top of page

Food Mystery, Mother Sleuth

by Angela Berkley

            Cake has been cruel to my son for most of his short life. Once, at his elementary school's multicultural festival, he was frustrated to tears by the sight of two slices--neither one for him--of tres leches cake. After several trips around a gym lined with tables full of foods too dangerous for him to try, these pillowy slices of insult on the plates of his mother and sister were too much for him. As we shuffled away from the crowds and he asked me if the cake was OK for him, I watched with alarm as the rims of his eyes reddened when I told him it was not. Tears are unusual for him, especially in response to the familiar report that some new food was not safe for him to eat. I felt awful--it wasn't the cake that was cruel, but me, flaunting my omnivorous privilege on a styrofoam dessert plate. For years, knowing he would be allergic to their cakes, he brought dairy, egg, and tree-nut free ding dongs to his friends' birthday parties. Cake is usually served at the end of such events, and I used to imagine the scene: no matter how carefully packed and insulated, my son's treat would be as sweaty and messy as the party guests themselves. There he'd sit, dutifully eating his small brown log as his friends clamored for the colorful icing balloons and oversized letters that he knew better than to ask for.

            He's recently informed me that he's finished with this reliable birthday party treat, rejecting it like he has so many other cakes. They were cruel to him during the years when he was too young to fight back, and now, he exacts his revenge: his standards for desserts are baffling, his critiques are merciless, and, most of the time, he rejects even the most sophisticated of their ilk. He disdains all frosting, routinely scraping it off the single variety of vegan chocolate cake he likes onto his sister's plate. The only other cake he enjoys is homemade "wacky cake," a WWII-era treat whose recipe I don't have to adapt because it was developed during a time when everyone was looking for recipes that didn't use eggs or dairy. I know his preferences aren't actually acts of revenge against cake, but I can't say that I do know what they are and what they mean.

            On the cusp of thirteen, my son is a mystery to me, and not just as an eater. His finely drawn features, his skinny fingers and long limbs seem to hide all that he used to be when he was a baby. I know that he used to stretch his once-stubby arms up towards my own, mutely asking to be picked up; that he used to fall asleep with one red cheek smushed against the metal frame of his umbrella stroller; that he used to drool and babble and stare at my face for periods of time too long to feel normal for any pair of humans other than a baby and his mother. I know, but mostly through photographs and videos, and memories I can barely separate from these material assurances of our past together.

            It's hard to see that baby I loved in my son's middle school faces: narrowing his eyes as he listens to my latest theory on our favorite TV show, staring at a screen and screaming along with his friends as they play video games online, or even sleeping, with the curtains of his long, dark lashes drawn for the night, closed against his mother's curious eyes. The past of his infancy grows ever more difficult to conjure up in my imagination; his future even more so.


            "I want you to have the experience of playing Splatoon 2," my son tells me, nudging his tablet over the half-knitted scarf in my lap. He's been talking about this game nonstop since he got it, explaining the features he finds so satisfying, comparing it favorably to other games, and asking me what my strategy would be if I were playing--nevermind that I've yet to even watch him play. He insists that I play, despite knowing how terrible I am at any video game made after the turn of the 21st century. I give in, but after watching me fall into the same pit of black goo and die for the third time, despite his urgent advice about how not to do just that, my son finally gives up and returns to the privacy of his experience, one that I understand no better for having tried to share it with him.

            A few months earlier, we'd sat together on a bench alongside his school's playground, and he'd showed me the math baffler he had to solve for homework. It was a logic puzzle, the kind I'd liked tackling as a kid, step by plodding step, slowly building up to the solution through painstaking deductions. But my son did not plod, did not build. He grabbed the pencil from my hand and started crossing out possibilities with astonishing speed, his solution itself as elegantly baffling as the math baffler itself.

            Math has long been like a second language to him, one he learned quickly, with little help from his writerly parents. I love listening to him explain math bafflers and chess problems and all of the other mysteries of numbers and games that I don't particularly want to solve: my son's remarkable brain, a cabinet of curiosities laid not quite bare by his eager explanations. But when he was a baby, his mysteries agonized me. I was desperate to learn the language of his wordless distress, expressed loudly, often, and triggered, it seemed, by no rule I could discover. Whenever I hold a baby, I can't stop myself from initiating the rhythmic, gentle bouncing that was, for many months, the only thing that calmed my son's tears and screams. His father and I bounced him, we swung him, we rolled him along in his stroller; we ate in shifts for at least a year, one of us inhaling our food while the other bounced our baby. Our bedtime routine was a cycle, repeated many times, of nursing, bouncing, pacing, and rocking, ending only when both of us were completely exhausted. Pediatricians assured me that all of this was within the range of normal. Eventually, I started to believe them; as he grew, his fussiness diminished. Photographs from this new era show an intensely attentive toddler, staring at a curling grapevine glowing golden in the sun, or marveling at the sticky crumbs of vegan chocolate cake on his fingers at his first birthday party.

