A Different Kind of Poison


37, day eight.

I finished the last bite of my roasted turkey and pesto aoili on rustic country bread with a sigh of contentment. Veganism was a few short months in my past, and the ecstasy of unfettered food indulgence was still almost too much to me. My friends and I had brought food from a local organic deli and brought it back to our apartment. Good Eats was on the television. I did not have work tomorrow. Life was pretty much as good as it could get. I looked over at my girlfriend, Christelle, as she took the first bite of her heirloom apple tart. She closed her eyes in pleasure.

“How is it, my love?” I asked as I stroked her arm.

“It’s really good,” she said. “It sort of reminds me of…” she paused mid-sentence. Her eyes widened.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, and I hoped that I didn’t already know the answer.

“My mouth is itching,” she said as she turned to me. “I think this has nuts in it. In the crust. The crust has nuts in it.”

Everyone snapped to attention.

“Are you sure?” asked a friend of ours.

“Yes!” said Christelle. “Oh shit, shit, shit. Why didn’t I ask? Why didn’t I ask?”

“It was an apple tart,” I said. “You shouldn’t have had to ask.”

“What can we do?” asked the friend.

“Benadryl,” she said. “Get me my Benadryl.”

“I’m going to call the ambulance,” I said.

The ambulance took twenty seven minutes to get there. Christelle spent the whole time vomiting, trying not to let her airways close. I had to keep it together. I had to be strong. I was on the edge of panic. There was no way of knowing how much nut she had ingested. There was no way of knowing how bad the reaction was going to be. It had grown more severe as she got older. She didn’t have an Epipen. Hers had expired a year ago. We were broke. We had no insurance. She had never gone into anaphylactic shock from a nut, but any time could be the first time.

Ultimately, she was fine. They got her to the hospital with plenty of time. I spent the rest of the evening by her side as she hallucinated cartoon characters, a side effect of the anti-nausea medication. That was probably the worst attack she ever had. It is certainly the one that sticks out most strongly in my memory. Christelle is my wife, now. She has lived with a deciduous tree nut allergy her whole life. A severe allergy to a common food is pervasive. It is with you every moment of the day, every time you eat, or whenever people eat or cook around you. It is one of those tiny, incidental traits that, in its way, fundamentally alters who you are and how you live your life. I cannot say what it is like to have such an allergy. I have lived with her for thirteen years. I can say how living with someone with a severe allergy changes you. It is huge.

For me, it went it a series of stages. I can’t say how many people follow this exact course.

Stage 1: You Stop Eating the Food

Christelle won’t kiss me when I’ve had nuts that day. That was probably the original reason I stopped eating them. It is still the explanation I give people. It is just easier that way.

“Sorry, I can’t eat that hazelnut crusted salmon you put so much work into. My wife is allergic to nuts.” Depending on the tone of the conversation, this is sometimes followed by, “don’t bother. I’ve heard every joke you can make on the subject.” I have said that a million times, but it isn’t really true. People always make the same joke. It is a sly grin, followed by, “wow, that must be terrible for you.” I usually just groan. Sometimes, people look at me sideways afterward, and ask, “if she’s allergic, how come you can’t eat them.”

It is not worth explaining how much she hates not being able to eat something. How awful it is to have to screen everything that goes in your mouth or risk hours of itching, severe vomiting, and possible respiratory failure. It is past the purview of most conversations for me to talk about how much she appreciates the solidarity, the fact that even when I am not around her I don’t touch the damn things. Because I would rather have her in my life than smoked almonds.

So I usually say, “well, if I have any on my lips or in my mouth, I won’t get any action tonight, youknowwhatI’msaying?” Suggestive rib jabbing inevitably follows.

The fact is, it is not very difficult to stop eating the food. It might be, at first. But soon enough, you go through stage two.

Stage 2: The Food Begins to Feel Like Poison

After awhile, the food starts to seem objectively dangerous. It is difficult to avoid something for an extended period of time and not train yourself to think of it as dangerous. After all, to Christelle, nuts are poison. Both of us know, objectively, that they are not poisonous to most people. But the trained response is reactionary, and intense. It has to be. You have to take it a little too seriously, because the consequences are so dire. The minute you treat the subject casually is the minute you slip up and don’t ask. Let me tell you, it does not take many hospital trips to learn you on that one. So you condition yourself, both deliberately and unconsciously, to view the offending food as poisonous.

There are side effects to this way of thinking. We humans are not so good at fine distinctions when it comes to things that threaten us. It is one of the roots of things like racism, and also jumping at loud noises. From an evolutionary perspective, it is better to assume something is dangerous and avoid it than quibble about fine details. You might be able to recognize these details intellectually, but not emotionally. And there’s the rub. Spend so much time thinking about a food as poison, and you lose all emotional objectively. It feels like poison. This leads smoothly into the next stage.

Stage 3: You Start to Resent Anyone Who Uses the Food

Let us say that I am watching a cooking show, and the host are making a lovely French buttercream from scratch. I have always had a problem with the grittiness of store buttercreams because they use powdered sugar, which contains a small amount of cornstarch. I can detect cornstarch on my palate from five hundred paces. The show is fascinating to me. As a chef, plating and presentation have always been by weaknesses. I can make food that tastes good, but making it look good is always a struggled. I watch attentively as the cook spreads the buttercream across the cake with a long cake-spatula. It looks difficult, but this host is well known for making difficult tasks easy by breaking them down and explaining them thoroughly.

“There, that looks good,” he says. “And so what if it’s not perfect. That’s why god invented nuts!”

“What?” I yell at the television screen. “What what what?”

