It was a long time coming. Little Gabrielle Baker, who’s not so little anymore, sat in the doctor’s office playing a game on her phone. She sat on that pleather mattress — not pink, not orange, not brown — doctor’s offices have, swinging her long legs, looking quite a bit less nervous than her stepmum.
That stepmum was talking incessantly, telling her how fine everything was going to be, telling her, in fact, just often enough that it was betraying her doubt.
But then in walked the allergist, who is happily my friend Sarah, and stepmum could shut up.
“Are we ready?” Sarah said, with a big smile on her face. “Did you bring it?”
I handed her the bag of sweetened flaked coconut she’d asked me to bring.
“Let’s do this,” Sarah said.
When she was 5, we discovered little Gabrielle Baker has an extremely severe tree nut allergy. It was a pack of Chex mix that gave us our first clue, it was a slice of German chocolate cake that confirmed it. If she ingests any kind of tree nut — almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, you name it — or anything made in a plant with tree nuts, hives, vomiting, an itchy, swollen throat and a trip to the E.R. is the result.
Even though tree nuts are among the eight allergens commonly listed on food ingredient lists, avoiding them like the plague is no fun. Even if you explain to people the severity of the allergy, they can’t really wrap their minds around all the different ingredients that can pose a problem unless they’ve experienced it themselves. I once discovered a pack of dried mushrooms that had been processed in a plant with tree nuts. Same for a bag of Aleppo peppers. And a tube of tomato paste.
Basically, you can never take anything for granted and have to be one of those parents that unabashedly goes into their friends’ pantries to check labels.
Gabrielle, I have to say, handles the allergy like a champ. She’s doesn’t complain and doesn’t seem overly embarrassed even when her dad and I are extremely detailed about the allergy to serving staff in restaurants. As she says, “It would be a lot more embarrassing if I had an allergy attack.” The fact that she connects an attack with “embarrassing” instead of “extremely scary” conveys a lot.
For those of you well-versed in coconut, you’ll know it is not a tree nut, but a fibrous one-seeded drupe. A drupe is a fruit with a stony cover that encloses a seed. Even though it is a fruit, it’s not uncommon for people who have tree nut allergies to have problems with coconut too so, since she was 5, we’ve avoided anything containing it, along with nutmeg, which is a seed.
But a few years ago, I was going through some photos and discovered 3-year-old Gabrielle Baker, her eyes saucers, facing her flaming birthday cake. That cake had been lovingly made by her dad and had been dressed with toasted coconut flakes. Unfortunately for us, the photo didn’t show her eating the cake, but it would stand to reason that she eventually did.
I also had a vague memory of making fettuccine alfredo when I first moved here and grating fresh nutmeg into it, which she hungrily ate.
But years passed and we continued to avoid nutmeg and coconut, too afraid of making her sick even under the watch of an allergist. Last year though, Gabrielle herself expressed interest in getting tested. She’d seen all the possibilities with coconut especially — the curries she was missing, the cakes, the pies — and so I made her an appointment.
It started with pin prick tests, in which Sarah injected trace amounts of tree nuts, coconut and nutmeg into her skin. For the tree nuts, huge mosquito bite-like welts appeared. For the nutmeg, nothing. For the coconut, a little bump surfaced.
We’d solved the mystery of the nutmeg — she was in the clear — but Sarah sent her on to get a blood test for the coconut. That test showed we should move on to a food test challenge, in which Gabrielle actually eats coconut.
So there we were that day, which actually happened several months ago now. Gabrielle sat swinging her legs and Sarah gave her one flake of coconut. I held my breath and Gabrielle nibbled away. Then Sarah started shooting the breeze while I stared anxiously at my kid (in between texting her mom and dad any updates). Gabrielle, picking up on Sarah’s lead, started shooting it back, touching on bubbly conversation topics that had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening.
And then? Nothing happened. Gabrielle was fine. We waited 15 minutes, and she ate three flakes of coconut. Another 15 minutes, and a clump of coconut. By the time we left, Gabrielle was eating it out of the bag. Absolutely, beautifully fine. A whole world of Thai and Indian cuisine had instantly opened up to her. A whole world of worry had been lifted.
I write this now because I was just going through recipes for her upcoming birthday. Fifteen this kid will be already, can you imagine? How much things change, how fast the time flies, I say, sounding old, old, old. But we’ll celebrate this year in style, with, of course, the coconuttiest cake you can possibly imagine.