Missing the potlucks that shaped the woman I am today.

For those who have never been to one, a potluck is a fantastic way to share food among many people.  Everyone brings one dish of food and receives a full meal made up of many dishes.  And I felt lucky to eat from so many pots!  For me, potlucks used to be a chance to share a dish that you liked, sample a variety of foods that others brought, spend positive time with friends or new faces, and enjoy interesting conversation (including recipes!).  Nowadays, potlucks just make me feel hungry, embarrassed, and guilty.

Potluck at OMNI Center during Summer of Solutions training week 2010.

My life and values have been shaped by potlucks.  They are buckets of culture pouring over me the knowledge of how to cook, how to socialize, and how to value the world with its diversity of traditions, hard-working farmers, and vital ecosystems.  I became a vegetarian thanks to the support of 20 other vegetarians at college who helped me learn to cook and introduced me to food from around the world.  Potlucks are schools for people who want to be healthier, and learn how to add variety to their cooking.  When someone says Yep, that salad’s all local! it teaches me that buying local produce MATTERS enough to be seen as an admirable trait in that person’s dish.

Potlucks fed me when I couldn’t afford a truly decent meal, and when I could afford a meal I often preferred the potluck.  You can get 20 kinds of vegetables spread out among various dishes at a potluck, and it’s quite hard to do all that healthy cooking alone.  I’m eternally grateful for friendships that began at a potluck.  I met some of my best friends at potlucks! Before this year, I fully expected to have potlucks at our future homestead, and to go to my neighbors’ potlucks or go into town just for that special monthly potluck.

Adjusting to a New Potluck Experience

Potlucks are quite different if you have a severe food intolerance or allergy.

You can’t just sit there and not eat, because there are whisperings: she must be anorexic, look how thin she is and she isn’t eating anything! Once a well-meaning friend admitted while she was drunk that the whole group assumed I was anorexic because I couldn’t eat the food everyone else was eating.  It’s difficult to get away with eating an energy bar, because in our culture of dieters, people assume I’m watching my weight and can’t indulge.  While munching the rather plain, mashed-up-whole-foods bar, someone gives me the raised eyebrows and smile indicating Are you sure you don’t want some? It’s soooo tasty! while waving a spoonful towards me, as though they can tempt me to cheat on my diet and eat something with fat in it.  Of course, since I’m trying to GAIN weight, I would love to eat that calorie-packed cake or cheesy pizza but ya know, not being able to walk from the pain and vomiting for a few days after eating it just ain’t worth it.  So once again I say “No, thanks!” and plaster on a smile even though I’d rather just be eaten by the floor.

Conversation always turns to why I can’t eat such-and-such dish.  Suddenly it’s like a frickin’ food allergy CAMPAIGN where I have to educate every human at a gathering where there is food, or run away and hide in a corner somewhere.  I can’t express how wonderful it is that people are so curious and caring about the intricate details of my dietary health – that’s exactly what we need, more people asking more questions so that society as a whole becomes more tolerant and accommodating towards people with food allergies or an intolerance.  But, I’m shy, and would rather talk about ANYTHING else than how eating eggs makes me have diarrhea.  I mean gosh, I just met you! :)

The Last Crumb

Raise your hand if you know how dangerous one peanut can be for someone with a peanut allergy?  Good, you’ve probably heard about the severity of anaphylaxis and how it requires emergency treatment with epinephrine.  Now raise your hand if you know how harmful one crumb of bread can be to someone with Celiac’s Disease?  That one’s tougher.  It’s just one little crumb, is the response I usually get. Can it really be that harmful? followed by the calling-your-bluff look in the eyes.  Nobody would have that attitude about peanuts, but bread is another subject entirely.  Few people really get the crumb problem, and understand that a safe dish becomes unsafe when bread is dipped into it, causing crumbs to be mixed in.

At a potluck, you might get a perfectly delicious and safe hummus, or bean dip, or salad, or soup, and be met with absolute confusion when you don’t eat the dish that someone made especially so you could eat it, too, despite everyone dipping bread and chips or adding croutons to the salad.  This creates what I call the tornado of unpleasant emotions.  The “tornado” involves hunger (because you literally are hungry since there’s nothing safe to eat), desire (because that cheesecake looks amazing and people keep trying to get you to try some), guilt (because people really did try), fear (because everyone is thinking something different about why you’re not eating, and you’re not sure if they will still like you after they’re done thinking), and low self-esteem (because you are now the girl with health problems rather than the artist, sweet person, professional, etc that you also happen to be).

Tips for Attending Potlucks

  1. Attend “themed” potlucks that will have dishes which exclude your particular danger food (like a raw food potluck for someone who is vegan, etc)
  2. Volunteer to help set up, and as safe dishes arrive, put a spoonful on your plate so you can try it before any other foods get mistakenly mixed in.
  3. Bring a safe dish you made yourself, and keep some of it aside in your own bowl to eat while others are eating.
  4. Learn the menu ahead of time and request that certain ingredients are left out (if it won’t ruin the meal for others).
  5. Be quick! Or have Ryan be quick for you, LOL thanks Ryan! Grab a spoonful before anyone can get to it and dip their bread or chips.
  6. Bring a laminated card explaining your dietary restrictions so you don’t have to repeat yourself a dozen times.
  7. Request that potluck attendees not include certain ingredients (but beware of cross-contamination: you’ll have to quiz each person to ensure they didn’t slip it in accidentally)

It’s not the same experience (or even a comparably pleasant one) to eat at a potluck with food allergies or an intolerance.  Why should I ask for a recipe I can’t make myself?  How can I have new experiences and be welcoming towards other cultures if I can’t taste what they cooked?  How do I resist the bombardment of new emotions associated with food that was once just…food?  I miss the days when my plate would be full of 20 unidentifiable foods I couldn’t wait to try, and compliment the chef of each dish, asking them how they made it and what significance it has in their lives.

To console myself, I considered buying a food allergy bracelet with adorable characters of food that makes me violently ill, but, that’s really no consolation. It’s just odd.  Maybe I’ll buy one (or two) anyway :)

AllerMates! Buy one to let people know you or your child has a food allergy.

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