This is part of an occasional series of interviews with parents involved in the local food scene — a peek into the family kitchen, where the kids need to eat dinner no matter what Mom or Dad does for a day job.
“Seriously? He’s allergic to nuts? I put nuts in everything!”
That was Molly Herrmann’s reaction when she found out her son, A.J., now five and a half, couldn’t eat peanuts or tree nuts: a little bit of disbelief, mixed with dollop of “How are we going to do this?”
A.J. also had allergies to eggs (now outgrown) and shellfish. “We found out about shellfish the hard way. He was eating shrimp and said it tasted ‘spicy.’ We had to do the epipen, 911, everything,” Herrmann says.
About four out of every 100 kids in the United States have food allergies, so Herrmann and her husband are not alone in coping with dietary restrictions, but she was caught a little off guard.
“Neither my husband nor I have allergies, and I work in the food business,” Herrmann explains. A.J. has been exposed to all kinds of foods — from shrimp and nuts to sriracha — at his own dinner table and in his mother’s professional kitchen.
In 2007, after a career in nutrition, Herrmann started her catering business, Tastebud Tart. She whips up fancy sliders, tiny empanadas, and platters of quinoa salad for corporate and private events and packs gourmet wraps into boxed lunches for very lucky meeting attendees.
In January, Herrmann teamed up with marketing consultant Tracy Morgan to open Kitchen in the Market in the Midtown Global Market. The Kitchen provides commercial kitchen space to food entrepreneurs, currently 22 of them, including caterers, food truck operators, bakers, and a wholesale pickler.
And often A.J. is right there with his mom, exploring the kitchen, exploring the Midtown Global Market — “He feels like it’s one big space just for him,” Herrmann says — and “helping out.” “He’s very involved. Or he wants to be. He knows how to run the food processor, even though he’s obviously not allowed to use it in the commercial kitchen.”
A.J.’s allergies have spurred Herrmann to even greater creativity in her cooking and have even given her an advantage in her business.
“Pesto always has nuts in it and it’s one of our favorite things to make in the summer,” she says. “So I tried it with sunflower or pumpkin seeds, and it still has that nutty flavor…. As a chef I’m able to deal with things.”
And, as a chef, she is called upon more and more to use that creativity in her work. The CDC reports that food allergies among children increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. That means more requests for nut-free, shellfish-free, gluten-free, or otherwise allergy-appropriate meals. Herrmann says that being able to tell clients she has personal experience with allergies and knows how to keep her son safe has been a boon.
At the same time, she says, she wonders why she and so many more families are dealing with allergies now: “What is it about what we’re putting in our bodies? What is it that has changed in our society?”
A.J. isn’t letting a little thing like allergies slow him down, however. He’s still an adventurous eater who loves olives and sriracha and if he’s not one hundred percent sure what’s in a new food, he knows to ask.
Herrmann encourages his adventurous palate by keeping him involved, whether he’s picking out vegetables at the farmer’s market or setting the table with the fancy napkins just for fun. Dinner with two working parents means whatever can get on the table fast: lots of tacos, for example, with fish, black bean, and roasted vegetables. Frittata is another go-to meal, although his early allergy made A.J. wary of eggs. And hands-on food is popular, too: “We’re doing a lot of spring rolls lately,” Herrmann says. “It’s a great way to get kids involved and to clean out the refrigerator. You just put everything out cold and everyone rolls their own.” Weekend lunches regularly come from a food truck at the farmer’s market. They often serve kid-sized bites of mildly adventurous choices, like falafel.
A.J. may even turn out to be a tastemaker like his mother. “He’s got this recipe he made up and wants to try: corn, barbecue sauce, and cucumber,” Herrmann says. “I said sure, and we’ve got all the ingredients. He eventually forgot about it, but when he remembers and wants to make it, I’m ready for him. If we’re asking kids to be adventurous, we should be, too.”