The first taste

Overcoming a fear of food allergies

October 10, 2013

Back when my husband, a chef, was still just some guy I was dating, we had our first fight over Japanese food.

“This tuna is incredibly fresh,” Jason said. “Try a bite.” And, without asking, he moved his chopsticks toward my mouth.

Before the ruby chunk made contact with my lips, I swatted away his intimate gesture.

Razor clams at dinner.

“I’m sorry,” he said, taken aback. “Are you allergic?”

“It’s not that,” I said.

“The fish is very fresh,” he assured me.

“It’s not that, either.”

Jason put down his chopsticks and sipped his green tea, brows furrowed. “Let me get this straight. You’re not allergic to tuna. And you’re not going to become sick from this particular piece of tuna. Then what, exactly, is the problem?”

I fumbled with a slice of ginger on my plate. “It’s that I’ve never actually tried it,” I said, and stuffed a piece of dry imitation crabmeat into my mouth.

Unlike some people, I have never been shy about ordering a plate full of carbs or scooping up a second serving of dessert — as long as it’s a second serving of a food I have eaten on multiple occasions without needing to be rushed to the emergency room.

Actually, I have never gone to the hospital with a bad reaction to a meal. We are living in an age of increasing allergies, but I have yet to have a reaction to anything.

To those who struggle with food allergies, this might sound freeing. To me, though, it is terrifying. How probable is it that I am one of the lucky few born without any sort of allergy? There must be something out there waiting to make me wheeze.

I love food. But in my early 20s, just before Jason and I met, my fear of having an EpiPen stabbed into my thigh drove me to make a peculiar choice: Unless I had already successfully consumed an ingredient in my past, there was no room for it in my culinary future.

It should have been an easy task. However, there was one major complication: I was falling in love with a chef.

On weekends, we would visit ethnic food markets, strolling the aisles for exotic spices that I would later refuse to sample. Some nights, Jason would spend hours preparing us romantic dinners, of which I would only touch perhaps half. When we dined out, I settled for the same predictable entrées, telling myself that I really did crave the chicken Parmesan.

For the next five years, not only did my fear of food allergies keep our relationship from growing, it kept me from growing, too. Because on the most literal level, I was preventing any new flavors — any sense of adventure, really — from entering my life.

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Our culinary differences aside, one summer morning Jason proposed, and I said yes. I began thinking about what I might give him as a symbolic wedding gift — perhaps an antique cookbook, or a handcrafted kitchen tool.

One evening, as I flipped through the pages of a food magazine, I found it. Just a few months before our Spanish honeymoon, one of the world’s most celebrated chefs would be opening a new restaurant blocks from where we planned to stay.

I made a reservation.

But there was one problem: the chef was one of the pioneers of the molecular-gastronomy movement, a man known for his work with ingredients like liquid nitrogen and calcium chloride. While his food was visually stunning, his artistry would make it almost impossible for me to decipher what was on my plate. And I strongly doubted that his menu would include a picky-eater section.

It wasn’t until several months later, when I was actually standing on Spanish soil, that what I’d committed to truly sank in: a meal consisting of by far the most exotic and experimental foods I’d consumed in my entire life, half a world away from my physician, my bed, and my extensive at-home first-aid kit.

However, I also knew that if I could get past my own hypochondriac fears, this meal had the potential to be the ultimate gift to my new husband.

Before leaving our hotel room the night of our reservation, I sat in the bathroom for a full half-hour, rattling off as many prayers as I could recall from my grade-school days, and shoving as many antihistamines as I could fit into my leather clutch.

After we were seated, a puzzle of Dalí-like tapas appeared on our table. “Are you sure you’re going to be comfortable with this?” Jason asked.

I knew it would break his heart if I shied away; after all, wasn’t I the one who signed us up for this meal? But more than that, I knew I’d be disappointed, too.

Hesitantly, I sampled the first few bites. There were glistening olive-like spheres that burst upon my tongue, coating my mouth with a thin veil of brine; perfectly round orbs of saffron pearls at rest on a row of lean razor clams; and bubbles of hazelnut oil floating on paper-thin slivers of (likely unpasteurized) cheese.

