Field-testing a childhood allergy (and dabbling in hypochondria)

This is part one of a two-part series about a recent culinary adventure. Part two will be available as soon as I write it.

I. A little background

When I was three years old, or four, or five (neither myself nor my parents can seem to really remember), I ate some crab at my grandparents’ house. They lived right on Puget Sound at the time, you see, and catching/consuming freshly-caught crab was something of a common occurrence.

I hardly remember this now (being three years old, or four, or five), but the next morning I woke up with what is technically called subcutaneous bleeding (in layman’s terms, bleeding under the skin). I felt fine, but as my parents recall, it looked like they’d taken a baseball bat to my back and shoulders – which they hadn’t, of course, but I can understand why that would be a troubling state of affairs.

Hypothesis: Evan has an allergy to shellfish.

Result: Evan doesn’t eat shellfish for anywhere from twenty to twenty-two years (depending on the aforementioned slipperiness surrounding the date of the initial shellfish incident). This includes obvious stuff, like shrimp, crab, lobster, and crayfish – but due to ignorance and paranoia, Evan also stays away from clams, oysters, scallops, and anything else that seems to be “not fish.”

This wasn’t a particularly sad or difficult allergy to grow up with. People expressed their regret when I said I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat lobster, or crab, or whatever, to which I would generally reply, “It’s okay, I don’t remember what they taste like anyway.” Plus, it wasn’t like I couldn’t be around such things – the allergy was based purely on consumption, not the inhalation of tiny shellfish particulates or anything.

II. Present day

Over the past couple of years, both myself and my father have developed a more intense interest in food. For him, retirement has led to more time and interest in the kitchen, shouldering more of the daily cooking duties and occasionally indulging in hand-crafted pepper mills and the like. He loves America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, scowls at celebrity chefs he finds annoying, and has easily asserted himself as the family’s foremost cook.

For my part, my growing interest in food has more to do with people cooking for me (to my sometime-shame). Moving to Chicago presented a significantly more robust restaurant scene than anything I’d enjoyed before, and when that gets coupled with a newfound disposable income, well…these things happen.

A sort of supper club was formed with friends and coworkers, alternating between home-cooked meals in each others’ apartments and outings to intriguing eateries. Much conversation centered around places that we would love to eat – sometime in the future, if we could get reservations, if we could afford it, etc. Talk would commonly hover around Grant Achatz’s Alinea – a restaurant with incredible prestige and what I affectionally describe as “bonkers press.”

A few months back, a particularly bold mood came upon us, and we resolved to actually do this thing instead of just talking about it. The labyrinthine reservations process was decoded by one of our savvy number, and a date was happily booked for my birthday, of all days. Excitement hit a fever pitch.

III. The small problem

Unlike most restaurants I’d dined at prior to now, Alinea has a single fixed menu – with whatever sort of ingredients the chef chooses to use. As such, the probability of encountering shellfish can’t be denied – and while you can inform them in advance of allergies and opt out of any troublesome courses, where’s the fun in that?

I’d half-heartedly tried to get some sort of allergy test at a clinic, to see whether this shellfish thing had blown over, persisted, or gotten worse – but suddenly we were T-minus 7 days from Alinea and I had no idea what my body’s disposition was vis a vis shellfish.

It was at this point that my parents swung by Chicago for a weekend’s visit, and the topic came up in casual conversation. We’d discussed testing out the allergy again in a controlled environment for years, but the time had never been right – but now, with such a colossal meal drawing near, it was deemed time for action.

IV. The controlled environment

I’d visited Fish Bar at Sheffield & Wellington multiple times before, and developed a fondness for it – despite carefully avoiding half the menu. It seemed a good place for a potential brush with death (in case this allergy had gotten more sinister during its dormancy) – as the cherry on top, a convenient emergency room was literally a block away. My father, himself the veteran of a bizarre aversion to the sting of a certain type of hornet, had some Benadryl on hand as well to slow any fast-acting crises.

We ordered food and set to it – specifically my mother’s crab cake, which I had several bites of (it tasted great, for the record). No turning back from that – some sense of anticipation began to creep in.

To completely ruin any sort of suspense, nothing happened. No adverse reaction whatsoever. Our suspicions were correct, in that whatever happened when I was three years old (or four, or five) was just the result of some sort of fitful youngster-physiology.

The experience did, however, give me some idea of what life must be like for a hypochondriac. In the initial few minutes after eating a bite of crab, I become acutely tuned in to what my body was telling me. For example: My stomach feels full, most likely because I’ve been eating, but is it actually because it’s becoming inflamed by shellfish poisons?? I’m a little sweaty, but is it because it’s super hot outside or is it actually because I’m about to catch on fire?? That sort of thing. I visited the bathroom (just for the usual reasons anyone would), and immediately realized that, to my parents, my behavior could take on the appearance of a wounded animal finding a quiet corner of the forest to die.

(For the record, they were keeping an eye on their watches to make sure I wasn’t in there too long. “Three more minutes,” I was informed upon my return, “and your father would have gone in to check up on you.” Thanks, parents! You’re awesome. I’m glad it didn’t come to that, though).

So, to anyone thinking about field-testing an allergy like I did…I can’t say I really recommend it (just because it had a happy ending for me doesn’t guarantee similar results). It was, however, a little bit thrilling, a little bit scary, and a whole lot relieving a day later when I hadn’t died. So, I suppose eating two bites of crab was sort of like skydiving or bungee-jumping. Or something.

Coming up next: the actual meal at Alinea. As a teaser: I ate more shellfish and once again failed to be hospitalized or die. A second victory for the most unscientific allergy test imaginable!

1 comment
  1. Dad said:

    Great blog entry. Really enjoyed it. Keep at the foodie thing and someday we’ll have a cook-off. Never challenge a cook who owns a Shun knife (even if he’s still afraid to use it). Y’er Dad.

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