EDISON — Cooking always has been a favorite past time for Mary Abitanto.
But, when her son was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies, she said she had to learn quickly to adapt to his needs.
“I had to become creative in the kitchen,” said Abitanto, who grew up in Edison.
Abitanto said her son, Jack, was 10 months old when she knew something wasn’t right.
“I was eating an egg white omelet and gave him a little bit before putting him down for a nap,” she said. “I went to check on him and I saw that his eyelids were swollen shut.”
Jack was diagnosed with more than 40 multiple food allergies.
“We worked with a doctor and her goal was to knock a third of those allergies,” Abitanto said.
Fast forward 12 years, Abitanto said some of Jack’s food allergies have diminished and disappeared as he has gotten older.
“Egg hasn’t gone away, but overtime it has gotten a little better,” she said. “Nothing is airborne, thankfully.”
She said Jack also has outgrown a latex allergy.
“Kids with food allergies just want to feel included; not feel that they are a burden or that certain foods are off limits,” she said. “I teach my son, Jack, that our challenges – in this case, food allergies – are not our weakness, but inevitably become our strength as we learn to manage, self-advocate and accept the allergy. He is more compassionate to others’ needs as a result.”
With her son’s scary diagnosis, Abitanto spent time in her kitchen preparing meals for her family, who also include her husband, Peter, and two daughters, Maggie and Sydney.
“It’s hard to eat out [at restaurants], even now,” she said.
With cooking, Abitanto said she had some influence from her Italian grandmother on her dad’s side.
“I would watch her make raviolis and the sauce,” she said, adding aside from her grandmother, she had very little reference. “I lost my mom when I was in my 20s … I pretty much had to learn [cooking] on my own and I have been resourceful all the way.”
Abitanto said nothing in her kitchen goes to waste, whether it is the rest of the cottage cheese, a can of corn or chickpeas, and/or vegetables.
“Soup has been my specialty,” she said.
Abitanto has put her creative recipes into her first cookbook “Mariooch’s Kitchen — Food That Will Gather Your Family,” which is filled with modern Mediterranean inspired takes on the family meal, and incorporates fresh and local ingredients, plus alternatives for families with food allergies and food sensitivities.
The cookbook includes recipes for appetizers, soups and salads, the family dinner, homemade pasta and bread, vegetables and sides, and classic cakes, pies and cookies.
“I try to make things different and everything is healthy,” she said, noting she designed and provided the photographs for the cookbook. “This is not necessarily a food allergy cookbook, but it’s easy to take out an egg and replace it with applesauce if needed.”
Abitanto, who is a 1986 John P. Stevens High School graduate, came back to her roots and held a book signing for her cookbook at the Barnes & Noble store at Menlo Park Mall on March 18.
At the signing, people were able to taste two desserts from the cookbook, the ricotta cheesecake and the ginger-spiced banana cake.
“I was very active in school: I served three years as class president at JP Stevens,” she said. “I live in the Princeton area now, but it’s nice to come back home.”
Abitanto said life is short, and in a world that is very fast-paced and technology-driven she thinks sharing a meal sets a good tone and creates a lasting, warm and hopefully delicious memory that will last a lifetime.
“In my house, we typically set an extra place for a friend who is joining us,” she said. “I have had success feeding my family and my kids’ friends and I want to share what works.”
The cookbook, which is published by Bookbaby, is available on Amazon, iBooks, barnesandnoble.com, and wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor.
Along with the cookbook, Abitanto also shares her creative and inventive cooking ideas, healthy eating and healthy living tips through posts on her blog marioochskitchen.com.