in my aunts cookie jar.  The name comes from the Italian word, “Pizze,” which means round and flat.  In some parts of Italy, especially among the upper class, the irons would be made with the family crest on them, and would be passed down to each generation.  While I don’t have an iron with our family crest on it, I did get my grandmother’s iron, and made these on special occasions and holiday’s for my own children, family and friends.

Pizzele
So…whenever I stayed with my aunt and uncle, my aunt and I primarily hung-out in the kitchen making vats of tomato sauce for a wide array of Italian pasta dishes and baking rich Italian desserts.  Julia Child wrote about “The Joy of Cooking,” but my aunt was Julia Child x 100!
Keep in mind, I was (as I am now) allergic to wheat, corn, dairy, etc. According to my allergist, you never really grow out of chronic food allergies.  So, once again, the foods I consumed were setting the stage for weight gain, rashes, immune system issues, and hormone imbalance.  “If only” I Knew then what I know now…things would have been played out MUCH differently.
I recently came across an article online called, “Are Your Food Allergies Making You Fat?  It described so many of the things that I’ve gone through to a T.  Dr. Mark Hyman reveals that food allergies and inflammation cause obesity.  Food allergies cause digestive disorders and inflammation.  It’s a vicious cycle. He suggests the following three steps:
  1. Try an elimination diet for 3 weeks. Cut out the most common food allergens, including gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, yeast, and peanuts. Some people are sensitive to soy, so you can also cut that out.
  2. Eat a whole-foods, plant-based, high-fiber diet. This is essential to feed the good bugs in your gut and to provide the nutrients you need to functional optimally.
  3. Take probiotics daily to boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. Look for those that contain 10 billion CFU of bifidobacteria species and lactobacillus species. Choose from reputable brands.
Essentially, this is precisely what I did when I first found out that I had chronic food allergies.  I eliminated the foods not just for 3 weeks, but for a full year.  Because I went through allergy testing, I knew what I was allergic to, so there was no guessing game.
Hence, my Italian diet was a culprit for ill-health.  It’s not hard to know that desserts like:  Tiramisu, cannoli’s and/or pizzele’s are not healthy, but pasta?  Tomato sauce? Steak?  Cheese?  Bread?  The list seemed endless.
Tiramisu
Of course, the big question in my mind was, “What in heck do I replace all of this good-tasting food with?  What was left?  My journey had only began… Now 10 years later, I am still on the road to redemption.

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” – Moliere

Cannoli


What do you mean I can’t eat polenta?

Imagine my surprise, to find out that 80% or more of what I had been eating all of my life, I was allergic to…The doctor laughed at me after I got upset over being allergic to corn.  He said, “Most people cry when they find out they can’t have chocolate.  You were upset over polenta!”

Of course, as time went on, and I began to research corn a bit, I discovered that it isn’t just the allergy factor.  Corn, because of the way it’s been genetically modified poses a problem.  Corn is cheap to reproduce, and it’s in EVERYTHING!  Our cattle, chickens, hogs, and even our cats and dogs eat it… and in the form of corn syrup, it’s actually cheaper to use that sugar.

However…cheaper is not always better.  Perhaps the old saying, “You get what you pay for” is true.  Nutritionists claim that obesity, which is currently a rising epidemic in the U.S. has been affected by corn and all of its modifications.  By the way… it’s also affecting the quality of the meat; it’s become fattier.

According to Time Magazine, “From 1972 to 2002, the amount of sugar and syrup produced annually per American grew 21%, from 104 lbs. to 126 lbs., according to the Department of Agriculture. In that same time period, the percentage of syrup sweetener in that total grew from less than 1% to nearly 50%.”

Ouch!

Dr. Mercola would have to agree.  He says, “Pundit George Will has joined the ranks of those who have noticed that the U.S. government’s treatment of corn is wrecking the health of Americans…Rates of chronic diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes are much higher today than they were in 1900. Type 2 diabetes is a $100 billion a year consequence of, among other things, obesity related to a corn-based diet. Four of the top 10 causes of American deaths — coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – have well-established links to diet as well.”

Of course, since I am allergic to corn, this should have no barring on me… Yet, it’s taken years for me to “try” and wean myself off of corn, and to be truthful, I still have not completely accomplished this, but I am working on it, and I have lowered my intake of corn products radically.  The greatest offender is corn tortillas. I live in Southern, California, and they’re hard to avoid. However, I do not eat any product that has high fructose corn syrup, especially with the absolute understanding that this ingredient is wrecking the health in America.