I watch in horror as he proceeds to coat the once-beautiful buttercream with tiny shards of edible death. I feel like I’ve just been punched in the gut. He might as well have reached down his garbage disposal, pulled out whatever was in there, and slopped it all over the cake. No, it’s worse than that. He might as well have pulled out a vial of arsenic, dusted it over the cake, then handed it to me with a sly, twisted smile. “Wanna taste?” What is wrong with you, TV chef? Are you deranged? Are you trying to kill my wife?

The resentment follows you everywhere. People should know better. After all, a lot of people are allergic to nuts. Why do we use them at all? Is it worth the risk? What are people so insensitive? At first, you can answer these questions objectively. Most people are not allergic to nuts. They are not objectively dangerous. Just because the situation affects you does not mean everyone should have to worry about it. These arguments are valid, but they do not ring true emotionally. Eventually, emotion wins. Why argue with yourself when you can be mad at everyone else? If you are going to live like this, it demands action. And the next stage is all about action.

Stage 4: You Appoint Yourself Knight of the Allergy

You might have asked yourself why Christelle did not ask if there were nuts in the apple tart. After all, she has severe allergies. Shouldn’t she stay vigilant? If she doesn’t, it’s her fault if something happens to her. Right?

Have you ever had to ask everyone who prepared everything you ate nagging questions about their dishes, every single time, without exception, and to make sure they knew they had to take you seriously? It is tiring. Christelle hates confrontation. She feels guilty about sending something back, essentially asking it to be thrown into the garbage and remade because it has a tiny crumb of walnut sitting on top of a piece of feta cheese. Sometime she goes a long time between attacks. It is easy to get complacent. She has had a lot of apple tarts. Occasionally, they advertize “walnut crust.” She does not order those.

All of the others, the ones that do not say anything about nuts in the description, they have never had nuts in them before. So why worry about it? One time at a wedding she asked if the crusted fish had nuts in it, as they often do. It did not, so she ate and enjoyed it thoroughly. What she did not enjoy were the tiny innocuous pieces of normal-looking fried chicken that turned out to be pecan-crusted chicken. I could not taste the pecans.

So what is a good husband to do? Force her to ask every single time? Allow her to suffer? Perish the thought! I shall save you, gentle damsel! I started to make sure everyone knew about her allergy. When we planned dinners with friends I made sure to announce in advance, in no uncertain terms, that there were to be no nuts in the fare, or else we would spend our social hours elsewhere. Thank you and good day.

I always tried to be considerate about it, but the fact is that forcing everyone else to conform to your dietary needs is an imposition. Most people are very understanding, but you can never count on that. You need to be firm. Christelle already had to live with this condition. She should not have to also live with being a big bummer. That was something I could do for her.

That is all well and good, but it creates an even more antagonistic relationship between you and the object of the allergy than already existed. This leads into the next stage.

Stage 5: You Begin to Think the Food is Evil

You know that the food is not really poisonous. You know that people are not really jerks for serving it. You know that your attitude in defense of your loved one is perhaps just a little too aggressive. But still the problem persists. It is all just unfair. Fundamentally, irrevocably unfair. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really. There isn’t anyone you can blame. Gee, it sure would be nice to have someone to blame. And there is. It is everyone’s fault. It is the universe’s fault. But most of all, it is the fault of the god be damned nuts.

Some things exist in the world that are just horrible. Some people like them. Some people indulge in them. But they are just wrong. They are just awful. Things like racism and hatred. Or flesh eating bacteria, although I don’t know anyone specifically who gets off on that. The world is just flawed for having these things in it.

Sure, it would be reasonable to blame the allergy itself. But that is nebulous. You can’t smash an allergy with a hammer. Or at least, I’ve never figured out a way. You can’t cure them, either, since no one really knows where they come from. You cannot do a double study on severe allergy sufferers. Besides, hating the allergy would, on some level, mean hating your loved one. It is much easier to blame the nuts.

This response is not rational. It isn’t sensible, and it isn’t fun. It is just pure rage at the unfairness of it all. And it only gets worse. Like most other forms of rage, it feeds itself. It just gets worse and worse and worse, until, finally, after an extended period of misery, you reach the final stage.

Stage 6: You Get Over It

Does everything end this way? We can only hope so. In the long run, you either drive yourself crazy or you learn to deal with it. For one thing, you just get tired of fighting. You can only maintain that kind of intensity for so long before it destroys you. For another thing, you figure out how to live with it.

Christelle has not had a serious attack in years. We have gotten quite good at knowing when we need to ask about foods and when they are probably okay. She has an Epipen now, so we are better prepared. Also, we’re adults, now. We have been through a lot together. Life is full of risk, and full of crappy circumstances. You don’t stop driving just because the odds of dying on the freeway are actually pretty high.

I am not saying I have lost my perspective. You do not lose perspective. You internalize it and it is with you forever. As a chef, I am always the one to make sure everyone in my kitchens is careful and sensitive to allergens. If someone asks for a nut or wheat free dish, and we put it on there by mistake, I make sure it is remade. Not just brushed off and covered up. You would be surprised how often this happens.

Christelle and I have developed systems for dealing with it. I even eat nuts sometimes, now. I like walnuts on my salad. It does not bother Christelle anymore when I do this. I do not feel the need to do it just to show solidarity. It is just a thing, and we both deal with it. The only thing she asks is that I tell her about it. And she won’t kiss me unless I have had a full meal and cleaned my teeth between the time I ate the nut and the time I kissed her. Sometimes she is feeling paranoid and still won’t give me any action. But we’ve been together for 13 years.

Chances are I had it coming.

(Also, my love,  I apologize if you really hated the image at the top, and I won’t be offended if it prevented you from reading the article.)


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