Saturday, August 9, 2008

A question.

Q: Name an ingredient that would be the worst food for a chef to be allergic to.

Wait for it.

A: That's right contestants. If you said "garlic" you'd be absolutely right.

Now we could begin a rather lengthy and controversial discussion about what constitutes an "allergy" versus a "sensitivity" but when push comes to shove it is pretty darn clear that when my body encounters garlic (especially in its raw form) it revolts. The bigger the amount of the garlic, the longer and more drawn out the revolution. I will spare you all the details but the general pattern goes something like this:

12:32pm - Decide to eat a Caesar salad.
1:00pm - Point out to dining companion how I might look were I five months pregnant.
1:10pm - Excuse myself to the bathroom (use your imagination).
1:20pm - Feverish without having a fever.
1:30pm to sometime the next day - Lay in bed exhausted, sick and miserable.

There's this chef who is allergic to garlic. It's like the opening line of a bad joke - and I haven't yet found the humor in it. Yet.

It hasn't always been like this. There were years and years of using garlic in my cooking, licking my fingers after pulling out tray after tray of lemon juice-doused roasted garlic chicken wings with lemon-thyme. Days of eating garlicky chorizo, mediterranean dips, roasted garlic dressings. Then, about a year ago, I started developing stomach problems. I thought I had food poisoning 7-8 times in one year alone.

I paid attention to what I was eating and how I was feeling. After several months of this I finally came to the truly terrible conclusion that I was the chef in the beginning of that joke.

I avoided eating garlic and raw onions (similar, but less severe reaction) like the plague for 6 months. I explained to my private chef clients that I need to refrain from using it because I can't taste what I can't eat and I can't serve what I can't taste. My partner stopped eating it for the most part so we could continue sharing plates at restaurants. My best friend who loves me only slightly more than garlic, started making me garlic-free food whenever I came over. When asked, I told my cooking students why garlic doesn't appear in my recipes any longer. Then, one day, (cue dramatic, over-wrought, after-school special music) a student in my class sends me an email that intimates that I don't have to avoid garlic for the rest of my life. That I can go see this doctor and take a test and continue to avoid it for a certain amount of time and then add it back to my diet later. It's worked for people she knows with other foods. She, in fact, is trying it herself.

You need to know a little something more about me to put this all in context.

I'm a cynic's cynic.

Perhaps it's my east-coast, scientifically-oriented upbringing where to ask questions is de trust or believe in anything unproven by the double-blind placebo controlled study is foolish. Believe nothing until proven otherwise. So, when my student gave me this information I had a whole lot of doubts, mixed in with a scant little bit of hope that bubbled up to the surface and was immediately squelched. And then, out of nowhere, I decided to try it all anyway. After all, how hard can it be to continue giving up garlic and onions for a few more months and then add it back? I was nervous to add garlic back into my diet in the future because it's sort of like someone putting a dish in front of you and telling you that it is contaminated with Salmonella and you may be sick as a dog for at least 24 hours, but go ahead and eat it anyway. Bon appetit!

So I got that blood test last week and I have the results. They appear to the upper right. Here I thought the test would come back confirming what I already knew... that I'm allergic to garlic and onions and lo and behold, 24 ingredients appeared on the list. Garlic? Onion? came back negative on the test. My inner cynic immediately scoffed. The doctor explained that it could be due to garlic/onion being an IgE mediated response (this test shows Ig-G responses) or that due to the fact that I have avoided it for many months my blood isn't showing any antigen reaction. I don't claim to understand this. I don't even claim to believe it. But until someone tells me differently, it's a path. A path that has been pointed out to me so that I might begin eating one of my favorite foods again and using it in my profession. It might not work. But at least it's something.

Little did I know, or expect, that my 90 day garlic and raw onion avoidance diet would expand to 24 additional ingredients including some major staples of my life. Wheat! Beef! Milk! Cheese! Eggs! Yeast! Brewer's Yeast (that's WINE and BEER and most vinegar)! Avocado (say it ain't so!) Tomatoes!! (and it's August and heirloom tomatoes are spilling from farmer's market tables). For the next 90 days I will avoid all restaurants, cook most of my own food (thank god I'm a chef), and then, one by one, bring back all my old, favorite friends and see which ones my body will embrace and which ones my body will reject.

