Long Reads

Kernels of Devastation

I have been allergic to peanuts my whole life. A food allergy is a major pain—it’s like a weakness, a Kryptonite that renders me helpless at even a small dose. Unlike Superman, I don’t have remarkable powers to fall back on when things are good. Peanuts contacting my mouth rapidly initiate a multistage anaphylactic reaction that culminates in difficulty breathing and full-body hives, among other unpleasantries, as do (through a connection I haven’t been able to conclusively determine) peas, lentils, chick peas and lima beans, in decreasing order of severity.

I had some other childhood allergies to things like milk that I soon grew out of, but peanuts (and the others to a lesser degree) have remained unrelenting in their ability to bring me to my (itching) knees. Growing up before peanut and other food allergies were common enough for manufacturers to start highlighting potentially offending ingredients, reading the word “peanut” is somewhat discomfiting after so many years spent meticulously searching every ingredient on a package for the lexemes synonymous with affliction. Thanks to the allergy I missed out on some of the staples of childhood—no PB and J or peanut butter and celery unless we got almond or cashew butter to stand in. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Getting peanut butter in my chocolate was a capital offense, a policy that worked well until I met Rachel and grudgingly admitted that her favorite candy might be tasty to everyone else.

People regularly get confused when I explain my “naughty list” to them, immediately trying to divine a relationship between them. A lot of them inevitably hear “peanuts” and settle on “nuts,” fretting over the contents of food containing walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and the like, all of which are perfectly acceptable. Unlike pea”nuts,” those are all real nuts, not imposter pods pretending to be nuts. Legumes is another popular inference, and while the category does seem to contain all of the things I am allergic to, I grew up eating and drinking all and sundry soy products and eating carob in place of chocolate. Interestingly, I’m also not allergic to peanut oil, at least the kind used to make French Fries at places like Five Guys, nor does the smell of peanuts affect me (aside from setting off raucous mental alarms). Deftly avoiding these pitfalls, my roommate Alex once concluded that I must be allergic to things containing “pea,” helpfully alerting me to the potential reaction danger contained within peasants and speakers.

Despite having lived with this all my life, I’m always convincing myself that I’ll be okay, that if I do happen to ingest food derived from or contaminated by the vile pellets, I can just take some Benadryl and the problem will immediately vanish. I conveniently forget the stomachache and general malaise that I’ll get, at best, provided I only got a little bit and take a strong hit of antihistamine within minutes. This may be one reason I seem to have had more allergy episodes than usual since moving here.

Another possibility is that I now have a Thai friend and classmate, J, who has introduced me to the piquant wonders of Thai food. However, some dishes are made with peanuts or peanut derivatives, meaning I have to ask for things without. Part of me always feels awful about having to ask people to cook things differently on my account—it brings back childhood memories of inquiring as to the peanut content of every cookie or piece of candy I was offered. On several occasions after eating homemade Thai food supposedly sans allergie I’ve been ambushed by some mystery contaminant or allergen, my rapidly swelling tongue a harbinger of the lousy night to come. It’s perfectly humiliating to have to say “Yeah, the food your mother made specifically without things I’m allergic to is trying to kill me anyway, can you leave the house while I attempt to control my hysterical immune system?”

This past week they were handing out homemade cookies after chapel, and whether it was because I was hungry for lunch or led astray by the chocolate chips, I didn’t thoroughly inspect the would-be treat. My friend Heather bravely attempted to save me, looking over and asking, “Are you sure there aren’t peanuts in that?” “Yeah, definitely,” I replied as I took a bite, apparently oblivious to the massive whole peanut embedded in the opposite side—a gloating matriarch to a cookie-spanning brood of others.

As I swallowed my first mouthful of cookie, I began noticing the telltale signs of impending disaster. Thankfully, Rachel was home that morning. The phone call went something like, “Hi, can you come pick me up and bring Benadryl?” For some foolish reason I didn’t have any in my backpack. Although I do carry an EpiPen in there in case something especially serious happens, deploying it feels like overkill when over the counter Benadryl will suffice—and as a result, I have yet to use one. Rachel swooped in with the car bearing saving pink pills, I still clutching the cookie-containing baggie. She, of course, noticed the peanuts right away. “You are an idiot,” she said lovingly, pointing an accusing finger at the goober-infested little biscuits. I kept silent, knowing she was correct.

6 replies on “Kernels of Devastation”

You are an idiot, indeed.

I feel the same way about being allergic to cats though, especially since they’re such wonderful animals.

Allergies make the person with them into the problem, because you have to ask somebody else to change their normal behavior on your account. “Can you make it without peanuts / Can you put your cat away? I know it’s part of life for you but it makes my body fight itself.”

I believe we also determined that you were allergic to “peace.”

Also, I noticed a few mistakes. In paragraph three you state, “…nor does the smell of peanuts doesn’t do anything…”

In paragraph five you state, “…it brings back memories childhood memories of…”

In closing, it would probably be smart if you decided to stop being allergic to stuff. Just saying.

[…] I did an elective rotation in Allergy and Immunology, in part due to self-interested curiosity. One of the many fantastic attending physicians I worked with was Dr. Stephanie Leonard, who specializes in food allergies, and has a peanut allergy herself (one of the many cool things she’s involved in is a research study about de-sensitizing kids to peanuts). She was incredibly patient, giving me the chance to ask years’ worth of allergy questions. It turns out items like peanuts, peas, and lentils are more closely related in their antigenicity than their classification taxonomy, a factoid that finally explains my off-limits list.  […]

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