Think about it:  We are eating products that raise our insulin levels at every meal.  When I was eating “Italian,” even though “sugar” was not a common part of my everyday diet, so many things that I ate became sugar when broken down in my body.  For example:  pasta, bread, cereals, rice, polenta, potatoes, etc.  The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.  The foods to avoid are mainly empty carbohydrates including all white flour breads, pasta, white rice, anything made with white sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose, processed foods like boxed or prepackaged foods, foods with no or low fiber, fruit juice with added sugar, condiments with added sugar, sugary cereals and regular soda. The two vegetables that have the highest glycemic index are potatoes and corn. Most foods that are packaged like frozen dinners and canned foods have fillers like corn starch, sugar and carbohydrate-based preservatives.

It’s interesting that for the past few years, health practitioners have been encouraging people to eat according to the Glycemic index, which measures the effect that carbohydrate consumption has on blood sugar levels.

After reviewing my eating habits for most of my life, it is no small wonder as to why I’ve developed some health issues, beginning with food allergies.  In an recent article on WebMD, it says, “A food allergy occurs when your immune system responds defensively to a specific food protein that is not harmful to the body…The first time you eat the offending food, your immune system responds by creating specific disease-fighting antibodies (called immunoglobulin E or IgE). When you eat the food again, the IgE antibodies spring into action, releasing large amounts of histamine in an effort to expel the “foreign invader” from your body. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.”

So, essentially, I compromised my immune system with the foods that I grew up eating, and it’s no wonder that I’m currently rethinking Italian!
“He who enjoys good health is rich, though he knows it not.” Italian Proverb –OH THE IRONY!

Sources:  http://www.ehow.com/about_4603110_foods-diabetic-should-avoid.html

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/04/corn-is-making-the-us-unhealthy.aspx

http://www.webmd.com/allergies/food-allergies

Stuffed and puffy

“The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine.” – Hippocrates

When I was around 36, I began to have a lot of hormone-related issues, in fact, I skipped my menstrual cycle for 6 months–the doctor thought it might be a false pregnancy. Instead of giving birth after 9 months, I had gained nearly 90 lbs, and suffered from serious edema.  My diet was not any different.  I was still having an “Italian” moment, eating predominately pastas, salads, and beef, lamb, chicken or fish.  Somehow, I had figured out that bread was probably not a good idea for me, so I didn’t eat much bread, but pasta was a popular mainstay.  Not only in my diet, but it was being pushed in the health/diet industry at that time.  All of the health-gurus seemed to be on a pasta agenda, which only furthered my idea that I was eating healthy.  I walked about 4 times a week, yet I continued to blow up like a balloon.  It wasn’t just weight gain either; I didn’t have the typical sagging, ripply cellulite fat, but I looked stuffed and puffy.  My traditional doctor offered a hard-hit of progesterone, which contributed largely to my weight gain.  At that time, I didn’t realize that it is basically a steroid. In addition, I was tired all the time, which didn’t work well since I had 2 children that had very active schedules.  I felt like I was slipping down a slippery slope quickly, and I knew something had to be done.

My mother came to visit and she hadn’t seen me in about 7 or 8 months.  When she saw how much weight I had gained, how puffy I looked, and got a glimpse of the skin rashes I was dealing with, she insisted that I find a specialist.  I found an alternative doctor who was truly genius, and his influence was pivotal in opening my eyes to the things we eat.  He began his medical journey as a research psychiatrist, and found himself more interested in body chemistry as related to weight gain and allergy issues, so he went back to medical school and became an allergist.  After completing his training, he worked in the field for a brief time, but returned to school to study nutrition and holistic health.  It’s no secret that medical school students are not required to take more than one class on nutrition.  He shared with me that he felt incompetent as an allergist with little to no “real” knowledge of nutrition and the foods we eat.” So, in short, this physician was extremely well-rounded.  He was qualified as an M.D., but also as a nutritionist and holistic doctor.

On my first visit with Dr. Philip Taylor, he sat me down, took out a notepad and literally interviewed me for an hour.  He asked me questions about my childhood, what we ate, about my cravings, my marriage (I thought, “How odd…”), my current symptoms, and just about anything you could imagine. After an hour, he put his pen down, looked up at me and said.  “You’re a mess, and you also have chronic food allergies.”  I remember sitting there thinking, “Who is this guy?  I mean he didn’t even examine me.” He then asked me to step into his exam room, where we would begin food allergy testing.  He said, “I don’t believe in doing scratch tests for food allergies. Those work wonders if you have environmental allergies, but since food is ingested, I like to inject a little of the food under your skin to see what happens.”  Oh great.  I heard the word, “Inject,” and knew this was not going to be fun.  I’m not a fan of needles. Nearly everything he tested me for I reacted to, and wheat and dairy were the worst.  I didn’t just have a skin reaction, my arm blew up and I developed a migraine within about 20 minutes.  NOT a good sign.

