What do you do, having spent your whole life cooking and baking in a family of culinary professionals, when you’re suddenly diagnosed with severe food allergies as an adult? If you’re Elizabeth Gordon, you start down the new path of creating a career out of developing recipes and teaching about allergy-free foods.
Elizabeth received her master’s in social work from NYU and specialized in treating and researching patients with eating disorders. When she was diagnosed with food allergies in 2004 after the birth of her first daughter, she channeled her passion for helping people into creating delicious desserts for fellow allergy sufferers. In 2007, she launched Betsy and Claude Baking Company, an online allergy-free private order bakery. (Betsy is her nickname and Claude is her imaginary childhood friend.) She later training in cake decorating under Toba Garrett at the Institute for Culinary Education and later interning for Elisa Strauss of Confetti Cakes in New York City. This background led her to write her first allergy-free cookbook, Allergy-Free Desserts. Her second, The Complete Allergy-Free Comfort Foods Cookbook, expands the menu to include everything from breakfast, lunch and dinner to sides, salads and condiments.
She has been featured on the Rachael Ray Show, Oprah.com, Better TV, NBC, NPR and Martha Stewart Living Radio. She has appeared in Body & Soul, Daily Candy and Self. She writes a monthly column for the Huffington Post.
8 Questions with Elizabeth Gordon
How did you discover you had allergies?
After my first daughter was born, I suddenly developed a rash and so had allergy tests and discovered an intolerance to wheat and eggs. I was 27 years old and had never had issues. I guess pregnancy must have changed my body. Dermatologists said that they could give me meds, but I’d have to stop breast feeding. Instead, I went to an allergist and received my diagnosis. And thus began my 8-year journey.
What was your reaction? After all, you have a culinary background.
It was overwhelming when I was first diagnosed. I thought, “I’ll never eat again. I’ll never eat well again.” I find that you don’t have to drastically change your diet. Often, allergy-free living can be just getting back to basics. I suggest sticking to a whole-foods diet to avoid allergens.
What symptoms did you have?
I had a terrible, itchy rash and psoriasis that was the worst. I discovered that I had developed allergies to wheat and eggs. It has since developed to include string beans and eggs.
Are your girls OK?
So far, my two daughters are OK. The youngest had some issues at first, but after she turned 1, she is now OK.
Eating out is obviously a challenge for people with food allergies. Do you have advice for them?
Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to be annoying. Ask about everything. Ask the waitstaff to read labels. For instance, wasabi may have egg whites in it. If you have a severe allergy, call ahead and see if they’ll accommodate you. Restaurants don’t want to take a risk, so they may not be able to. Better to know that before showing up.
If the restaurant is gluten free, ask how they prepare the food. How do we know that there’s no contamination? The #1 thing is to ask questions. Learn different ways to phrase the same question so you get the right answer.
Do you see any advancement or trends in allergy-free nutrition?
I think it’s great that we’re seeing more products and tighter controls. The FDA has better testing and guidelines. We still have a ways to go on education, though. The coasts are getting it, but it hasn’t spread to the rest of the country.
Celebrities are going gluten free, and while it’s great for publicity, it can trivialize it. The trend doesn’t educate regarding allergies if they use it to lose weight. I can’t stress enough that food allergy can be life threatening and that public awareness is heightened.
To follow up on that, what can people do when shopping or when entertaining?
Shop on the outside aisles of the market. This is where the fresh and natural foods are. Your processed foods are in the middle and it’s much easier to buy something that has trace allergy ingredients in it.
If entertaining, throw a potluck party. They’re great because it spreads the work and the allergic person can bring something to share. I found that I was apologizing whenever I had a party and then I realized that I needed to stop. Plus, keep it simple. It’s so easy to be well intentioned and slip. So ask first. For instance, even plain M&Ms have peanut in them so read labels and ask the allergic person.
What new things do you have on the horizon?
I’m branching out into consulting. Because I have the background in social work (I was working on my PhD and stopped to concentrate on the cookbooks and affect change through my service roots), I want people to realize that they can have a totally normal life with an allergy. It doesn’t have to be miserable. With consulting, I can help people stock their cabinets, create grocery lists and plan meals. I can refer them to a nutritionist, if necessary.