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Getting Our Grub On

I love being invited to someone's home to share a meal.  But when I was a new vegetarian, I often found myself dreading this.  I didn't want to be a pain, but what would I eat?  Would there be salad and bread I could fill up on?  Should I eat a snack beforehand?  And when I did arrive and my hosts found out I didn't eat meat, I was often met with two responses: either they felt badly that they didn't know or they were incredibly defensive as if my way of eating was somehow judging theirs.  It could be uncomfortable.  


But, it was also a way of becoming more understanding.  No doubt, I have a personal responsibility to be myself--no matter what the situation.  But, I also have a responsibility to whomever cooks for me to not demand or expect that how I eat will be taken into account;

and if it isn't, I have a responsibility to both of us to not feel offended.


Now, when someone does take my food choices into consideration, I am incredibly grateful.  It's like an extra helping of love sprinkled over the meal!


Here is a list of food choices and needs that you may come across on your cooking journey.



Vegetarianism can be a bit overwhelming for people who aren't vegetarians because, well, vegetarians seem to have so many rules about what they will or won't eat.  And even though "plant-based" has become a marketing trend in food, each vegetarian is different.  Some people are Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians which means that besides plants, seeds, and nuts, they eat dairy products and eggs.  Some are just Lacto (dairy) while others are just Ovo (egg eaters).  There are Vegans who eat no animal products at all, including honey.  And Fruitarians who eat fruit (and for many, only fruit that has fallen from a plant instead of being picked) and sometimes, nuts and seeds.  Raw Foodists are usually vegetarian or vegan (although some do eat raw fish and meat) but they do not eat any food heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit (the point at which digestive enzymes are said to break down).  


I also include Semi-Vegetarians (also called Flexitarians) here.  They eat a diet that is mostly based on plants but they have a piece of meat once in awhile.  However, what that piece of meat actually is (fish, bird or mammal) also depends on the individual.  Pescetarians eat only fish or seafood; Pollotarians eat only birds; and Pesce-Pollo (or Pollo-Pesce)tarians eat both fish and fowl. 


And then, there are those vegetarians who don't eat meat but don't eat vegetables or fruit either. Their diets are mostly based on cheese and carbohydrates like pasta and bread.  I actually know a lot of vegetarians who eat this way.  We lovingly joke that they're Carbitarians


Whew!  We're a diverse group, aren't we?  The easiest way to navigate the labels is to simply ask.  Better yet, ask a vegetarian what her favorite dish is.  Perhaps you can cook it together?  



Mention the words gluten-free to someone and you may hear, "Isn't that a great way to lose weight?" or "Gluten-free?  Are you kidding me?  What a crock of..."  


And to an extent, these responses would be correct.  Many people do lose some weight once they've given up foods containing gluten.  And when you start seeing bottled water or an apple marked as "gluten-free", then it's hard not to admit that the gluten-free label is also a food trend exploited by marketers.


However, for many people (about 1 in 140), eliminating gluten from their diets is the difference between a healthy life and a seriously ill one.


I spent several months researching gluten sensitivity for an article that didn't end up getting published (ah, the joys of freelance!).  Full disclosure: the research is almost a decade old at this point but what it taught me about gluten is still quite valuable.  


Gluten is a gluey protein composite that gives baked goods and pasta their characteristic soft texture.  It's found in barley, rye, wheat and other grains related to wheat, such as farro, triticale, spelt, and Kamut®.  It can also be found in oats grown in rotation with wheat crops or processed in the same facility as wheat products (although not necessarily in the oats themselves).


It is also in cured meats (bacon, sausage, deli) and meat analogues, most beers and some liquor, artificial flavoring like vanilla extract (not the pure stuff), and soy and Worcestershire sauces.  Gluten is also in products that contain the thickening agent dextrin (if it is derived from wheat; dextrin from corn or tapioca is fine), and barley malt, malt extract, and malt syrup.