The entire process took about 3 months, but at the end I was told about all of the things I could no longer eat.  In some respects I was relieved, but also a bit pissed off.  I felt somewhat cursed.  Imagine being an Italian with the food heritage I’ve had, only to find out that 90% of what I ate growing up contributed to my health issues. I couldn’t just go on a diet, avoid them for a season and then go back to eating the same foods.  Dr. Taylor opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to accept a permanent lifestyle change or I would continue to have these kinds of issues if I didn’t, and they would only get worse.  Change was imminent.

…Yet still…the road has not been easy.

“What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others”
– Lucretius. 95-55 B. C.

New Beginnings

I need another blog like I need a hole in my head, however…  I am Italian and I want to talk about food–the two seem to go hand-in-hand!

I am an American Italian woman in my mid-fifties who loves to cook.  My father’s family are all from Italy.  Worse still, my father owned an Italian restaurant, which only added more calories into the mix.  That being said, you can well-imagine our meals at home when I was growing up.  It went something like this:

Breakfast:  Italian eggs (loose scrambled eggs, leftover homemade pasta sauce, crushed garlic, fresh basil, fresh oregano and fennel seed, grated provolone cheese, grated romano cheese, and salt and pepper), sour bread toast, milk or orange juice, fresh fruit.  Occasionally we would have cereal, but not that often.

Lunch:  Varied somewhere between pasta, pizza or Italian sub sandwiches, with a tall glass of milk (of course it was for our “bones”).

Dinner:  Don’t even get me started… Sirloin or Filet Minion (stuffed with prosciutto, crushed garlic, mushrooms, oregano, provolone cheese, and various seasonings, then rubbed with fresh garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper), pasta (the pasta was our potato), garlic bread, green salad, and fruit for dessert.  There were also the lasagna or homemade pizza and ravioli moments, and my father’s famous deep fried calzones covered with sauce, and fresh grated romano cheese.

I was very active growing up, in fact, I danced ballet for 22 years, played on a woman’s tennis league, swam almost daily during the summer months, and enjoyed snow skiing and hiking on a regular basis.  Whatever crazy calories I consumed at home, I burned off because of my active lifestyle.

Once I was married and began a family of my own, I carried on the cooking tradition with my own family.  My children’s friends always wanted to spend the night at our house, and it’s clear why:  There was always a huge pot of homemade sauce on the stove, cookies in the oven, and a fully loaded refrigerator and pantry.  In short, we ate well…very, very well.

By the time I hit my late thirties, I began to have some health issues.  Weight gain (gee, I wonder why), chronic rashes, that would go away for a season and then return with a greater vengeance. Finally in my mid-forties, I developed Wilson’s Thyroid Syndrome, which is a quirky thyroid disorder that affects the T-3, and  eventually controls your ability to burn food.  Hence, to my horror,  my weight began to accelerate.

I was never an over-eater per say, but my diet was meat and carb-driven.  In addition, I was never a big dessert lover.  In fact, growing up we only ate desserts during the holiday’s, at special events, or for someone’s birthday.  Yet, with the combination of thyroid issues, and the rashes (which turned out to be related to food allergies), I began to blow-up like a balloon.  I wasn’t eating sugar, but my diet was primarily carb-driven, which ultimately turns into sugar.

…and I thought we ate so healthy…

Over the years, this began to worsen, and finally when I was just turning 50, I sought out alternative medical help, because traditional medicine was providing no “real” solutions.  I was given new diets, diet drinks (loaded with sugar), hormones, prednisone for the rashes, but only continued in a yo-yo cycle of ill-health and weight gain.  My new doctor started with food allergy testing.  It was quite a blow to find out that I am allergic to: wheat, rye, corn, sugar cane, chocolate, coffee bean, all dairy (except goat’s milk), MSG.(that was no loss), beef and brewer’s yeast.  Naturally, my response to all of this was, “What the heck is left for me to eat?”

That question began a journey that I am still on. I have had to re-think and re-learn eating, and cooking while being open to change.  It’s not easy for a woman my age to do, especially with my heritage and my connection to gourmet Italian foods.

However… I am doing it, little-by-little, step by step, and I am learning how to prepare healthy, organic, vegetable-based foods, that taste AMAZING! Who says healthy has to taste bad?  Just because it’s vegan or vegetarian, doesn’t mean you should feel like mooing after sitting down to dinner.

So, here I am…writing another blog, talking about food and sharing my journey.  As an Italian food aficionada–who loves and embraces life, I invite you to join me!

“Laugh as much as you breathe and love as long as you live!” Quest’ la vita il gioire ~ This is the life and the joy. ♥