At first, I thought...hell no, there's no way I'm going to do this. It's only garlic and onion that make me so sick..why give up these other ingredients? The doctor explained that these other ingredients may be weakening my immune system and creating a cascade-effect where more and more foods make me feel ill. I was poised to reject this out-right and so I went and in some form of bizarre rebellion, ate a whole bunch of ice cream and cheese. Which, I must admit, promptly made me feel bad. Not bad, as in I just ate a whole bunch of ice cream and cheese...not bad, like garlic... but bad, like my body is simply not dealing with this food well. I looked down at my developing food-baby (around 3 months pregnant I'd put it) and allowed this thought to come to me (tongue firmly in cheek): did I just love too much? Has my lifelong obsessive love affair with certain ingredients become dysfunctional?

I like playing this game with people. The one where you get to pick 10 foods to take with you to a deserted island. What's on my list? Red wine (nope), baguettes (nope), cheese (nope), greens (still okay), chocolate (strictly dark), ribeye (nope), peaches (thank god yes), olives (as long as they are not in vinegar), tomatoes (nope), avocado (nope).

I, just from experience and training alone, am better poised to deal with the next 3 months than anyone else. As a chef it is part of my job to work around people's food allergies, dislikes and sensitivities. It is one of the first questions I ask clients. I've just never had to answer the question myself. I wore the fact that I could eat EVERYTHING as a badge of honor and while it humbles me to admit to it now, I sometimes secretly doubted other people's food allergies. I even used air-quotes around the word "allergies".

Now, with my humility restored, I sit here watching an avocado approach perfect ripeness so that I can eat it out of hand on Sunday night. Monday morning I say goodbye, hopefully not for long, to 26 of my closest friends.


Finspot said...

Great post—and my condolences. While this might not provide the succor you need, I read recently that many of the so-called seafood allergies (think of how many people you know who are allergic to shellfish) might actually have more to do with environmental conditions/contaminants, especially in the case of farmed seafood. So maybe your gumshoe detective work needs to go a step further: from whence did this garlic spring?

p.s. heavy cream is on my island...

jersel said...


Yikes! This is like being a pianist with his arm in a cast. Good luck figuring this all out.

You'd asked me about garlic, but not about onion. I've been avoiding raw onion for years now because it messes me up. If there's a genetic component here, I'm all ears (as if I weren't already), avocados? Nooooo!

Anonymous said...

You are a phenomenal writer, Cheffy! I will check back on your progress with the "favorite food deprivation test"

April said...

Bring on the rice cakes. I am here for you baby!

Seattle Tall Poppy said... glad to see you writing again. And after hearing you whine about no garlic...yikes to the library list of ingredients the Dr. came up with instead! I hate the reason why you came back to blogging, but I'm so happy to see you documenting the journey.

When the diet gets to be a little much, think about Molly, the chef/blogger who lost her sense of smell:

(It could always be worse, right?)

Anonymous said...

Hi again Becky. Just wanted to provide you with info on foods I've discovered, since our no-no list is so similar.

Earth Balance makes an "olive oil" margarine. I have read every label on every margarine in every store near me. (Top, Larry's, PCC, Whole Foods, QFC, Freddies, Trader Joe's, and Safeway.) This is the ONLY one that does not have canola and/or some kind of milk. Do not get the regular Earth Balance. That has canola. You have to get the one that says "olive oil." I've only found it at Whole Foods. It's decent. A little salty.

The brown rice pasta at Trader Joe's is excellent. Just make sure you unclump it about 1-2 minutes after you add it to the boiling water. Then it stays unclumped. (I miss making pasta!) Also, Whole Foods carries one made out of rice, potato, and soy flour. This one tastes even more like "real" pasta.

Bob's Red Mill makes a really good Gluten Free Flour Blend. Unlike the Arrowhead brand, it has some bean flour in it. (Don't worry, not kidney bean.) It is less grainy than the gluten free rice/starch flour blends.

You can make decent fudge with unsweetened chocolate, the olive oil margarine, sugar (I have to use beet sugar instead of cane), and "lite" Taste of Thai coconut milk. It tastes like a dark (~70%) chocolate.

He said we could use leeks and the green part of green onions in place of onions.

I've used smoked paprika in place of chili pepper. It's not the same taste, but it worked.

Good luck.

-- Julie

Jesse said...

Hi Becky,

Wow, I'm hooked. Great intro.

A new musician that I work with is a wreck. He's a Tuba player. He's been studying classical tuba his whole life. He's 25 or something. Anyway, he showed up at a gig with horrible sores all over his arms and bandages in certain places. He's allergic to Brass!!!

He developed a brass allergy after being in contact with it 6-10 hours a day since he was a boy! Oh my god. If this happened to me I would F#@$@ freak the F@#$@ out!!! I feel sorry for the guy.

He's doing everything he can to keep playing. He's determined. The Tuba is his whole life. It's all he knows.

Anyway... as I said. I'm hooked. So glad you are writing about this.