Both Jennifer and Curtis have intolerances to gluten, grains, and dairy, and word began to spread about their knowledge for accommodating intolerances and allergies when cooking, as did the demand for them to hold classes to share their expertise. This expertise came about from Jennifer's experience as a cancer survivor.
In 2001, Jennifer was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma when she was only 26. After going through chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer was gone, but Jennifer developed typical long-term side effects, including pulmonary disease, severe fatigue, hypothyroidism, dermographism (an autoimmune disorder), constant pain and sensitivity in her bones, and a chronic small elevation in her white blood cell count. Although Jennifer's doctors told her nothing could be done about her issues, aside from taking medicine to treat them, she discovered otherwise.
Jennifer started looking to food and diet as factors that could help change her health. She began cutting out preservatives and artificial colors, reading ingredients lists, and trying to eat healthier, overall. Around 2010, she eventually cut out processed foods, and the next year, she did significant research that convinced her to increase her fat intake and eat meat from local farmers. Later, she also eliminated grains and then dairy from her diet. During 2011, she noticed the most dramatic improvements in her health. Her cholesterol went down, she lost weight, her thyroid returned to normal, her bone pain disappeared, her blood work was normal, her autoimmune disease improved greatly, and her lung capacity improved. In essence, the dietary changes healed the damage from the chemo and radiation.
As Jennifer continued to self-educate, people began to recognize her as a reliable, well-researched source for sharing her insight about healthy eating. She's been a guest lecturer on healthy eating for a women's university series and has held cooking demonstrations at Natural Grocers on 78th & Dodge. More and more, people are connecting with what Jennifer has to say, and the Saturday morning classes at Omaha Knife have doubled in attendance.
Classes officially began in October 2013, for a minimal cost per class, and have been met with much enthusiasm. As Jennifer aptly explained, food is a universal topic, and correspondingly, class attendance is diverse, with people ranging in age and hailing from both the corporate/business world and the natural world. The Wilfords schedule the classes in one-hour increments, so that students can focus on a limited topic or skill in a manageable amount of time.
Overall, the Wilfords' classes encompass the "old ways" of cooking, such as cooking with cast iron, making bone broth, and procuring fats from local farmers. Fermented foods were the topic during the Easy Old Fashioned Pickles and Sauerkraut Class, and the Wilfords demonstrated how to make your own pickles and sauerkraut at home – homemade probiotics – and discussed the benefits of making your own versus buying them from the store. Another class topic was Care and Cooking Tips for Cast Iron, which included details about restoring vintage cast iron. Also on the schedule is a class on food-label reading and avoiding GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Classes are posted on www.meetup.com/realfoodomaha, and Jennifer is the organizer of the Real Food Omaha group. Meetup is the world's largest network of local groups.
Due to their food intolerances, the Wilfords eat Paleo, a diet based on food groups that were available to hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic era, including meat, seafood, veggies, eggs, and good fats, but no grains, legumes, or sugar. Jennifer's awareness of special diets and know-how in the kitchen is especially helpful when cooking or baking for gatherings or special occasions, as accommodating guests with food allergies is a must.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the top eight most common foods that trigger food allergies include:
- tree nuts
Although it'd be quite difficult to account for all of them when cooking, Jennifer keeps some staple ingredients on hand for allergen-free cooking, such as:
- coconut flour
- coconut oil
- coconut milk
- coconut aminos (instead of soy sauce)
- good-quality olive oil
- almond flour (given you don't have an almond allergy)
- homemade vanilla extract
- aluminum-free baking powder
- canned tomatoes
- clarified butter
Rethinking the way you cook and bake can take some doing, so Jennifer pointed out that you can start simple without worrying about substitutions and instead focusing on foods that are already allergen-free. In time, however, if you become interested in substitutions, Jennifer recommends using coconut oil for butter and using alternative flours, such as almond or coconut flour. She also touched on looking up allergen-free blogs, which most likely will have an abundance of recipes. Jennifer confirmed that cast iron and stainless steel cookware are both safe for allergen-free cooking.
If the thought of unfamiliar ingredients and extra steps or caution involved in making allergen-free meals from scratch is a little overwhelming, there are definitely other options. Jennifer noted that local Paleo baking mixes are available in some cross-fit gyms throughout the Omaha area and Tomato Tomato at 2634 S. 156th Circle. She also brought up Kristens brand gluten-free baking mixes, which are available locally at stores including:
- Akin's Natural Foods Markets
- Four Winds Natural Healing Center
- Great Harvest Bread Company
- Jane's Health Market
- Natural Grocers
- Patrick's Market
- Wohlner's Neighborhood Grocery & Deli
If heading out to eat is more your style, Jennifer's got that covered, too. She proposed talking to restaurant managers about your food allergies so that they can recommend safe dishes. She also explained that many local restaurants have gluten-free menus available – you just have to ask for them. As for where to get a gluten-free pizza, Jennifer mentioned Godfather's Pizza and Dante Pizzeria. How about a gluten-free cupcake or sandwich? Try Jones Bros. Jennifer listed a slew of other local restaurants that have allergen-free items or menus and knowledgeable staff, including:
Going to the movies doesn't have to hinder your munching either, as movie-watching often involves some serious snacking. If a movie theater doesn't provide a selection of allergen-free treats, Jennifer suggested emailing the theater manager with recommendations for carrying specific items – and she has proof that it works! Jennifer emailed the manager at Aksarben Cinema and posed the idea of carrying sparkling water in their legendary soda machine that has every imaginable flavor of Coca-Cola drinks. Sure enough, they now feature sparkling water in their soda machine. Of course, there's always the option of not eating at the movies, and it's well-known that the bring-your-own snack method may go against movie-theater concessions protocol. Yet, if you plan on bringing your own snack-attack supply, Jennifer's goodies-on-the-go ideas include beef jerky or candy with allergen-free, simple ingredients, which you can find at Whole Foods and Natural Grocers.
Hosting or attending get-togethers also presents some etiquette questions. Guests with food allergies often face the dilemma of whether or not it's appropriate to talk to the host of the function and ask him or her if it's all right to bring a dish to the party. People don't want to be perceived as rude for asking, or they don't want the host to feel obligated to provide an allergen-free dish. Plus, some food-allergy sufferers feel safer bringing their own food, as they know exactly what's in it, which is crucial to their health.
Jennifer has had positive experiences talking to hosts and encourages those with food allergies to call ahead and talk to the host about their allergies and ask about the menu. She remarked that hosts want to please their guests and are happy to provide allergen-free options or are thankful when a guest offers to bring a dish. Jennifer also made the important point that the focus of these gatherings is the visit itself, the fun you'll have, and the company you'll enjoy, not the food.
Whether a vintage cast iron pan is on your wish list, or you simply want to learn more about nutrition and healthy cooking from well-versed experts who generously share their findings, Omaha Knife is your go-to place.