The first indication something was wrong with me was when I ate a sprouted lentil salad at a local raw food cafe and I spent nearly an hour in a gas station restroom afterward. I had been sick after eating lentils once or twice before but I’d never made the connection before the gas station incident: I was definitely allergic to lentils. No big deal, though, right? Lentils are easy enough to identify and live without.
Then I noticed whenever I ate Indian food, I would have a panic attack. Or so I thought. Indian food has never been my first choice, so Indian food was usually reserved for dinner with friends who really wanted it. Each time, I thought I must have been especially anxious about seeing these particular friends again, but the last time I ate Indian food, the friend I had dinner with emailed me a photo the waiter had taken of the two of us (in the middle of what I thought was me having an anxiety attack). My face was flushed bright pink, like I’d been sunburned, and my neck and chest were splotchy. So, definitely not a panic attack. Okay, I thought, I’m allergic to curry as well?
I saw an allergist after that. She was, coincidentally, Indian, which was helpful and a little embarrassing at the same time. She listed the typical ingredients in curry, but I knew I’d cooked with almost all those ingredients before — why would I be allergic to them now? Her answer boiled down to well, kid, shit happens, and advised me a.) to keep track of what foods bothered me and b.) call 911 if I needed to. Jesus.
Not long after that, I was at IKEA with my kid, sharing a plate of Swedish meatballs, when the usual allergy symptoms kicked in — nausea, numbness, dizziness, heart pounding — along with a new one: panic. The allergist’s 911 recommendation had stuck with me and now there I was, alone with a 5-year-old, at least an hour from home. I took two of the Benadryl I’d started carrying with me and rode it out. At least now I knew what it was I was allergic to, the only ingredient common in curry and Swedish meatballs: cardamom.
Things started to snowball after that. I ate a big bowl of bean thread noodles and found out the hard way that mung beans and lentils are closely related. After years of feeling sick after eating too many raw carrots, I found out there’s an allergenic protein in carrots that breaks down with cooking. In a brief moment of finding the silver lining, I was almost relieved to find I was allergic to brown rice so I finally could eat white rice without feeling whole-grain guilt about it. But the worst, the absolute worst, was yet to come.
I had made pasta with anchovies and garlic for dinner one night, after not having made it for a while. After two bites, the inside of my mouth went all numb, like I’d just gone to the dentist, which is usually my first sign of an allergic reaction. But it’s anchovies! I thought. I’ve eaten this before! Recently! COME ON! But no. Anchovies, once my fishy friend, were now my body’s enemy. So long, cuisines like Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese that use fish sauce. Goodbye, Caesar dressing, Worcestershire sauce, and salades niçoise.
If I stop to catalog even half the foods I can’t eat any more, it makes me so angry and sad, but I think what kills me the most is that my allergies are all SO DUMB. I mean, who’s allergic to brown frigging rice? Does that even sound like something people are allergic to? Not to mention the yeah, right factor in having an obscure food allergy. You tell someone “I’m allergic to peanuts” and people take you very seriously. You say, “I’m allergic to cardamom” and people look at you like pull the other one, sister; it’s got bells on.
I know compared to other food allergy sufferers, I have it pretty easy. I’m not allergic to any of the really big ones: milk, wheat, eggs, shellfish, soy, peanuts, et cetera. But as someone who loves to eat and write about food? It sucks. Really, truly, fucking suuuucks. Eating out, particularly with any cuisine that’s even slightly Asian-ish, now comes with a side order of mild terror. With every bite, my brain is chattering, is my mouth going numb? yes? maybe it’s just spicy? no? should I keep eating? should I stop? shit, was that a bean sprout or a noodle I just ate? FUCK!
I’ve been hanging on to this draft for at least two weeks now, trying to come up with some kind of pithy insight or witty rejoinder — a nice, tidy kicker to close this post. Well, I haven’t got one. I guess like me and my allergies, this post is just how it is and we’re all going to learn to live with it.