A Christmas Without Corn
When diagnosed with a corn allergy, you change your life. The first trip to the grocery store with a corn allergy is overwhelming. You learn how to grocery shop, though. You learn how to adjust, adapt both meals and your taste buds. Then, the holidays come.
Some people look forward to them with anticipation. Others recall past holidays spent in pain or discomfort. Holidays are the most dangerous time with food allergies, especially corn allergies. There is food everywhere, there are a myriad of special events, and the danger of a reaction seems to be hanging over your head. If you have children, whether they're the ones with an allergy or you are, the threat seems twice as ominous. After all, who's going to make magic happen if you're in bed?
It's enough to make some families want to call the whole thing off. But you can't run forever. Eventually, you have to embrace the day. It's a never ending process, you never forget to be wary of food once it begins biting back. There will be backsliding. From what I understand, it's okay and normal to backtrack and isolate yourself once in awhile. It's only a problem if you never take a deep breath and get back out there.
Before you can protect yourself from a corn related reaction, you need to know where the dangers lie. Identify risks of exposure, and learn to live around them.
You can protect yourself from corn allergy reactions at Christmas. You can avoid hives, and stomach distress, and brain fog. It's not always easy, but it can be done. But only if you are prepared.
Candy Cane Catastrophe
Candy Canes and Christmas are practically synonymous. As pure candy confection, candy canes are safe for virtually all of the top 8 allergens. They're also handed out at virtually at school parties, girl scout meetings, tree lighting ceremonies, Christmas light displays, by librarians, and by random store personnel. They show up on wrapping paper, Christmas trees, and in stockings.
Whether you enjoy mint flavored sugar or not, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a candy cane. There are even versions that accommodate the dye free community with beet colored stripes spiraling down that sugary confection. But where does that sugar come from?
Most candy canes that are commercially available get their syrupy sweet goodness from none other than corn syrup. The few that are cane sugar (to accommodate the corn-syrup free communities) often contain citric acid or corn derivatives in the flavoring agents.
If you have corn allergies, and are unlucky enough to need to avoid all corn derivatives, there aren't many options out there. Giambri's candy canes have been safe for corn avoiders in past years, and it appears that in 2011 they are, again, corn derivative free. That doesn't mean they will work for all corn consumers. The really vigilant may choose to make their own.
Or, you can enjoy Christmas without eating candy canes. After all, they are just pure sugar. And there are plenty of cookies, and cakes, and other delicacies to enjoy. Candy canes are perfectly safe to handle if they are still wrapped well, so you can still hand them out to the un-allergic and you can still decorate with them. And if one is offered and you can't politely decline, you can take it with a smile, and tuck it in your pocket...and pass it on at the next opportunity. No one will know that it's a regift. (Nor will they care if they guess)
Do you decorate gingerbread houses for the holidays?
Gingerbread House Horrors
Gingerbread houses are a Christmas tradition in many households. They also are a staple in many school's curriculum. (They're easily worked into a fairytale unit; any holiday unit, and make a great hands on craft) They're a fun scout or afterschool activity. And, they're edible.
Many people, when they address the allergy issue with gingerbread houses, assume that since half the fun in Gingerbread house decorating is the decorating itself. The assumption is that at least those with allergies can enjoy the decorating process and pass their creation on to someone who doesn't have any allergies. Or simply enjoy the visual appeal.
Unfortunately, there are several holes in this theory. Have you ever worked with frosting? The reason kids love working with frosting is that it's messy. It gets everywhere. Especially on your fingers. And what do you do when it gest on your fingers? That's right. Those fingers go into your mouth, nearly of their own accord. This is a huge problem, even if you think you can control yourself. The instinct is powerful.
Now, even if you can keep this instinct under control, there's another problem. You can avoid putting things in your mouth, but can you avoid your hair getting frosting in it? And then, can you avoid those loose strands slipping in your mouth? I thought not. So, hair net it is.