            The cake was vegan not because we're vegans, but because his food allergies had been diagnosed two months before he turned one. In the years since, I've often thought that this diagnosis solved that first terrible mystery of my son. It's hard, in retrospect, not to see a connection between his baby suffering and what was surely my allergen-laden breastmilk. I imagine (ridiculously, infuriatingly) that if I could go back in time and avoid his allergens while I was still breastfeeding him, I could restore for both of us the kind of idyllic babyhood I wished he'd had, the kind suggested by the natural parenting magazines shelved near the checkout at the places where I bought our vegan groceries. The mythical babies who lived in the pages of these magazines slept peacefully for long stretches, waking only to babble happily and drink their mothers' unpoisoned milk. Their smooth cheeks bore no trace of the angry patches of eczema that covered my son's skin for most of his first year of life; they hardly noticed what was surely the scratchy wool of their hand-knitted beanies. Their benign, smiling faces taunted me as I waited to pay for my soy milk and frozen vegan waffles. For them, the world was like a perfectly temperate bath; for my son, it was more like a deathtrap. 

            But he was sensitive to much more than just his environmental foes, and his infancy wasn't all suffering--there was plenty of sweetness, too. The looks I got back from his liquid brown eyes when I read to him, or talked to him (incessantly, obsessively) about the scenes of neighborhood life we watched from our front porch showed me depths that those cover-model babies could hardly hope to plumb with their placid stares. Once, while cradling his swaddled body on my lap, I made him laugh, and I felt a little jolt of surprise at seeing his eyes squeeze together at the edges in precisely the way my own do when I laugh. There! There was something I recognized, a tiny bit of the person I saw in the mirror every day, and thought I knew--better, at least, than I knew this tiny, complicated bundle of sensitivities and strife, my son. 


          If I never make it out of the primordial goo of Splatoon 2; if I'm never able to help my son with his math homework or beat him at chess, no one will die. But he could have died, as a baby or a toddler or a young kid, if his father and I hadn't become experts on what he could and couldn't eat. We had to become fluent in the constricted language of food allergies--full, as all languages are, of senseless rules, unevenly applied, contradictions, and inexplicable idioms. Laffy Taffy is egg and dairy free, but only in the snack-sized portions. The candy-bar sized versions have egg. We now know which barely pronounceable ingredients in any given food are synonyms for dairy or egg; we know that "may contain" egg, dairy, or tree nuts is probably just a more cautious way to phrase "produced in a facility that also processes," but we reject "contains" and accept "processes."  We even know how to read words that aren't there, remembering which foods have provoked hivey reactions despite ingredient lists that include none of our son's allergens. Our whole family is fluent in this language, and, by now, he is, too. The last time he mistakenly ate dairy ice cream, it was he who first noticed something was off, told us what was happening, and asked for Benadryl. It was terrifying; he was fine--and I was struck by how relieved I was to know that he knew exactly what it felt like to react and, even more so, that he could tell us it was happening. He eats for himself, speaks for himself --mystery solved, case closed.

            And yet: how he feels about what he can eat remains mysterious. Does food bore him or wound him; delight him or antagonize him? It's difficult to tell. Bringing along chicken sandwiches and pretzels for lunchtime playdates doesn't seem to bother him, and he seems happy--even eager--to eat the same bowl of oatmeal and thoroughly overdone, maple-flavored sausages for breakfast every day. He gamely tries almost every new food we suggest, and he once ordered a vegan crepe filled with ham, spinach--and strawberries. He loves Old Bay seasoning and fried dough. He rarely cleans a plate; he hates all sauces; he only likes meat that is completely lean. He articulates his reasons for not liking a particular food with laser-like specificity, though they never add up to an overall principle that would help us determine what other new foods he might or might not like. His language of taste--like his native English, whose contradictions and exceptions he notices often--cares little for rules.

