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This Grandmother Made the Best Thanksgiving Dinner Ever

Her granddaughter’s dairy allergy seemed daunting. But with a new attitude, and a little creativity, she made a memorable meal.

Grandma Mimi and her daughter/granddaughter. Photo credit: Natalia Weedy

Grandma Mimi—that’s me. Since the birth of my granddaughter, Ella, I’d been doing a lot of cooking for my daughter, Emily, and her husband, Andy. But I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep it up. Their nondairy restriction really limited my menu options, and I’d been serving the same three soups and chilis in rotation. A bowl of hardy chili made for a delicious dinner in chilly mid-November, but not three times a week!

I stood in my kitchen, going over my favorite recipes. Again. Maybe I had missed something that I could use. Baked ziti with mozzarella and Parmesan? Nope. Casseroles? All my standbys included cheese or cream or both. And what about butter? How could I make cookies without butter? “This is impossible,” I muttered.

When friends had talked about relatives who couldn’t eat gluten or meat I felt lucky not to have any picky eaters in my family. And I hardly understood why anyone would choose restrictions voluntarily. Vegetarians were challenged enough as far as I was concerned, and I knew some people went a step further as vegans, avoiding any animal products whatsoever. I found myself in uncharted territory.

When Ella was born, cooking was an obvious way for me to help. It was something I took great pride in. Who didn’t like to feed their family to rave reviews? I knew all of Emily’s favorites, and Andy’s first bite of anything I made always came with a big “Yummmm!” Then there was Ella, with her headful of dark hair. She’d no doubt be as enthusiastic as her father once she was old enough to try my cooking. But when Ella was four weeks old, Emily found blood in her diaper. Luckily, it wasn’t serious. An allergy to dairy, her doctor said. “She’s allergic to your milk?” I asked Emily when she told me about it.

“No, my own milk is fine,” she explained. “But when I have milk or butter, the proteins pass to the baby through my breast milk. So no more dairy for me.”

No more dairy for me either, I thought, putting aside my recipes and staring into my pantry. I’d learned the hard way not to assume anything was safe. I’d already tried out a recipe for a sausage-and-spinach soup I found on the internet. “I don’t suppose you made sure to check that the sausage wasn’t processed with dairy?” Emily asked.

My face fell. “Huh?”

“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I know it’s complicated.”

“Complicated” is one word for it, I thought, closing the pantry door. I’d never felt so useless. I pulled out a pot and made yet another quart of safe, boring chili that I brought over to Emily’s.

Emily and I sat on the couch while she nursed Ella. “I guess you can’t have my potatoes at Thanksgiving,” I said. “They’re full of butter, milk and cream cheese. My carrot cake is iced with cream cheese. There’s butter in the piecrust.…”

I glanced up, looking to Emily for sympathy. “Don’t remind me,” she said, stroking Ella’s hair. “I can almost taste those potatoes, just thinking about them. Not to mention your green bean casserole. I suppose I won’t be asking for seconds and thirds this year.”

She laughed, but I knew how much Emily loved that casserole. I’d watched her enjoy it all her life. Of course she wouldn’t hesitate to give it up to protect her daughter. But did that mean she’d be stuck with a bland Thanksgiving dinner? Not if I could help it. It’s not just your recipes that need adjusting, I told myself. Your attitude needs to change too.

I thought about all those moms I had dismissed in the past, the ones who arranged their lives to accommodate their family’s food allergies with such determination and creativity. I had a lot to learn from them and reached out for advice. What a font of information! I found a non dairy butter to use for the gravy, and a bakery that sold premade mashed potatoes without dairy.

On Thanksgiving Day, we all gathered around the table. I’d never been so proud of a holiday meal. Especially when I presented Emily with the green bean casserole. “You can eat it!” I said. “I checked the recipe carefully. It’s vegan!”

Andy and Emily looked at me in shock. “You made a vegan casserole, Mom?” Emily said. “Vegan? You?”

“You know, it turns out there are quite a lot of tasty vegan recipes,” I admitted. I’d certainly earned a little teasing on the subject. Vegan angels had just saved our Thanksgiving.

No dairy, no problem. Grandma Mimi had it covered.

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