by | Feb 20, 2023

Life-altering allergy expands artist’s palette

It started as a panic attack — at least that’s what Katie Cahoj thought. It was June 2020, and the then-27-year-old artist and educator thought her difficulty breathing and erratic heart rate were her body’s reaction to the stress of uncertain times.

Her doctor thought differently.

“She told me about alpha-gal, and it was the most bizarre thing I’d ever heard,” Katie recalls. “A week later I had sausage for breakfast, and that night I was in the ER with anaphylaxis. I thought I was having a stroke.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alpha-gal Syndrome can produce potentially lethal allergic reactions to alpha-gal, a sugar molecule found in most mammals and mammal byproducts. The spread of the illness has been linked to tick bites, including the lone star tick which is located throughout Missouri. Once the allergy has been transmitted, people with the syndrome typically can no longer eat red meat or dairy products. It was quite a change for the southern Missouri girl who grew up on a cattle farm and had a freezer full of beef she couldn’t eat.

“Up until that point I was crazy on protein and vegetables and super active — it was very important,” the Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative member says. “Then I felt like I didn’t even know how to take care of myself anymore.”

Checking a list of mammalian additives and their chemical names with her doctor, Katie found what she might be allergic to went beyond simply red meat and dairy. Even animal byproducts such as glycerin, which is commonly found in soap, can cause severe reactions. One of the most difficult to avoid is magnesium stearate, a commonly used food additive that’s also, ironically, used in the capsules for allergy medication such as Benadryl. Even sugars and alcohols filtered through bone meal or gelatin can put the human body on high alert. The list was overwhelming.

“The first time I went grocery shopping after it, I’m halfway through reading labels and just started crying. I had to leave,” Katie recalls. Scared to eat for fear she’d wind up back in the hospital, she lost 30 pounds over the next six months. “I thought I was never going to be able to eat again, but I got over myself.”

Determined to enjoy food again, she started modifying vegan recipes with fish and poultry. At the same time, she slowly began reintroducing things from her familiar routine such as her old toothpaste and shampoo. Katie found she was lucky in that unlike others with Alpha-gal Syndrome she doesn’t have reactions to skin care products and can cook red meat for others without being affected.

One year into her new lifestyle Katie thought it might be time to put what she’d learned together for others to use. Already the author of two children’s books, she was no stranger to self-publishing and couldn’t find a cookbook available for people with her same diagnosis. Katie credits her husband, Wayne, with helping choose the recipes that made the cut.

“The first six months that poor man ate so much steamed broccoli and boiled chicken because I was terrified to eat anything else,” Katie says. “He can still eat everything else, so he’s still attuned to how that stuff tastes. Anytime we ate I would ask him, ‘Is this a keeper?’ ”

Released in December 2021, “An Alpha Gal Cooks” covers breakfast, beverages, appetizers, entrees and desserts. Katie made the recipes versatile, noting where proteins could be substituted to accommodate people with red meat, vegan or gluten-free diets.

“I’m not doing anything earth-shattering,” Katie says. “It might be the educator in me, but I just don’t want other people to have to start from zero. I want them to have a resource.”

A self-proclaimed “big breakfast person,” Katie was ecstatic when she found a way she could still have one of her favorite dishes. Using her homemade oat milk gravy, nondairy butter and duck, Katie was able to replicate an Ozarks breakfast table favorite: biscuits and gravy. She’s found that smoked turkey legs or wings in a pot of brown beans substitute for ham and beans, and even her cattleman father was won over by her emu chili.

After more than two years of living with alpha-gal and testing more than 100 recipes, Katie’s only found one food that’s — so far — impossible to replace.

“There’s just no good fake cheese,” Katie says with a laugh. “One day, science will get there. Ice cream has made leaps and bounds.”

“An Alpha Gal Cooks” by Kathleen Cahoj can be ordered in hardcover, paperback or e-book format from

Emu Fajitas

Servings: 2
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 Minutes


1 emu fan fillet (or 4-5 portobello mushrooms or 2 chicken breasts)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 bell peppers, sliced
1 sweet onion
Tortillas or rice

For seasoning:
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper, to taste


Thinly slice your emu, mushrooms or chicken.

Mix with olive oil and seasoning. Let marinade in a resealable bag in the fridge for at least 8 hours. To cook, heat a pan over high heat. Add a splash of oil to the pan and cook meat or mushrooms until just done to your liking.

Remove the meat or mushrooms from the pan and add in your sliced peppers and onions. They will cook quickly, so keep an eye on them and keep the veggies moving in the pan (no one likes charcoal veggies). Cook until onions and peppers are just soft. Add the meat or mushrooms back in to the pan to reheat.

Serve fajitas with tortillas or over rice for a fajita bowl.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This