Exclusionary Health Food

I have some food intolerances – specifically gluten, dairy, and for some reason apricots. My mother attributes my complete inability to consume apricots without feeling sick to the fact that when I was three, I polished off nearly a whole case of them over Christmas and made myself violently ill. Whatever the reason, I can’t have them now.

And boy is a problem with apricots a pain. I have to be very careful about what moisturizers and body-washes I use, because a surprising number of them have a little stow-away called apricot oil. Whenever I question a salesperson, to the tune of ‘Is there apricot in this? I’m allergic to apricots’, they assure me that external use won’t affect me. Yes, well, years of rashes and red blotches say otherwise, pal. Fortunately for me, the cheapest stuff is usually apricot free, so that’s handy.

And then there’s snack foods. Go ahead, try finding a muesli bar (I think they’re called granola bars in the US?) that’s free of gluten, chocolate and apricots. I don’t know if it’s an Australian thing or not, but the ‘healthy’ version, the one without the chocolate chips or yoghurt dips, is almost always full of apricot pieces. It’s a good thing I like nut bars and plain corn-flakes, because even the gluten-free muesli is frequently full of little orange land-mines.

Gluten and Dairy seem to have some kind of mutual exclusivity deal going on, too – one or the other of them stake out most products. I was trying to buy a korma sauce yesterday – I make most of my sauces from scratch, but have not yet mastered the curry family – and couldn’t find a single one that wasn’t loaded with either dairy, wheat, or both. Add in the fact that my husband is allergic to onion, and there’s a reason that I have to make all my sauces from scratch. Onion is scary ubiquitous (and delicious, and I miss it).

I am told by vegetarian friends that stow-away meat essences and fish sauces are legion, by a friend who’s allergic to eggs that they hide everywhere, and none of us can buy canned soup. We all spend hours carefully reading ingredients lists, and enduring the occasional upset stomach when something innocuous turns out to have something dreadful lurking inside it. And we all have to endure the frustration of foods that only omit one thing. Can’t eat gluten? Let’s load it up with dairy! Or soy! Or eggs! Or apricots! And then there’s the ‘health’ foods that feel that healthy = mushy and tasteless.

My intolerances aren’t that severe. Though I’m usually careful about gluten, a little dairy doesn’t bother me too much, so I can at least eat the cheap chocolate. And it’s getting much easier to get gluten and dairy free foods. But I still walk by displays of ‘health’ foods without sparing a glance, because I know they all have milk solids or wheat or apricots or all three. I still know that the Woolworths store brands are actually more likely to be safe for me to eat than the ‘good’ stuff that prides itself on healthfulness. And it bothers me that in my lifetime, hippie child that I was,  ‘health food’ has gone from meaning ‘healthy food’ to meaning ‘expensive macrobiotic crap that doesn’t give a good goddamn about allergies or intestinal health’.

I miss being able to go into health-food stores for something other than vitamins. I used to like it so much when I was a kid.



Food and States of Emergency

We’ve had one in my city, this last few days. Storms, flooding, etc. And as usual, the supermarkets have been taking a hammering, because people hear ’emergency’ and panic and start buying up.

Now, admittedly, I had to go to the supermarket myself. The intense humidity had sent our bread moldy, and I wanted some fresh fruit for the spawn. But I’d have managed perfectly well if we’d been cut off from the shops, really. Even if the power had gone out, since we have a gas stove for cooking.  I always have stores of rice, canned goods, dried stuff etc in the cupboard, and we could easily go a week or two on what we have in storage.  It wouldn’t be especially delicious, but we’d manage.

This is a direct response to how I grew up, living way out in the bush, where a flooding river or washed-out road could leave us stranded for weeks. I’ve always kept emergency food supplies on hand, and I do it because I’ve always done it. So it always baffles me a bit when I see people panic-buying before a holiday when the shops are closed, or during or after a natural disaster, because I don’t understand why they don’t already have food.

Which in turn informs how I write about food. There’s always been some criticism of how much Tolkien talks about food in ‘The Lord Of The Rings‘, but at least he mentions it. When I’m reading, nothing throws me out of a narrative like a character embarking on a long journey on horseback with no mention of carrying food, or worse, traveling on foot through desert or post-apocalyptic wasteland or whatever and all I want to do is grab them and shout where is your food. Because I’ve back-packed a week’s worth of food – in the form of dried stuff like rice, a few cans, the bare minimum in size – into the bush, and I tell you what, it weighs a hell of a lot. Even if you don’t need to worry about water at all, food is heavy. And in a situation where it will be hard to get more, you think about it a lot. Nobody should be blithely striding off with no food and no concern about food, unless they’re battery-powered. And then they should be worrying about where to get a charge or a new battery.

Everyone needs to a) drink, b) eat and c) excrete. If characters not only don’t do these things, but don’t appear to have any way to do them – they’re carrying no food, they’re in a clean cell with no bucket to use, etc – it really kills the suspension of disbelief for me. You don’t have to show it, but keep in mind that the characters need to poop and make sure your reader can figure out how they’re doing it. Because I’ve been a part of so many conversations on this subject that it’s not even funny. “So… what do people on the bridge of the Enterprise do when they need to pee? They’re long shifts, you’d have to pee. Is there a discreetly hidden toilet somewhere, or do they have to get the turbolift to another level every time?”

Given the choice, I’ll take Tolkien and his loving descriptions of food any day.