My Life With Food Allergies


A life-threatening food allergy (or two) is a pretty small blip on the grand scale of human suffering. But it does create a peculiar challenge at every meal.

Each pedestrian bite has the potential to shatter plans and force a hospital visit if I'm not careful. Like the TSA, it's only the failures — the security breach of a hidden sesame seed — that demand attention and protocol review.

Since birth, I've been allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, shellfish and sesame seeds. It still leaves a lot on the table to work with, but I've got a restraining order filed on crawfish boils or lobster bakes and I don't venture east of India with Asian food.

If I eat a certain allergen, antibodies strike back, mistaking sesame or peanut as trouble. A bad reaction exhibits troubled breathing and crawling hives. At this point, if I don't inject epinephrine — not Pulp Fiction style, the shot goes into the thigh — then I enter anaphylactic shock, an all-systems shutdown potentially resulting in death.

Save for a couple of hospital trips, dealing with food allergies, as an adult, it hasn't been too much of a burden. With years of experience reading ingredients, eating at home and being diligent at restaurants, reactions are few and far between. At home in Massachusetts, it's slightly easier to order at restaurants, due to a law requiring a "certified food protection manager," often a chef, to come out and speak about potential allergens or cross-contamination, that invisible foe. Still, in Texas, I've found most restaurants to be receptive and responsive in confronting the dilemma.

As a kid, coping with allergies was a little more difficult, more evident in daily life. In the 1990s, the population of allergic people was smaller, meaning less awareness at the restaurant table and a less important market share on grocery shelves (the CDC reported an 18 percent uptake in food allergy in children between 1997 and 2007).

But the worst of it, sidesplitting in retrospect, was the social element. In the caste system of middle school lunch, the peanut-free table was the lowest rung of all, shared exclusively by me and a weird kid who liked to steal hubcaps from imported cars. When dating came around, my mom — not-coincidentally an allergy nurse by profession — promptly warned me of the dangers of kissing someone who ate an allergen. God bless her diligently informed soul.

This year, the food allergy economy is a success story of capitalism, serving allergic patrons and exploiting trendy ones. With gluten-phobia at an all-time high, gluten-free is a billion-dollar-industry. So people like my little brother, severely allergic to wheat, can enjoy delicious snacks and functional bread. Two decades ago, he was eating snacks like saw dust for afternoon treats.

But the increase in attention can also mean a diluted standard of gluten-free food. In restaurants and the college cafeteria, my brother has had trouble with a lax understanding of the problem — or mean looks when he insists on preventing cross-contamination by cleaning the grill. So, for the non-allergic, the non-Celiac, the tolerant and trendy, thanks for your purchasing power. But be careful with the G-word.

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