Potato Head

Most days, I find myself setting out a certain number of different sweet potatoes on the kitchen island. I do this to remind myself about what I’m thinking for dinner, which, more often than not, involves sweet potatoes. I’m becoming more mindful of this routine since writing these Breakfast Letters each day from this same counter as I finish coffee. I sit here and type, and they sit next to me, acting as a weird lifestyle symbol representing over a decade of food choices. If we had a family coat of arms, it would include these potatoes–which would end up being the least weird object on there.

Food became a stressful, sometimes terrifying topic around here twelve years ago. Ben’s food allergies quickly became an issue once he emerged. Without a pediatric allergist in South Dakota, it was trial and error. We eventually got this sorted after the move to Seattle, and the list in front of me seemed genuinely impossible. I didn’t understand how to raise a healthy kid with all these restrictions. I interestingly developed my own food allergies after he was born, which I was also getting sorted. Once both sets of restrictions were taken into consideration, it truly felt like nothing was left.

One of the more significant factors in figuring this all out was living in Seattle. I personally had no experience with food restrictions and alternatives to staple foods before now, but this was a place with vegan bakeries and while gluten-free was not quite normal yet, it was getting there. In contrast, I don’t think I even knew what gluten” was before this because I didn’t have to–blissfully ignorant and all that.

I learned about all these allergens, where they are most likely to be found, and what suitable, safe replacements exist. I learned that some of these allergens were everywhere and that restaurants don’t know what’s in their food. I developed well-founded trust issues around eating out and even labels in the grocery stores. I was always on constant high alert, with an EPI Pen in hand. I had to become a baker and a cook, working with the most challenging ingredients.

Through many lost nights of sleep over research, I stumbled upon the autoimmune paleo (AIP) diet–more of a lifestyle, really. AIP takes the restrictions of paleo even further by removing common and not-so-common allergens, with the ultimate goal of reducing inflammation. It was the only diet that accounted for our collective restrictions, and it was and is as close to perfect as things can be. And it involves a lot of sweet potatoes. I’m not sure where we’d be without The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook, The Nutrient Dense Kitchen, The Healing Kitchen, and Nourish. And now, Paleo On The Go for easy meals in a pinch and traveling.

It’s all gotten more accessible, but it’s still challenging. We mostly have to cook all our own meals, even on busy weekdays. We don’t travel much as a result, we still largely avoid restaurants, and it continues to have quite a significant impact on our social lives. Ben has to take his own food everywhere, even during class birthday celebrations. I am also quick to sign up to bring food to events since I know it will be the only thing we can eat. I learned pretty early on not to talk about this much with other people since they don’t understand and are quick to think it’s odd and excessive. They have no insight into what we’ve been through to get here; they have no insight into what happens if we let our guard down.

Eventually, I also developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder over it all. I stopped socializing for years in the beginning to avoid situations where we had no food options and to avoid questions about it. People lash out at things they don’t understand, and yet no one was genuinely invested in trying to understand; even family liked to joke about how they wanted us to come stay with them but worry they’d kill us accidentally” with dinner. It was just easier to stay home where I had control over our food and didn’t have to defend our right to be safe and healthy.

Things reached a near-impossible breaking point when I had to travel frequently for a job. I’d load up on snacks and request a room with at least a refrigerator. But eating out at restaurants as a group was challenging. I never wanted to be labeled as strange and high maintenance, so I’d go with whatever option they suggested. There, I’d always get a dry, basic salad. I didn’t enjoy it, but it was functional. However, this didn’t protect me from inquisitions either since it was deemed some extreme weight loss-related hang-up. No matter how I tried to hide these food restrictions and choices, it seemed impossible to navigate these social situations in a way where I wasn’t othered” or judged. People are so hostile about food, with some even somehow finding it as a personal attack against their food options–what a wild mental minefield.

I’ve become less apologetic and secretive about food restrictions with time. Part of this is because it’s utterly exhausting, and another part is because I don’t want Ben to adopt these same guarded feelings. There’s nothing odd or embarrassing about what he eats; there’s nothing to hide or say sorry over. Ultimately, it’s fantastic and exciting that we figured any of this out–a feat that seemed larger than life at the beginning. Additionally, I do not want to instill the concept of catering to rude and close-minded people in him.

Finally, I want to wrap this letter up by sharing something very special that I’ve learned not many people know: there are white sweet potatoes. They are usually called Japanese sweet potatoes, and they are absolutely perfect. They are starchier than regular orange ones but still have a higher fiber content than a russet potato. They make better fries and are better in roasts, and I currently have three hanging out next to me, begging to be baked with chicken and pesto on top later.

See you tomorrow over breakfast.

February 22, 2024

A tiny project byJoni Trythall inspired by friends at Wiggle Work.