As I allowed myself to become lost in the meal, a strange thing happened: My fears began to slip away. I laughed as the unusual food crackled inside my mouth and felt a deep, almost scholarly interest as I analyzed the layers of intense, foreign flavors.

It was the first time I had completely abandoned my culinary inhibitions and fully focused on the food instead — not only the taste of it, but the experience of it.

When only crumbs remained, Jason finally spoke.

“So, how do you feel?” he asked, the upward curl of his lips suggesting he already knew the answer. “Any reactions?”

I sat back in my chair for a moment to reflect before responding. There were no hives anywhere on my body. I breathed with ease. As I sipped from my hibiscus-flower digestif, I felt more satisfied than I had in years.

“Do you want to know what you just ate?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Do I?”

“Let’s save that for another time,” he suggested, smiling and gripping my hand beneath the table. “You did good tonight. This was a really wonderful gift.”

“Yes,” I agreed, placing my empty glass on the table. “It really was.”

When Jason and I reemerged into the warm night air, he suggested we stop off for a nightcap. I agreed and, as he stepped briefly out of sight into a doorway, I slipped my hand into my purse, grabbed my emergency baggie of antacids and antihistamines, and silently dropped them into the nearby trash.

Our dinner had been filling, in many ways. But I felt significantly lighter as I took a step through the doorway after my husband, walking into the start of our new life.

Angela Brown is a writer and a co-owner of Mayhem & Stout, a New York City artisanal sandwich shop that specializes in slow-braised meats and creative, house-made condiments. Her memoir, A Vision of Neon, was published in 2012. She also keeps a blog, The Chef's Wife.

There are 4 comments on this item
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1. by Larry Ingles on Oct 30, 2013 at 3:55 PM PDT

Great article, Angela. I’ve gone through some fear of the unknown before as well. Not this particular fear of an allergic reaction; but do you think maybe it is a paranoia of a wider scope?

I frequently push myself to dive in on new challenges now to reduce the amount of time where I worry. What is the worst thing that can happen? That’s the lone question I ask myself before going head first.

2. by Angela Brown on Nov 6, 2013 at 4:44 PM PST

Thanks for your comment Larry. I’m glad to know you enjoyed this essay and were able to relate to it!

3. by anonymous on Apr 13, 2014 at 3:17 PM PDT

This has made me feel very sad. I also suffer from this fear but it included things that i haven’t had since the fear started 11 years ago. As a result my diet is very limited and my health is affected. I will not try new brands of the food i have or take medications, (even antihistamines for the fear of reacting). I will not use new creams. I also cant touch new foods which means I cannot cook for my family. In summer, I have panic attacks at the sight of wasps and bees in case I get stung. I cried my eyes out at the dentist as I needed a filling and would not take the injection. I know this is all so irrational but I can’t see it resolving. Like you I have never had a reaction and before the phobia started, I ate most foods frequently.

4. by anonymous on Apr 24, 2014 at 1:36 PM PDT

Anonymous - I can relate as well. I have had a history of anxiety and panic attacks. My problem started when I went to a local chiropractor to try and figure out how to resolve the “tight feeling” i constantly get in my throat. He told me it must be allergies to food. Then, proceeded to “test” me...He told me i was “allergic” to foods I ate almost every day. Eggs, milk products (including all cheese), chicken, breads (gluten), Vitamin C (in all sorts of things!!), spices, etc. The list was crazy long. Every week I would go back for another expensive treatment he would tell me of a new allergy that I needed treatment for. Eventually, I stopped going because I was so gripped by anxiety of food. Now, two years later, it is lingering. I ate an egg once last year, but immediately stopped eating them even though I had no reaction...and the list has grown. I avoid all of the 8 “major” food allergens, plus others that the “doctor” told me I was allergic too. It is horrible. It definitely can control your life, limits my social life. I used to always go out to eat and to friends’ houses for dinner - now I don’t want to do that and get panic attacks when I eat out. I’m trying to overcome it, but it’s very very difficult.

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