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Food for ThoughtJun/Jul 2013 Issue

A Good Year

Coming of age with food allergies

“So when was your last reaction?” This is usually the fourth or fifth question, after I’ve recited my litany of allergies (including milk, egg, beef, shrimp, soy, cucumbers, mango, some tree nuts…); after I recount how my parents knew something was wrong from birth when I refused to breastfeed and couldn’t keep formula down; after I’ve confirmed that yes, I carry an EpiPen.

Usually the answer comes quickly—a date or a friend’s birthday party or the time my lips swelled at a lunch right before (ironically) I had to read from my food-allergy memoir at a book festival. But the last time someone asked, finding an answer took longer than expected.
“You know, it’s been over a year,” I said.

Not just any year. This was a year in which I spent weeks at the mercy of an art colony’s communal kitchen; a year in which I traveled to Colorado, Illinois, New York, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi; a year in which I found love and got engaged. Any one of these adventures presents challenges that would make any parent of a child with food allergy, including mine, cringe in fear.

What made this year different? A few years into my 30s, I’ve finally gotten over my fear of inconvenient questions. Does the chicken curry have shrimp paste in its Thai base? Does the charcuterie slicer handle pistachio-laced mortadella in addition to speck and prosciutto? (A helpful server always gets tipped a few dollars extra: the you-didn’t-kill-me gratuity.)

When in doubt, I just don’t order the dish. And I’ve found someone who views how I navigate the world not with tolerance, but with admiration. He doesn’t blink at leaving the namesake sauce off his entrée if it means I can try a bite. He doesn’t pressure, “The waiter swears it’s non-dairy,” because he doesn’t want to eat sorbet alone. He slips away quietly at the end of the meal to wash up, then chews on the lemon from his water so I don’t notice the taste of soap on his lips.
The night he gave me the engagement ring, we were in Water Valley, Mississippi. The only food lead we had was a place called Crawdad Hole (“you’ll think it’s a gas station when you see it”). Upon arrival, it seemed an allergy girl’s nightmare: standing at a counter to order seafood in the deep South. But my fiancé stood by patiently as I began my questions. The crabs, the shrimp, the crawfish? Each cooked with a separate pot and tongs. The butter? Added only at the last stage, on the side, easily left off. The spice boil? The woman taking my order poked her head around the corner and confirmed with the chef—who turned out to be her husband—that it contained no mustard. Each answer relaxed a finger of the menu’s fist until it became a welcoming palm.

Fifteen minute later, I sat down with a tray of crab legs, taters and corn. Soon my gorgeous ring was coated in juice and bits of shell. The meal was simple, safe, messy, and incredibly satisfying. Which is kind of what I hope for from marriage.

One good year does not make me home free. A naïve hostess or reckless chef could change this story tomorrow. I have to stay vigilant—asking twice if that is zucchini or cucumber in my veggie slaw, making sure that the olive in my martini is not stuffed with feta. The wide world of adulthood is scary, sure, but it is a space to create our own allergy-friendly rituals, to find our own community of people loving and mature enough to take a medical condition in stride. It is world worth exploring.

Sandra Beasley is the author of two collections of poetry and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown). She lives in Washington, DC.

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