For people who are intolerant, gluten can wreak havoc on their immune systems (called Celiac Disease or CD).  Symptoms can range anywhere from those involving the GI tract (pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea) to headache, muscle pain, iron deficiency, infertility, fatigue, skin rashes, or even brain damage.  Gluten sensitivity may also play a role in autism.  Left untreated, CD can also lead to developing severe allergies to other foods.  For more up to date information on CD, check out Beyond Celiac.


The problem with CD is that its symptoms resemble those of many other illnesses or imbalances.  When people who suffer from problems in the GI tract eliminate gluten from their diet, they may feel relief but they may not necessarily have CD--they could simply have an allergy to wheat (or other grain) or they could just eat a lot of carbs and be bloated (we've all had those days!).  It's important to get tested and to not self-diagnose.  


Cooking for someone with CD or gluten sensitivity can definitely be a challenge.  Some people with CD can tolerate a small amount of gluten.  Others, however, are so sensitive that even minute amounts of gluten (like flour dust or crumbs) can create an extreme reaction in their immune systems.  It's important to be mindful to avoid cross-contamination with foods that contain gluten; for example, do not cut a gluten-free loaf of bread using the same knife or on the same cutting board you just used to cut a wheat-based bread.


Gluten-free foods can also be more expensive.  Baked goods tend to use a combination of different flours (such as coconut, potato starch, tapioca, brown rice, sorghum) and xanthum gum or psyllium seed husks to achieve a soft texture.  But as time goes on and gluten-free foods become more varied and readily available, they're also going down in price...thanks food trend!


Spend some time in the gluten-free section of your local supermarket.  Even my rural-ish market has devoted room for gluten-free foods in the pasta and baking aisles (away from the regular wheat flour) and in the freezer section.  I've tried a brown rice tortilla that fell apart into dry flakes as soon as I rolled it up but also a delicious gluten-free pasta that was perfectly al dente and a bottle of gluten-free soy sauce that tasted exactly like the regular stuff and only cost one dollar more.  Grab a gluten-free item or two, taste them, and play around.  


Finally, if you cook for someone who doesn't eat gluten, don't be afraid to ask for specifics.  If they have CD, cooking requires a bit more vigilance than what you may be used to.  But being able to prepare a meal that is both enjoyable and safe?  Totally worth the effort! 

Food allergies and sensitivities:


Whether it's beef, milk, peanuts, eggs or anything else, if we can eat it, then some of us are bound to be allergic to it.  Sometimes, these food allergies go hand-in-hand with gluten sensitivity and other times, they don't.  


Like me.  I am sensitive to three kinds of food.  Since I was little, I've been allergic to artificial red food dye.  Even then, it depends on how concentrated the dye is.  Red sugar, the glaze used in canned pie fillings and ice cream toppings, and candy coating make me sick.  But when it comes to that powdered drink many of us grew up on, I can drink it without a reaction (I just choose not to).  So, if you use artificial coloring in your famous red velvet cake, don't be offended if I pass...a dinner guest who turns into a giant welt is not that appetizing.  I'm also allergic to penicillin so if you offer me a poached pear with a beautiful slice of Gorgonzola, I will decline. Even though blue cheese comes from different strains of penicillin than the antibiotic, I've had a reaction to some fresh blue cheeses; although I've been able to eat and enjoy blue cheese when it's been cooked.  Finally, my body is very sensitive to soy...unless it's fermented!  The body is a strange and miraculous machine, isn't it?  


If you cook for me, I don't expect you to know any of this.  And unless you cook for a person who has a severe food allergy that everyone knows about, don't feel badly if you make something he can't eat.


But, if you cook for a pregnant woman, you may want to ask upfront if she has any sensitivities to food.  I once made a lasagna for a new mother.  She graciously thanked me but then shot her husband an angry look a few minutes later when he told us how the smell of a lasagna lingering in their fridge while she was pregnant made her sick every time she opened the door.  I laughed at the discomfort of it all and told her to throw it into the freezer or to donate it to a food bank.  She ended up getting over the sensitivity and did indeed eat the lasagna but now, I know to ask.



