Almonds. Apples. Avocados. Bananas. Berries. Carrots. Cashews. Coconut. Grapes. Hazelnuts. Kiwi. Lemon. Lime. Mango. Mustard. Nutmeg. Olives. Peaches. Pears. Peanuts. Prunes. Black Pepper. Green Peppers. Red Peppers. Pineapple. Plums. Sesame. Spices. String Beans. Tomatoes. Zucchini.
My list of food allergies has grown so much over the years; I’ve memorized them by the alphabet instead of by food group. It’s easier to rattle off for a waiter in a restaurant. For friends and family, I keep an updated web page.
My husband is a cook, foodie and localivore. He doesn’t believe in fast food or crap food. To him, the problem is that I was raised in New Jersey on processed food. “There’s so much you don’t know because it all came from a can,” he says, preparing a fresh tuna salad without celery for me to bring to work. “Del Monte is not a vegetable.”
It is a challenge to eat healthy. Salads always include tomatoes or olives. The only safe fruits are oranges, grapefruit, and melon. Yogurt is limited to plain, vanilla, and chocolate.
Allergies like mine are embarrassing. You’re constantly re-explaining the mystery to wide-eyes (“Tomatoes?!?!?”) and suffering through insensitivity. “God, I couldn’t live without apples!” I hear, rude and untrue. I certainly don’t tell women I couldn’t live if I got a period every 30 days, or exclaim to seniors that I couldn’t bear being so close to death.
Dinners at people’s homes are awkward. Not everyone asks about food restrictions. Watching me squirm the days leading up to an event, my husband will bring it up through back-channels. Invariably, there’s a mistake—the host wrote it down wrong or didn’t think about the sesame in the cooking oil. Or perhaps I forgot to mention mustard, stumbling across it in home-made dressing. Unless it’s vanilla ice cream, chocolate cake without nuts, or a melon-only fruit salad, dessert is a total disaster. My host spends hours baking a pie, and I try to save face saying I’m full.
Luckily and thankfully, physical reactions are easier to manage than the typical shellfish or nut allergy, in which the victim panics everyone around her, injects herself with epinephrine, and rushes to the emergency room lest she drop dead on the spot. My attacks have less theatre. If I bite into something I shouldn’t — such as raisins in what seemed like a chocolate chip cookie — I feel the attack in slow motion as my body betrays me. The first trigger is a tingling in the ears, and the tongue becomes fluffy. My throat slowly contracts, which is the scariest part. I don’t panic. I simply stop eating the food, flush it out with water, take a Benadryl, and ride it out — hoping the attack recedes. So far, it has worked.
“Oral Allergy Syndrome,” Dr. L, the allergist, diagnosed me on the first visit, handing me a flyer with charts and cartoons of plants, trees, and gardens. The whole thing is related to pollen. If I bite into, say, an apple, my body thinks I’m eating the tree.
“Really?” I asked, excited the allergies had a name and were official enough to be a syndrome.
For many years, food allergies gave me a position in my family. I was the youngest, and other than a bout of bed-wetting, it was the most interesting thing about me. At meals, there would be conversations about what I could eat. I watched my sister and brother wince as I got the limelight.
“Is it squash or cucumber you can’t eat honey?” my mother would ask.
Every four years, Dr. L. re-runs my blood work. I pray to the allergy lottery to win back just one food or spice to the plate. The forbidden list has only gotten longer, though, with previously safe foods such as kiwi, cucumber and even beer and red wine added. Rosé was safe for awhile, but I must have drank too much of it. Unfortunately, everything gets worse with repetition.
The allergist doesn’t like my approach of “A little doesn’t bother me that much,” and is quick to frown if I don’t carry my EPI-PEN with me at all times. For her, vigilance is the only solution, expecting me to live my life in a bubble, navigating around suspect ingredients.
Of course, I’m not looking for a pity party. I don’t have rush-to-the-hospital allergies or celiac disease like my sister does, silently dangerous. There are supportive recipe magazines like Living Without (terrible name), and every year in May is Food Allergy Awareness week. New York State where I live even passed a law in my favor, requiring ambulances to carry epinephrine.
Everyone knows someone who can’t eat something for some reason. But to me, unless the list has more than 10 items, you’re an amateur. You don’t know what it’s like to sit down three times every single day in worry, discomfort or fear. You probably could live without just apples, or just cherries, or skip just almonds. Could you handle it all? Could you skip an entire alphabet without going nuts?
Mat Zucker is a writer, husband, dog parent and a digital strategist at a global marketing consulting firm. A Cornell University graduate, his background is in advertising and copywriting, working for various agencies for the last 25 years. His essays have appeared in The New York Press, Tablet, The Jewish Forward, The Bark among others, and he is a regular contributor to Forbes CMO Network. Mat lives in Tivoli, NY, with his husband and puppy Nora Ephron.