Friday, September 10, 2004

Open sesame

A few years ago, I developed an allergy to, of all things, sesame. This wouldn’t seem like a very debilitating problem, but you would be amazed at how many foods contain some form of sesame these days. I don’t dare eat unfamiliar Asian food, and did you know that almost all Mexican molé sauces contain sesame seeds? I didn’t, until one unfortunate birthday dinner at a gourmet Oaxacan restaurant.

But worse than dealing with the actual allergy itself is dealing with the looks of pity and disgust I receive from waitstaff when I tell them I am allergic to sesame. It’s like I just told them I have leprosy. First comes the eyeroll, then the deep sigh, then the dramatic search for the red pen to highlight “allergy” on the order pad. I went to a Korean restaurant once and there were truly only two items on the entire menu that didn’t contain sesame. And they were both squid. I mean, allergies aside, what if some people just don’t like the taste of sesame? I guess it’s kind of like trying to order something without garlic in an Italian restaurant.

I’ve decided to start my own support group for people who, like me, are battling their own inner allergy demons. Some place where people can go and not be judged for their body’s weaknesses. A place where people can find a buddy – someone to call on lonely nights when they’re thinking of ordering shrimp fried rice.

As part of my efforts at demystifying food allergies, I am sending out a plea to all celebrities in the world to finally come out of the closet and admit that they have allergies. There are other disabilities that seem to be ultra cool to admit, so why not allergies? Dyslexia, for example. That was the learning disability du jour a few years ago. Tom Cruise is dyslexic. Whoopi Goldberg is dyslexic. Even Theo Huxtable was dyslexic. Suddenly everybody’s dyslexic!

“Oh, we should really give him the Oscar. It must have been extra hard for him to learn his lines.”

So why is it hip to have trouble reading, but not hip to have trouble digesting shellfish? I’ve had it, I tell you. I’m mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!

I want to try and help people shake the stigma that is associated with allergies. I just feel like a loser when I have to special order everything at restaurants. I guess it goes back to my childhood - anytime I think of a kid with allergies, I remember Francis - the weak, pasty-skinned boy with slouched shoulders and oversized glasses who was constantly grasping for his inhaler. He always had to be the scorekeeper when we played softball because he was allergic to grass. But I want to fix all that - I want to change the face of allergies, and make it chic to be lactose intolerant.

I defy you to name a celebrity that will actually admit to having an allergy (seasonal allergies don’t count). You cannot do it, because allergies are equated with the ultimate of nerdy dorkdom. I am quite certain that loads of celebrities and public figures have food allergies, but their publicists know that it would be committing career suicide to leak that to the press. Celebrities would rather cop to a heroin addiction than admit that they carry an epi-pen around in their purses.

In fact, I believe there has been a massive conspiracy to cover up the allergy-related deaths of several major stars. I am convinced that Mama Cass was actually allergic to Dijon mustard, but somehow her agent thought that choking on a ham sandwich would make for a less humiliating explanation for her death. And Elvis? Drugs? Please. There’s only so long that you can pump your body full of peanut butter and bananas before that lethal combination throws your system into overdrive. This Hollywood conspiracy is an outrage!

People just don’t take allergies seriously, which they certainly should in this litigious society that we live in. I was at a sushi restaurant with some friends about a month ago and told the waiter that I was allergic to sesame, and asked him to make sure there was no sesame in any of our food. I began eagerly gulping down my tuna sashimi and caterpillar rolls when suddenly my face started to burn and my head started to itch.

“Huh. That feels like an allergic reaction,” I thought, “but it can’t be, since I specifically requested no sesame in anything.”

So, I stepped into the bathroom and sure enough, I had hives forming on my stomach, arms, and neck. When I came out, I asked the waiter if there was sesame in anything he served us, since I was clearly having a reaction.

“Well, there’s usually some sesame oil mixed in with the spicy tuna paste, but no sesame seeds. Geez, you must really be sensitive. Most people are just allergic to the seeds.”

I like to call that strategy the "blame the victim" technique. I’m sure that same defense would hold up well in court: “Well, sure I knew little Timmy was allergic to peanuts, but I gave him peanut butter, not peanuts. Geez, he must have been really sensitive. I’ve never seen anyone swell up quite like that.

Apparently, I need to educate waiters all across the greater Chicagoland area because clearly at waitstaff school, they do not teach them that all oils come from the ingredient they are named for. Sesame oil? Comes from sesame seeds. Peanut oil? Comes from peanuts. Olive oil? Comes from olives. Baby oil? Comes from… okay, I seem to have found an exception to the rule. But you see my point.

So now when I order food, I have to tell waiters that I am allergic to sesame, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sesame bread, sesame paste, sesame sticks, sesame extract, and sesame flavoring. I’m sure there’s a loophole there somewhere that I’ll unfortunately stumble upon someday as I lay writhing on the floor, choking on my own swollen tongue: “I didn’t know you were allergic to toasted sesame seeds. Most people are only allergic to the raw ones. Geez, you’re really sensitive.”

Anyway, now I’m focusing my efforts on organizing the first branch of my new Al-Anon support group. All I need is for one celebrity spokesperson to come forward, and soon, everyone will start claiming their allergies. I’ve got my eyes on Woody Allen right now, but his publicist has clammed up. If anyone is allergic to shrimp, it’s got to be Woody - I know a fellow “allie” when I see one. At our first meeting, we will be serving bottled water and wheat gluten free crackers. And the best part is that when you reach the one month mark of being allergic reaction free, you will receive a key chain with a bronze Benadryl on it! I just know that eventually these key chains will be more en vogue than the ubiquitous red Kabbalah bracelets, mark my words.

Hi, my name is Jenny, and I have allergies. I’m allergic to penicillin and sesame. I haven’t had an allergic reaction in over one month…