States of intolerance beaten

Illustration: Michael Mucci.
Illustration: Michael Mucci. 

Travelling overseas with children suffering food allergies ain't easy but can be done with some forward planning, write Matt and Eli Martel.

SYDNEY International Airport security confiscates our jam. There is only a small amount left at the bottom of the jar but it seems the jam jar itself is too large.

We are off on a month's trip around California and disaster has struck before we leave the ground.

Why would we attempt to carry jam on the plane? In our huge red food bag, we also have cheese, cashew nuts, canned fish and rice crackers, bananas, apples and a peeler for removing fruit skin, and lunchboxes packed with rice-pasta macaroni cheese, homemade sausages, cakes and biscuits.

When we fly, we don't just take a small bag and a laptop. We're the ones trying to sneak through with the kitchen sink.

Our children can't eat airline food. They have food intolerances. They won't die from eating the wrong food. They will just throw monster tantrums or get sore stomachs and cry all night, or scabs and scaly skin will spread across their chests and stomachs, or horrible itchy, eczema-like rashes will grow on the insides of their elbows or knees.

The youngest, Elsa, can't eat gluten or egg white, unless it's mixed with something else and cooked, or anything with natural salicylic acid in it - which includes most acidic fruit and vegetables such as watermelon, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs and spices.

She can't eat anything with sulphur in it - including garlic, onion and asparagus - and she can't eat most preservatives, colours or flavours. Lottie, who is six, can't have additives or acidic fruit and vegetables.

For an 18-hour flight between Sydney and Los Angeles, including a stopover, this means we have to pack the red food bag with two breakfasts, a lunch and two dinners. And snacks.

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Because you can't take any gels or liquids on board, handy basics such as yoghurt are out. Jam is also out. Which means the girls won't eat their dry rice crackers. Which means a meal is gone. Woe.

But really, this time the parents are the ones throwing the monster inner tantrum over nothing. The kids are fine without jam.

Up in the air, we rest in our nest of apple peelings and discarded waxed paper wrappings and cake crumbs, wedged between seat rows, perfectly happily. We eat when we want and what we want. Not for us the lottery that is airline food.

A bounce in turbulence sends the lunchbox flying but fortunately Lottie has scoffed most of the contents.

As soon as we arrive at our apartment with its kitchen in LA, we head off to find shops to stock up on food. We make brownies within the hour and savour slow-roasted pork belly for dinner.

Our next stop, a motel about an hour south of Los Angeles in Orange County, is a little more problematic. There is only a fridge. Later, we will find this is a luxury.

For now, we grump at the inconvenience and head to the shops to buy plates and cups so we can make lunch and breakfast from cold food.

Dinner we cook at a great-aunt's house (the reason we are in California). She generously wants to take us out for lunch and dinner. We manage to convince her that we're better off taking over at her place. In the US, it's fairly normal to eat prepared food that's merely reheated in the microwave. This kitchen's oven has been used once since 1984.

We give it a thorough working over, serving up roast chicken, sweet potatoes, crunchy roast potatoes and coleslaw.

Las Vegas, up in the purple, gold and orange deserts of Nevada, is even more trouble.

There is not even a fridge in the casino's palatial, marble-bathroomed accommodation. There's no kindly aunt from whom to borrow a kitchen.

The aim here is to encourage guests to eat in the $US12.95 ($12.35) all-you-can-eat buffets that surround the gaming floors.

So we trundle the girls through the flashing lights and melodious dings of the machines, past the ladies wearing thong-style bodysuits over fishnet tights, to the acres of tables. We choose from Mexican, seafood, salad, Italian, Greek, barbecue and Asian sections. It's one thing to ask waiters about ingredients off a menu. It's another to get a tour of at least 100 different dishes, from someone who knows every ingredient. The staff try hard. They get it wrong.

Poor Elsa spends the night crying and scratching the backs of her knees raw. There must have been gluten in the food.

Lottie, however, is delighted. There is nothing she can have for dessert except a big bowl of whipped cream. Score!

After this, we resort to roast chicken from a wholefood store. Weeks after returning to Australia, we still have trouble facing roast chicken again. But at least all the ingredients are listed in food from supermarkets.

In Death Valley, where we rise at dawn to watch the sun pour over the mountains and shimmer on the sand dunes, we find a sympathetic Italian mama presiding over the local restaurant. She provides us with takeaway boxes of pulled pork, which Elsa eats for a couple of days afterwards out of the coolbag we bought in Vegas.

Easter back down on the coast near the beautiful Hearst Castle, built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst in the first half of last century, provides its own set of challenges.

We find the right Easter eggs - no flavours, preservatives, colours or gluten - but unfortunately this is where we discover, to our cost, the strange fascination Americans have with yellow cheese. Apparently, several hundred years ago, quality cheddar was yellow because the cows had access to good grass. Inferior, pale cheese, from cows who ate less nutritious food, had yellow colour added. Now, all cheddar has to be this weird, fake, orangey-yellow colour.

The colour is provided by annato, the skin of a small seed, which has been proven to make some sensitive toddlers so crazy they bang their heads against the wall.

Poor Lottie, who ate the cheese in her Easter breakfast omelet, now can't handle anything out of her routine. Since little is routine on a foreign holiday, the tantrums are constant for two days. Getting into the car is too much. Getting out is even worse. Looking at her in the wrong way produces screeches. Looking at her at all is not allowed in the end. We grit our teeth and head north. Time heals.

San Francisco. What a place for Lottie. Bread-baking is a tourist attraction here. Down at the famous wharves, near where the sea lions hang out in their thousands, is a huge warehouse with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows through which you can watch bakers sculpt alligators and rabbits and bears out of sourdough made with wild yeast. Lottie munches through two turtles.

However, Elsa, who can't eat wheat because of her gluten intolerance, is a pariah here. We find some (Australian) cheese for her from a nearby delicatessen.

Up at Yosemite National Park, our food adventure takes an unexpected turn. We are camping in the snow. The persistence of foraging bears means we can't cook, or store food in our tent or car. Fortunately, the tent comes with a bear safe. We can't help looking over shoulders while we're eating our breakfast yoghurt with gluten-free cornflakes.

An uncle, who has joined us from his farm in Wisconsin, keeps offering to take us out for lunch. We refuse. He must think we're mad, obsessively dragging around our big red food bag full of the goodies we've learnt to buy at healthfood chains such as Trader Joe's and Whole Food Markets. We don't overly care about the health aspect, it's just that these places recognise that not everyone can eat the same food and stock products accordingly.

Our iPad now just about looks all by itself for these places when we reach a new town. The satnav permanently scans for Starbucks, where they don't automatically put chocolate sprinkles (gluten and preservatives) into the hot milk steamers (babyccinos).

The iPad comes in handy again for research before our visit to Disneyland, back in LA before we fly out. We've struck gold, it would seem. There are scores of reviews from people like us, who've taken their allergic children to spin in the teacups and zoom over the Pirates of the Caribbean waterfalls.

We can buy turkey legs as big as your head, with no bad ingredients. There are gluten-free fries. The waiters know what's in the food. The only problem is, it's hideously expensive. And Elsa's now-battered, scabby and scaly little body has made us too wary of assurances the food is safe.

We resort to the trusty red food bag again. It comes with us to meet Tinkerbell and waits for us while we're on the Matterhorn bobsleds and the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.

And it's still with us for the long flight home.