            Except, of course, for that one rule he can never break, one I still think of in the simple, toddler language we taught him as soon as he was able to say it: "no egg, no dairy, no nuts." I can barely imagine what it would feel like to be bound by such a rule. Food has never been anything but a joyful adventure for me. When I was a kid, there was nothing I wouldn't try, and very few things I wouldn't eat. I'd loved the Halloween party activity of sitting in a circle with friends, passing Tupperware containers filled with oozy, gooey substances that my mother ominously assured us were "witch intestines," or "octopus eyeballs." We plunged our hands into each container, groping and scooping and squeezing whatever we touched in an attempt to discern what ordinary kitchen staples we were actually feeling, and if that didn't work, we'd eat these mystery glops and glumps to figure it out for sure. I'd felt bold and daring, risking what must surely be the foul taste of witch intestines in front of an audience. But it wasn't a genuine risk. Even if what we were eating had been actual witch intestines, I knew they wouldn't kill me if I ate them. Every sort of food is, as we say in our house, "OK for me," and I, unlike my son, never even have to ask whether or not it is. I'll never know what his elaborate array of preferences and aversions have to do with his food allergies, but it's hard to believe that they're completely unrelated, hard to believe that his alimentary eccentricities aren't built around an ugly little nugget of fear that was born long before he had the words to articulate the feeling. His first allergic reaction happened when he was eight months old, at day care, after eating his first and last cube of cheddar cheese. I'll never know what it had felt like to look up and see panic in the eyes of the teacher he trusted, the one I'll never stop being grateful to, for refusing to let him out of her arms until I got there, but I can't not imagine that these early fears are the source of the many and strange distances he keeps from food.

            Eating the foods that I love with the people I love tricks me into thinking that I've attained something impossible, that I am sharing exactly the same experience--right down to the physical sensations, the thoughts, the feelings--as another human being. I used to love eating spicy food at my family's favorite Chinese restaurant. I loved the way it made my eyes water and my forehead sweat, but what I loved most was that my father was sweating and savoring right along with me. I loved eating American cheese sandwiches on plain white bread, slathered with Miracle Whip, while lying on the floor watching Days of Our Lives with my older sister. I loved eating delicately fried calamari with my husband on the shore of a tiny Italian town we visited when we were barely twenty, traveling all over Europe and eating everything along the way. Those moments felt like communion: there we were, tasting together, with no words between us to tell us how different the moments we were living through actually were. 


        My son has grown into an enthusiastic talker, and he rarely cries about anything anymore. He relishes conversation, often urging me to extend our regular walks around the neighborhood so we can keep talking and chatting with his parents for every possible minute of his bedtime routine before it's time for lights out. I relish it, too, and I'm happy to forget those times when he had nothing but tears to express all the complicated mysteries of his heart and mind. His words, of course, can never make me feel exactly what he feels, but our conversations give me a taste of what it's like, one that we can savor together for what I hope will be a very long time. With him, I will never be able to take that illusory shortcut into the experience of someone I love that food has always offered me. But I can hardly call it a loss. He may be a mystery, but he's one I delight in trying to solve. Now, when he explains black holes or theorizes about potential causes of World War 3, or when he tries to convince me that accurate and detailed world-building is what makes for quality fiction; when he tackles any of these and many other subjects and theories that I patently disagree with or do not understand, I am reminded, as I question him, argue with him, remind him not to interrupt me, and stop myself from interrupting him, of what his immune system has been telling me since he was born: he may be the flesh of your flesh, but you do not know him--not yet.

            I don't know either of my children yet, not even my baby-faced daughter, who loves dessert and music and making art as much as I do; however much I see her baby face in who she is now, I'll never see the faces she sees in a pattern of wet tree pollen on the sidewalk--not unless I ask her, and listen as she tells me. Someday, both children will look at me and be stunned by the depth and breadth of all I don't know about their loves and their dilemmas, their hopes and their disappointments. No magical madeleine exists that might help us leap across this divide of unknowing, as Proust's special cookie helped propel him across the divide between his present and his past. And despite what's come to be (mis)understood as the pure, involuntary magic of that experience, Proust was hardly content with only this private communion. He had to make it known, or at least try, with thousands upon thousands of words, waiting to be read. I have started and put aside Proust's magisterial work many times. I suspect, for reasons at once too unformed and complicated to detail here, that it carries a special message, just for me. But I know beyond mere suspicion that my children are already full of messages. They may not be just for me, but they're dearer, maybe, to me than they are to anyone else--to the sleuth who loves them for the profound mysteries they are.



About the Author

Angie Berkley lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with her family, where she teaches college writing at the University of Michigan.

bottom of page