But will a hair net keep crumbs and cornstarch enshrouded powdered sugar from becoming airborne? The real danger, the biggest danger, from decorating gingerbread houses is the airborne particles. What you inhale, you ingest. Dust settles on your lips, or is inhaled through your mouth. And there are plenty of airborne particles during the ginger bread house making process.
So how can you enjoy this beloved Christmas tradition without having a corn related reaction? No, it's not impossible. You have a couple of options.
Option One: Use foam. There are cute little kits with precut foam pieces and a variety of self stick sparkling and normal colored foam decorations. There are multicolred glues to decorate with. And, they don't attract ants.
Option Two: Bake your own. Sad, but true, when corn allergic individuals want to eat something, hafl the time it takes twice the work. Fortunately, it tastes twice as good. If you're not up for experimenting with actual gingerbread, make actual gingerbread cake. Then create squares and stack them. Douse them with frosting or chocolate glaze. Voila, a corn allergic individual's edible gingerbread house frame. Now, if you want to actually eat it later, you will need to limit your decorating to corn free candies. A few options include corn free chocolate chips, the aforementioned Giambri's candy canes, St. Claire's organic candies and various dried fruits.
If you only want to decorate the houses, and won't be consuming the houses or the decorations, your options are a little more varied. The gingerbread still needs to be homemade. The frosting, as well, will need to be homemade. Look for a powdered sugar that is made with either wheat starch or tapioca starch rather than corn starch.
For decorations, avoid mini marshmallows since they are usually dusted with cornstarch liberally enough for it to become airborne. Be cautious with gumdrops. Keep your fingers out of your mouth. And leave those lovely peppermint rounds wrapped. The cellophane takes extra work to keep from looking 'muddy', but it also provides an extra layer of protection...and a little bit of magical sparkle to the end product.
The Christmas Cookie Conundrum
Christmas cookies deserve their own strong standing title in the world of baked goods. There are cookies, and then there are Christmas Cookies. They come powdered, chocolate dipped, and sprinkle coated. They're twisted, dyed, or sliced and baked. There are recipes handed down from generations and new traditions to be discovered. Christmas party buffets usually showcase a variety of these tiny wonders. And if you decline and mention a corn allergy, your host will frown. After all, how could there be corn in a cookie?
Unfortunately, unless your host has taken great pains to avoid corn derivatives in their baking, the end result is unsafe for the sensitive. There are just too many pitfalls. But you can state that they look delicious, and ask for a recipe to adapt for your own needs.
A few basic cookie baking tips for the corn avoider:
- Powdered sugar: Most includes cornstarch. You can make your own with a strong blender and a few tablespoons of tapioca starch, or you can look for brands that use something other than corn as a starch (the starch helps keep it from caking during storage, makes it more powdery and increases volume for measuring) Tapioca, potato or wheat starch are frequent substitutes.
- Flour: use unenriched, plain (not bleached) flour. It won't have extra vitamins added, but you're not eating cookies for their nourishing qualities. Well, maybe your soul. It can do without the vitamins for now.
- Baking powder: Baking powder often includes some corn starch. Look for baking powder with potato starch (or tapioca, if you can find it) or make your own using 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp cream of tartar and 1/4 tsp tapioca starch per 1 tsp of powder. Or make sure your recipe has an acid (like applesauce) and just use half as much baking soda. Basically, baking powder includes an acid that will interact with baking soda to make bubbles when it all gets wet.
- Spices: Preblended spices (like apple pie spice, or pumpkin spice) often contain a flowing agent to keep them from clumping up and keep the spices well mixed in storage. Buy seperate containers of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, etc. Just check the label to make sure that the single spices only contain the single spice and don't let the corn-eaters cross contaminate the container with unsafe crumbs.
- Vanilla: Use the real thing, or find another flavoring agent. Luckily, at Christmas time, you can rely heavily on holiday spices. If you want that crisp, clear, vanilla flavor...you'll have to rely on the bean. Vanilla extract is usually made in a corn based alcohol (this is only a problem for some corn avoiders, but it's important to note that it CAN be a problem) and occasionally even contains corn syrup. You can make your own vanilla by soaking a bean or two in rice or potato brewed vodka for several weeks; if you must have extract.
