The first time I fed Anna a baby spoon’s amount of yogurt she was five months old and I panicked that she would throw up forever. Dairy allergy, said my wise, bow-tied pediatrician. He assured me that Anna would grow out of her exorcising ways when she ingested any dairy. Almost all babies do. But not my girl. She had the real deal—a milk protein allergy. No milk, no cheese, no cure.
A dairy allergy is not in the running for the worst health problem that can happen to a kid and for that I have always been grateful. But monitoring your kid’s diet is fatiguing. Vigilance is exhausting. Anna’s reaction to even the smallest trace of dairy in a piece of bread, for example, brings on hot red hives all over her body, a lot of vomiting and a bit of asthma that compromises her breathing just enough to freak me out. But these days my girl—a young woman really—wants to be a doctor and can advocate for herself when she orders from a menu.
Anna has a kindred spirit in Sandra Beasley—a poet and a highly allergic person who recently published a charming book called Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl (http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Kill-Birthday-Girl-Allergic/dp/0307588114/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325306632&sr=1-1) that was part memoir, part handbook detailing her life-threatening food allergies and the ways in which she coped. As she writes, she “experiences the world in a slightly different way.” But Beasley is anything but gloomy about her situation. She is a warm and lively guide to the quirky world of allergies. And she’s determined not to tell “the story of how we [the allergic] die…[but] the stories of how we live.”
More than 12 million Americans live with actual food allergies. I’m willing to bet that those allergies extend to the lives of more than 50 million Americans, including those who invite a person with food allergies to dinner.
Beasley is spot on when she morphs from food outcast to hapless birthday girl who can’t eat her own cake. Children’s birthday parties are minefields for the highly allergic child. One person’s butter frosting can be another person’s poison. Eggs, whey, walnuts, dairy-laced margarine — all of those ingredients and more can be lurking in a bakery cake.
Over the past decade there’s been a lot of research in and public awareness of food allergies. Yet for all of the consciousness raising, allergies are still too often dismissed as psychosomatic or as one study brushed off, a catalyst for “contagious anxiety.” Despite the skeptics, allergy awareness won a crucial victory in 2009 when Massachusetts passed the Food Allergy Awareness Act.
Ming Tsai, celebrity chef and owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant (http://www.ming.com/blueginger.htm) in Wellesley was one of the bill’s most vocal and effortless supporters. His own young son’s food allergies and the restaurants that refused to serve the boy initially inspired Tsai’s activism. The Massachusetts bill requires all restaurants to display a poster listing the “big eight” allergens in their kitchens along with reaction symptoms and emergency protocols.
Tsai’s ultimate goal is to accommodate restaurant patrons’ allergies across America. Anyone who walks through the door of a restaurant is entitled to safe kitchens, chefs and servers who understand the importance of meticulous food preparation. Eating safely at a restaurant is about access and access, says Tsai, is a basic civil right.
My family recently took me to Blue Ginger for me birthday. We asked Tsai to come over to our table so the four of us could thank him for his tireless lobbying on behalf of food allergy awareness, for lobbying, really, on behalf of Anna, his son and the people who love them.