Going Gluten-FreeMarch 14, 2012

Nuts! Romance and a Nut Allergy

Emily and I had been dating a while when I noticed she rarely let me greet her with a kiss on the lips. Each time I leaned in to lay one on her, she’d turn her head. Worried it was my breath, I began brushing my teeth vigorously before meeting her. I chewed gum and popped mints to the point I wanted to kiss myself. Still, my lip-locking attempts were, for the most part, unsuccessful.

It wasn’t long before her aversion to kissing was revealed. She has a nut allergy. It’s severe enough that residual proteins from nuts or products containing them can cause her to puff up like a balloon and possibly die.

Because our budding relationship had the hallmarks of something special, I told her I’d cut nuts from my diet. The offer was sweet, she said, but unnecessary. Yet if my living without nuts would quiet her worry, I felt it was a worthy endeavor. Besides, I didn’t want my killer mouth sending her into anaphylactic shock. It seemed like an easy solution.

I quickly broke my daily candy bar habit, gave away my nut butter, refrained from buying cookies and curbed my affair with Chinese takeout. At restaurants, I’d ask my server to ensure nothing I ate contained nuts. As great as these sacrifices were, they were only the beginning. Emily’s allergy would command far greater influence over my life in the weeks to come.

One night, we decided to order pizza. I was excited for her to try my favorite pizzeria but she refused. She’d visited the place once before and was frightened away after seeing pesto, which contains pine nuts, spattered on the prep counter. She just didn’t want to chance it. Who’d have thought that something as benign as a pizza could bring with it a lethal consequence?

Since then, this situation has reinvented itself numerous times. Dining out always means potential risk. Eating at a restaurant depends on how safe she feels. If nuts are common on the menu, we have to leave. Uncouth staff or unclean interiors raise the specter of cross-contamination by careless cooks. One evening, we tried three restaurants before cutting our losses and cooking dinner ourselves.

Emily’s allergy sometimes makes me sad. She’ll never know how a peanut butter cup tickles the palate. She’ll never savor the salty deliciousness of a Smokehouse almond. It’s unlikely she’ll ever attend a local ball game, because the wind may whip up a storm of peanut-shell dust that would force me to do something I hope never to do—stab her leg with an EpiPen.

Dating a nut-allergic girl has made me more sympathetic, if not compassionate, toward those with food allergies. I thought it was lame in the mid-1990s when airlines stopped serving peanuts. As a former cook, I would get irritated when a food-allergic customer made a special request. I chided my sister for hiding the peanut butter in the basement when her peanut-allergic friend visited. All that has changed. My affection for Emily has softened my heart. It’s taught me to walk in someone else’s shoes.

I can’t say I’ve remained perfectly faithful to my vows to live nut free. I still pop an occasional pistachio. But for the most part, I don’t cheat. I now have the habit of checking the ingredients of every food product I buy. That makes me smarter about what I eat. I don’t miss my old haunts. I’ve come to enjoy preparing meals at home. Emily and I have fun seeking out new adventures together.

I may never truly know what it’s like to fear food but I now understand the myriad considerations nut-allergic people must make every day. Yes, it’s easy to dwell on the things that will never happen, like sharing a slice from my favorite pizzeria. But at the end of the day, this really isn’t important. Thoughtfulness is a more meaningful enterprise.

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