Kashrut is the Jewish dietary law that determines if a particular food is kosher (suitable) or treif (not suitable).  The parameters of the law are extensive and well-debated, including the health of the animal and the manner in which it is slaughtered.  The most important things to remember when cooking kosher are:


***Pigs, rabbits and camels are not kosher.


***Fish with scales and fins are kosher but mollusks and crustaceans are not


***The law classifies food as being meat, dairy or parve (neither) and as such, meat and dairy cannot be consumed in the same meal.  If you eat meat, then you must wait 6 hours before you have dairy.  If you eat dairy first, however, then the wait is only 1/2 hour before eating a piece of meat.  Also, dairy and meat are stored separately.  They each have their own separate cookware and set of dishes.  Some Jewish people do not eat meat and fish in the same meal while others do.  As far as cheese goes, look for cheeses labeled kosher.  They'll either use rennet (enzymes) from kosher animals or vegetarian or microbial enzymes.  


***Blood is not kosher.  And while eggs are considered parve, if they contain any blood in them, they should be discarded.  When you're making a recipe, crack the egg into a small bowl and inspect it before adding it to the rest of the ingredients instead of adding it directly so you don't have to throw out the entire dish.  Repeat the process if you're using more than one egg. For my own non-kosher purposes, I just take the blood spot out of the egg (use the shell to scoop it out) because it's, well, gross, but then I use the egg rather than discard it.


***Gelatin is a gray area.  Because gelatin comes from the connective tissue of an animal, it's difficult to know what kind of animal it came from, so generally, it's considered to be not kosher.  However, there are kosher marshmallows made from fish gelatin.  If you're making s'mores, use fish gelatin marshmallows, vegan marshmallows (made from soy and tapioca) or spread on some Marshmallow Fluff® (made from egg whites).  There are also many vegetarian gelatin-like substitutes: agar (algae), alginate (kelp), carrageenan (red seaweed), chia seed, guar gum (endosperm of the guar bean), locust bean gum (carob), pectins (from fruits), psyllium seed husks (can be a choking hazard if not mixed with enough water), tapioca, or xanthum gum (fermentation of sugars).


In my personal experience, when it comes to keeping kosher, the extent of it depends on the individual.  One of my sisters-in-law told me, "I hate pork...except bacon!" (T. Rex agrees although he prefers turkey bacon).  She and several of my other in-laws also eat seafood. Whenever I cook kosher--and because I cook it for people who are not that strict--I stick to the idea of the law.  Like when I had a Halloween party and put together deli trays.  One tray contained the deli meats made from pork, a second contained only cheese, and a third had turkey, roast beef, and pastrami.  The trays all had their own utensils and were arranged away from each other.  In that particular instance, it was acceptable.    



Like its Jewish counterpart, Islamic dietary law is concerned with the health and slaughter of the animal and also distinguishes between those foods which are halal (lawful) or haram (unlawful).  For more information, check out Some important rules to keep in mind:


***Pork is not halal and for some Muslims, neither is rabbit.


***Blood, lard, animal shortening, and most gelatins are not halalHalal marshmallows often contain gelatin from halal beef.  Fish gelatin is also halal.

***Alcohol is not halal and as such, should not be used in cooking or offered as a drink or gift.  Wine vinegar is a gray area: if the vinegar is fermented from wine, it's usually fine; if wine is added to it afterwards, then it's not.  To find out how the wine vinegar is made, contact the company that produces it.  You can substitute apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, and rice vinegar or use other tangy ingredients like citrus juices, yogurt, and pomegranate molasses.  Also, most condiments that contain vinegar are acceptable but avoid Dijon mustard; it has white wine in it!


***Vegetarian food overall is considered halal.

***Cheese and dairy are halal provided they are made with non-animal rennet or bacterial cultures.

***Flavoring extracts made with alcohol are not halal.  Vanilla in powdered form and scraped directly from a vanilla bean is fine.

***L-cysteine (found in breads) and lipase (an enzyme that breaks down fats) from animal and/or human sources (you read that correctly), as well as pepsin (a digestive enzyme) are not halal.

***Stock, unless it is labelled, usually isn't halal.

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