A good friend of mine has a young son with severe peanut allergies, so whenever they come over, I make sure to not only clean out my kitchen beforehand, but have plenty of nut-free snacks on hand to offer up. And the latter part really isn’t hard. Thankfully, there’s a whole list of snacks that I know are safe, and between my go-to cookies, pretzels, and fruit, I’m pretty much set.
But cooking for my friend and her family (which I do when I invite them for Shabbat dinner and the like) is a different story. Cooking for my friend’s son makes me very, very nervous, even though I’m careful as heck.
Here’s how the process usually works. I start by creating a menu and compiling a list of ingredients. I then run those ingredients by my friend to see which could be problematic. Often, it’s simply a matter of choosing one brand over another, and at this point I have a running list of approved products, which means I don’t have to bug my friend as much while I’m shopping. But along the way, I’ve learned some pretty surprising things—like the fact that cumin is almost always cross-contaminated, and that many cocoa brands are equally unsafe.
The next step of the process involves cleaning—no, sanitizing—my kitchen from corner to corner. I’ll remove everything from my counter, scrub it, disinfect it, and do it again. I’ll scrub the stovetop, self-clean and scrub out the oven, and run every pot, pan, and utensil I’m about to use through the dishwasher on the highest heat even if said items have already been cleaned. I’ll throw out my old sponges and bust out new ones. And I’ll enforce the following rule: No peanuts allowed in the kitchen until after the upcoming meal.
I take these steps because the stakes are as high as they can get. And because my friend is trusting me to keep her son safe, and it’s not a responsibility I take lightly.
But still, it scares me. Even though I follow the instructions I’m given and never, ever take chances with an unknown ingredient, cooking for my friend’s son scares me—partly because I’m just a paranoid person in general, but partly because we’re not a peanut-free household by any means, and I have a lot of trouble shaking off the “what ifs?”
What if I somehow missed a spot while cleaning my counter? What if trace amounts of peanut got lodged into one of my pots, and the dishwasher somehow failed to get it clean? What if peanut dust got stuck to the wall and somehow happened to float into my casserole dish as I was preparing an otherwise safe baked ziti? (Is “peanut dust” even a thing? I’m not sure it is, but this is what goes on in my head.)
Of course, my “what ifs?” are nothing compared to what my friend’s must be. After all, this is her son, and I can’t imagine what she goes through day in, day out, every time she attempts to eat someplace other than her own kitchen. But my friend is also vigilant—vigilant enough to call manufacturers whose products are even remotely questionable. My friend is patient—patient enough to review my ingredient lists time and time again even though we’ve been through the same routine before. My friend is smart—smart enough not to take chances. And my friend is brave—brave enough to trust people like me to keep her son safe.
And so even though cooking for my friend and her family scares me, I remind myself that if she’s willing to trust me, I need to be willing to trust myself.