"I think we should do that every Sunday, Mom!"
I glanced in the rear view mirror at my eight-year old son, oddly wistful and calm in the back seat. There was a quiet smile on his face as he looked out the window at the horse farms just thirty minutes from our very-much-suburbia neighborhood.
We were driving home from a cooking class specifically designed for kids with food allergies by Lori Sandler, founder of hero-brand Divvies. Several weeks previously, she had invited - no, strongly encouraged! - my son and myself to join her for the class, which she hosts in her appropriately-beautiful home kitchen.
I politely explained that our food restrictions list put an event like that out of reach - not something I would recommend you try with the ever-determined Lori Sandler! "Cooking something everyone can eat together is the whole point," she emailed back. "Send me the lists for everyone coming," she insisted. It took me 30 minutes to put it all together but I did as she asked - thinking that would be the end of it. Instead, she immediately shot back a three course, fully-workable menu, headed with the line "that is ABSOLUTELY NO PROBLEM". This is my kind of gal, I thought.
When we arrived, we were not disappointed. There were 5 or 6 families there, each with a child somewhere between 3 and 15 years old. Most had multiple, life-threatening food allergies. None were used to thinking of food as a safe play thing - at least not outside of the cocoon of his or her own home.
And this was the point. This wasn't just any kids cooking class, this was a cooking class on a mission - much like Lori and so many of the other parents I met yesterday. Having a cooking class where these kids could be safe was itself a victory. But Lori was determined that the kids - not just their parents - understand that they were safe.
"This is brand new," she started the class, holding up a kitchen sponge still in its wrapper. "And this," she said, pulling the trash bin out from under the counter and lifting it up high for all to see, "is a brand new trash bag. So if something falls in you don't have to worry about sticking your hand in after it." Interesting. Most cooking classes start their safety discussion with a chat about knives and stove tops - not sponges and trash bags.
Lori brought us over to her kitchen table, beautifully arranged with all the ingredients that would go into the meal, all laid out for everyone to see. No mysteries. No hidden question marks - even though each one had been carefully vetted with all the parents before hand. Still, she went through each one and told the children to come tell her - or whisper it to their mom or dad - if they didn't feel safe with something that was on the table.
Then she handed out her recipes and talked us through her menu plan for the day: watermelon and grape kebabs; baked potatoes with peppers, onions and leeks; lemon parsley chicken and Divvies Banana Boats - from her cookbook - for dessert. I knelt down so my son could see and pointed to the proud declaration, just below the header, "free of 40+ allergens!". "Gee honey," I asked, "do you think our lists had something to do with that?" He grinned.
Everyone got to work - little kids rolling potatoes in canola oil (to accommodate my olive oil reaction) and sprinkling them with sea salt; big kids chopping vegetables. I noticed that Kalev, like many of the kids there, seemed quiet, reserved - and secretly thrilled to have a job to do. Seemed like several of the other kids there were, too. Sticking by mom's and dad's, training modules in place: don't go near food without their say-so.
But as each dish came together, the only ones in the room talking about food allergies were the parents. We were happy to share notes, hear about new trials and testing, talk about what we can do to raise awareness, fund research and more.
But all the kids wanted to know was whose turn it was with the chocolate chips, or how many more marshmallows you can physically stuff into one banana. Or when would those potatoes be done?
By the time the potatoes were done, the kids were in full swing. Migrating from work table to serving space like a pack of locusts when they heard the oven door creak. "Now I'm gonna try something I made," I heard one girl say. "Wow - you did a really good job on the onions," said another.
And they ate! Foods disappeared into those kids, just as any anxieties they might have brought with them that day already had. Baked potato skins turned out to be all the rave - nutrients! - and the chicken? Well, let's just say after all that cooking poor Lori had to start over again to feed her family.
My own boy was slow to eat, savoring each morsel - just as he usually is. But he was also listening. He knows lots of kids who have food allergies, but he's never met a child who has his food issues. He didn't yesterday either - but as it turns out we met three other families who had just started on accupressure and other treatments with the same doctor we'd begun with the day before. His eyes were focused on his banana boat but I could tell he was listening carefully as the little girl before me proudly boasted that she'd just graduated to accupuncture and the needle hadn't really hurt at all.
One by one, the families donned their coats - but before any made it out the door, Lori was there with a fresh case of Divvies popcorn. "Kettle Corn or Caramel? They're both safe so you get to choose."
And that right there is perhaps the point behind it all. Giving kids back the opportunity to choose - present not one safe option but several.
We were the last to leave, and not until every last scrap of that banana boat was gone. But before we did, Lori sat Kalev down, determined to get to know the kid behind, beneath - and clear through all those food things. Where does he like to ski? What position does he play in soccer? What is his little brother like - does he make you laugh?
And so by the time we finally left, Divvies Kettle Corn clutched proudly in his hand, my boy was hooked. Charmed. And above all, relaxed. We play with food at home all the time, but for food to be just food outside of our little bubble was something new - or rather, a luxury we hadn't experienced for a long time. And it was a reminder to me how important it is to seek out that luxury now and then.