Pleasanton resident Christina Gray decided she needed to learn all she could about food allergies, and she spent the next few years working on creating tasty new recipes without allergens.
The result was just released: A cookbook titled "Be Free Cooking: The Allergen-Aware Cook."
Gray grew up in an Italian-Irish-American family that loved to eat.
"Mom and dad were both excellent cooks, and growing up, at the dinner table we appreciated food," said Gray, who is the owner and principal photographer of Bella Luna Studio.
She also fancies being in the kitchen and was planning a cookbook using her well-loved recipes alongside a low-calorie, low-fat alternative.
But the project took a different turn when she became alerted to the immediate dangers of food allergies. In October 2008, a friend brought her 2-year-old son to Gray's house for her to babysit.
"She put his EpiPen on the kitchen counter and said he was allergic to gluten, eggs and nuts," Gray recalls in the book's preface. "She showed me how to use the EpiPen, made sure I knew how to do it myself, and then said she would be back in two hours."
"At this point, I felt like I needed to use the EpiPen on myself because I was in shock at the thought of hurting this little boy from something I might feed him," Gray adds.
That very day, Gray decided she needed to learn all she could about food allergies, and she spent the next few years working on creating tasty new recipes without allergens.
Her new cookbook begins with "Tips for Starting Out." The two most important things, Gray notes, are to carefully read labels to see what is contained in packaged foods, and to have a clean food preparation area for allergen-free ingredients as well as dedicated serving dishes and utensils. She also offers a line of cookware products online.
"Read every label for every ingredient you buy," Gray cautions. "Never skip this step! You would be surprised at the allergens in our food that you were not aware of."
"One brand of tomato sauce may be allergen-free, yet a different brand could contain dairy, casein, corn and/or soy," she adds.
Even white wine might contain gluten, she said, because wine barrels may have been sealed with a water and flour mixture.
Because broth so often contains a multitude of ingredients, she does not include it in any of the book's recipes. The fewer ingredients listed on a label, the better the product, she said.
"Get a ham that just says, 'Ham,'" she suggested.
One of her favorite snacks is Fritos corn chips because they have just three ingredients: corn, corn oil and salt.
The soft-covered volume has her family's traditional recipes on the left page, labeled "Be." They have been tweaked by her own years of experience cooking for her husband, Lonnie, and their two children, Ethan, 11, and Lauren, 8.
On the page opposite is a similar recipe called "Free," which Gray developed for an allergen-free diet -- meaning no gluten, wheat, dairy, casein, egg, nut, corn or soy.
The book has 80 side-by-side recipes, divided into categories of soup, salad, grains, pasta and chicken, and each is illustrated with a photograph by Gray. Her family often waited impatiently for dinner as she arranged the freshly cooked food in attractive serving dishes and set about capturing them on camera, she said with a laugh.
The recipe pages also have interesting and often fun tips.
For "Decadent Potato Soup," the tip reads: "It also makes a great appetizer at parties. Serve in small shot glasses and you have a show stopper of a starter!"
On the facing page, the "Free" recipe for baked potato soup encourages the cook to "add some flavor complexity to this soup" by adding chopped ham, diced bell peppers, jalapenos, "or anything else you like. Make this soup your own by adding ingredients you love."
In July 2013, when 13-year-old Natalie Giorgi died at Camp Sacramento after eating a Rice Krispies Treat that contained peanut butter, it reinforced Gray's determination that anyone who cooks for others needs to be educated about allergens.
"My heart broke," she said. "And it inspired me to not give up, how important it is to share this information."
Gray became so engrossed in developing allergen-free recipes in her kitchen that when her cousin Ugo visited from Italy and came to their house for dinner, her husband remarked, "Chrissy would really like it if you had allergies."
"He admitted he did have allergies, and I cooked him gluten free pasta," Gray recalled, adding that she didn't do it very well because she put the entire package in a pan that was too small. "But he ate the whole thing because he was so hungry."
When invited to a potluck, Gray recommends asking two questions:
1. What can I bring?
2. Who is coming; anyone with a food allergy?
Although her immediate family is free of food allergies, she is on a mission to provide for those who aren't.
"My kids could have allergies and be growing up in a world that doesn't care," Gray said. "I want the world to care, I want people to have awareness, and I want them to discover all the wonderful foods they can still eat."
She said 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies, but her target market is the 299 million who do not but who might cook for someone next week who does.
Now Gray hopes that her cookbook can help people cook better for themselves and their friends, whether they have allergies or not.
"I'm waiting for the day when someone tells me their story," she said. "Food is love. In all of the world, food is a blessing."