The Freedom to Eat

I have a variety of food allergies, some of which require me carrying an EpiPen in case I have an anaphylactic reaction. And it’s had a profound impact on my socializing.

I don’t eat out much anymore. There are no ironclad guarantees in a restaurant. They’ll try their best, but until someone opens a nut free restaurant, it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette. The chances that my dish will have been exposed to cross contamination on a surface that has previously had nuts on it are slim, but they are there. When you add my list of food intolerances — Biologics have done a number on my stomach — eating out just isn’t worth it. If I make my own dinner, I know exactly what goes into it and where it’s been. It’s easier and much less stressful.

My family and friends know my allergies and at family events and potlucks, they make sure the dish they bring doesn’t contain the things to which I’m super allergic. Still, they aren’t allergic, which means their kitchens, utensils, containers and so on may contain trace elements of allergens. So it’s easier for me to bring a slice of bread I know I can eat, along with the sandwich fixings that are safe. I don’t mind much. If I can’t change it, what’s the point of obsessing about it? Although I have to admit that I mind a bit when it comes to desserts and birthday cake.

A couple of weekends ago, we had our annual spring party. It’s potluck — everybody spends a bit of money to bring something nice so no one ends up with a big bill. As usual, I’d brought my sandwich and was having a good time catching up with everyone.

And then The Boy arrived. With desserts. From a nut free bakery! We cut bars, cupcakes and cookies into three or four pieces and tasted as many as we could. And they were delicious. There was something else about them, too. Something I didn’t realize until after the party.

Having the ability to freely eat these lovely treats without part of me being alert to early symptoms of anaphylaxis was a return to an experience I haven’t in a couple of decades. I ate a cupcake and was able to focus solely on the taste and the smoothness of the buttercream icing. Popping a piece of a caramel chocolate bar into my mouth, I became pure sensation as the gooey caramel filled my mouth, accented by dark chocolate chips and an oatey crunch. 

Bliss. I was a little high on the whole thing and not just from the sugar.

This past weekend, I discovered something else. The usual precautions also apply to snacking when out in the world. Most sources of yummy treats involve nuts and those that don’t, well… You just never know. So I don’t buy snacks. Instead, I bring a box of raisins. It’s healthier, anyway. 

Or so I tell myself. 

I haven’t had popcorn since I started Biologics — in those early days, they gave me terrible indigestion, so I said goodbye to one of my favorite snacks. On Saturday, we walked past a Kernels, but turned back, pulled by the nose by the wonderful aroma of just-popped popcorn. So we asked. And were told that they are nut free! 

I decided that the risk of massive indigestion that feels like you’re having a heart attack was worth it and bought some. And did not have any ill effects! A few days later, I called their allergen information number and found out that not only are their ingredients nut free, they also make sure that their staff do not bring peanut or tree nuts to work! Two wins from this one: I can include popcorn in my life again and have found a place where it is safe for me to buy a snack. 

The freedom to eat without a small nagging thought in the back of your head muttering that if you’re not careful — or if someone else wasn’t careful — you might die is something that’s hard to describe to others, unless they also live with a food allergy. I’ve had a chronic illness for a very long time. The pain, fatigue and disability that have come with RA have affected my entire life. But if my fairy godmother gave me the choice between RA and food allergies, I’d keep the RA and jettison the allergies. I can deal with the pain. I can adapt my environment to accommodate my disability. Not being able to share a meal with someone (unless a cook it myself) is not just about the food. It’s also about building relationships and connecting with people you care about.

Roger Ebert once wrote about his life after cancer took away his ability to eat “what I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They're the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done -- probably most of our recreational talking.” And I know what he means. Our situations are vastly different — I can eat, I just have to be careful about where I do it — but the loss of sitting around a table of new and interesting foods has affected my relationships with friends and family. Much more than I’d realized before the nut free treats.

Food has always been a huge part of my culture, both the Danish nationality and my familial culture. We are the family who came home from vacation with photos of delicious meals in foreign places decades before smart phones made that normal. Most of our treasured family memories are related to food because that’s when all the things that mattered happened. Every holiday has a special food that I can’t eat anymore. Every family get-together involves a treat of some kind and it’s an aspect of those events in which I don’t participate. Do I mind? Not really. At the bottom of it all, it’s not really important.

But in another way, it is.


Unknown said…
What a great Boy you have.

I tend to take my food with me too. At first it was awkward, but now I'm just "that gal".

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