- Other flavorings: there are a handful of other safe flavorings out there. You can contact the company to find out if the glycerine or alcohol base they are in contain any corn derivatives. Lorann Oils once had a handful of options, and many of them (like orange or peppermint oil) may still be safe for corn avoiders. Since companies change policies, it's important to double check before purchasing or using.
- Sprinkles: Unfortunately, at this time, I don't know of any corn free sprinkles for decorating those cookies. You can, however, tint a bit of homemade frosting with beet or berry juice, or grate some safe chocolate up. You can also crush some St. Claire's candies or those aforementioned candy canes for a bit of sugar crystal color.
- Chocolate: Chocolate is the quintessential baking ingredient for serious cooks. There are a handful of safe cocoas and chocolates, you should know your tolerance and your favorite safe brands. Stick to them, and you'll be fine.
- Baking accessories: Most people don't think about the potential corn-contamination in their baking supplies. But that wooden rolling pin, or those old, slightly rusty cookie cutters could harbor a few grains of corn-catastrophe. Be vigilant in looking for places that dangerous crumbs could hide (even a few can hurt) and replace your wooden baking supplies...those wooden spoons have tiny crevices that harbor allergens. Also, beware of plastic wrap and baking cups. Some can be coated with a nonstick corn oil coating, or a bit of cornstarch. It makes it easier for the user...unless that user gets some corn derivatives on their food and fingers and then has a reaction.
Seasonal Scent Insanity
The holiday spirit is different things to different people, and marketers have tried to capitalize on every sense, from the visual to the auditory to the olfactory. That's right, the scent of Christmas. There are candles and air fresheners galore. This isn't a problem for some people, but for others, the corn derivatives in these products may become airborne and are just enough of a problem for the corn avoiders to cause a mild reaction.
Watch out especially for spray fresheners like febreze and for plug in scents that waft out delightful odors periodically throughout the day.
If you need to scent your own home with the smell of holiday goodness, purchase a few pine boughs, or put a pot of orange skins and cinnamon simmering on the stove. You can roast spices in a low oven, as well. The result is a lovely air freshening scent that doesn't contain any corn or chemical components.
As for candles...stick to unscented. Those with any allergies whatsoever will than you.
Wrapping It Up
Believe it or not, even wrapping paper can be a danger for those with severely sensitive corn allergies. Some papers may have some corn starch derived coating, or a waxy coating that causes a lovely sheen. For those with contact sensitivity, even accepting these packages is a painful process, let alone unwrapping them. Forget wrapping things to begin with!
If you are that sensitive, there are other options! Consider using cloth, either presewn into gift giving bags, or use a grocery bag tied with a bow. If your recipient sews, a yard or so of lovely seasonal print will probably be put to good use next year.
Another option is to use gift bags. Tissue paper tends to be corn free, and you can use and re-use gift bags as long as they stay in good shape (and don't contain unwrapped food items!)
As for accepting gifts...well, there isn't much way around that without looking paranoid. Luckily, Christmas falls during winter and it's perfectly acceptable to wear gloves most of the time. Smile graciously and mention how lovely the package will look under the tree.
Oh, and Christmas Cards...they're safe to address, and safe to open. Just don't lick any envelopes. the glue often contains some corn derived ingredients.
An Uncorny Holiday
With all the traditional emphasis on food, it's hard not to get caught up in the difficulties of a corn free holiday. Remember to sit down and enjoy the season for what it is. You can decorate the tree (if you don't string popcorn onto it), you can hang stockings, you can sit by the fire and sip some homemade cider. If you can manage to be around some scents, you can walk the mall and enjoy the decorations. Or go for a drive and look at the lights. Attend a candle light service on Christmas Eve, or visit a living creche.
Whatever you do, remember that there's more to the holiday than corn craziness. Christmas is a time for family, to remember those you love. So wrap up in a blanket of warmth, snuggle up with your loved ones, turn down the lights and just enjoy the moment. And maybe a homemade Christmas cookie or two.