Every day I listen to Stuff You Should Know podcast. Today, the theme was peanut butter. While the hosts fondly related the history and social significance of the stuff, I was lured down memory lane in a far different direction.
You see, I’m one of the approximately 1% of Americans who have a peanut allergy. But I was a trendsetter and had my allergy before it was popular. When I grew up during the 1980’s, there was no such thing as “peanut-free tables” or “allergen-friendly labels” or “adults who believed that peanut allergies were actually a thing.” So I developed a more free-spirited approach to my allergy, one that I would never recommend to patients, and one that led a number of interesting stories.
- My Grandma Bier fed me peanuts on two separate Christmases, mostly because cooking for allergies wasn’t in the vernacular of this generation of women. She eventually learned, but that first time was memorable. I wore my brand-new birthday dress to Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I was only four-ish, so I don’t remember the cookie that had the peanuts in it, nor do I remember feeling unwell. I do remember the dress, though. It had a blue corduroy faux vest with shiny buttons, and the bottom had a floral print with a ruffly hem. I loved that dress, and that’s why I leaned over and puked on my Uncle Jim, on whose lap I was perched, so as not to spoil the dress. Oh, yeah, I puked on you on purpose, Uncle Jimbo. I knew, even at the tender age of five, that corduroy can really hold a stain.
- My paternal Grandpa Cousin didn’t so much forget about the peanut situation when cooking–I’m not sure that I can remember him doing anything in the kitchen other than spooning sugar onto his shredded wheat in the morning. Rather, he didn’t quite believe that it was a real thing to begin with. I can imagine it sounded weird, and he must have thought that his carob and tofu-wielding eldest child had gone off the deep end when she assigned me this allergy. We all drove down to visit the Chicago relatives one day, and I must have gotten ahold of some Chex mix that I shouldn’t have. Again, I don’t remember feeling poorly. I do remember sitting behind Grandpa as he drove the Buick back to Wisconsin, and vomiting down his neck right around the Belvidere exit. I think he believed in it after that.
- Mom warned the teachers, but, again, this was a novelty that most hadn’t encountered. It was an asterisk next to my name of minimal importance. The Kindergarten teacher, the unfortunately named “Mrs. Gumness-Gabert,” probably filed the peanut allergy well below more important student data such as “frequent nose-picker” and “may ask for help wiping.” It was an afterthought that led her to paper towel-off the knife that she’d used to spread peanut butter on the other students’ apple slices before cutting a chunk of apple for me. Cross-contamination was but a myth. That’s how I ended up walking down the hall with the school secretary, my eyes swollen under wads of damp, industrial-grade paper towels. The teachers took it seriously after that, and in first grade, Sister Yvonne kept a roll of Rolos in her desk to substitute for any home-backed treats that made their way into class. She wasn’t going to mess around with any of that nonsense. That being said, the only lunches available for students who forgot theirs were the frozen PB&J’s that the nuns whipped up over in the convent. Only so many accommodations could be made in those days.
- After Kindergarten, I was pretty much on my own, and generally remembered to ask about ingredients and read labels. I carefully made sure that the M&M’s at Jennifer Schrab’s birthday party were plain, not peanut. It was a mystery, then, as to why Mom had to come and pick me up early when I started to feel peanut-ish after eating them. Peanut-ish being a combination of facial itching and a general sense of impending doom. Funny story, we found out later that even plain M&M’s have peanut in them, since the broken shells from the assembly line are batched, melted down, and reused! Ha ha, funny story.
- After that, I continued to make a lot of questionable decisions in the face of temptation. I had a pretty skewed sense of the whole risk / reward balance. I accidentally ingested peanuts in the vehicle of ice cream, scones, egg rolls, unnecessarily experimental pesto, and cannoli, to name a few. Although, to be fair, I asked about the green nuts garnishing the cannoli and was reassured that they were pistachios, when they were actually CHEAP PEANUTS DYED GREEN. I can also confirm the myths about peanuts conveyed through making out with one’s boyfriend who ate a Snickers an hour before at the basketball game. Hot tip: nothing freezes teenage hormones in their tracks like “your saliva makes me vomit.”
- People who know me know that, if I accidentally eat some peanut germs, I need to just be excused to go puke it out for a couple of hours. That experimental pesto situation happened on a trip to Hawaii with my husband’s family. We all stayed in a lovely house together, a fact that I’m sure they all questioned when my dramatic digestive system dominated the soundscape well into the Hawaiin night.
- I carry an epi pen, but I’m reluctant to use it, as that would mean a trip to the emergency department, and who has the time? This is all terrible behavior, and the exact opposite of what you should do. I reviewed the appropriate medical management of accidental allergen ingestion often, including at several sessions at a pediatrics conference in San Francisco one year. At that conference, I stayed at a lovely hotel right next to Chinatown with my friend Martha. She left a day earlier than I did, so on my last free night alone, I picked up some steamed buns and took them back to my hotel to eat. When I deduced that one of them must have contained a soupcon of peanut, I carefully avoided all of the pediatric training from the previous week, took a couple Benadryls, and hoped for the best. I was actually quite responsible, really. I wrote a note for the hotel manager, letting them know what had happened in case I was found dead the next morning. You know, to make cleanup easier. Good thing I wrote that note, I thought, as I leaned over the toilet and saw the water begin to shimmer. I figured I was beginning to pass out. What I relief, when I deduced that it was actually just a small earthquake!
And the really funny thing is that this wasn’t the first time I was helped out of a tight spot by a well-timed earthquake. But that’s a story for another day.