Wearing a Scarf in the Grocery Store

I’m taking a writing class, and wrote a rant last week when I had to deal with the drama of paying out of pocket for my Epi-pen to replace my Auvi-Q. The rant kind of broke me, and maybe some day I’ll post a version of it here, but for now, I want to keep it tucked away in that spot in my mind where the realities of anaphylaxis live.

In the rant, though, I referenced having to wear scarves at the grocery store, and this caught the attention of my workshop peers. They wanted to know more about that experience, and their curiosity piqued my interest, because I’m not really sure what there is to say. You know when you do something that you find to be virtually mundane and someone says, “wow, that’s interesting?” and then you think about it, and you think, “oh, I guess it is interesting.” Like when someone is friends with a celebrity, and to them the celebrity is just their buddy but to the rest of the world, it’s Brad Pitt. (No, I don’t know any of Brad Pitt’s friends).

Me, in one of my scarves.

Me, in one of my scarves.

So, “Wearing Scarves in the Grocery Store: a decidedly curious exploration of what having airborne allergies is like” 

When I was younger, only one of my allergies was airborne, but I don’t think I ever used that word. The allergen was, of course, horseradish. My experience of its airborne-ness was that the one time a year we ate it, on Passover, I would leave the house when my mother would grate it. I was fine with it out and grated, but during the grating, no matter where I was in the house, I would get sick. It was the perfect time to do errands before the Passover Seder. It never once bothered me to the leave the house; I actually looked forward to it as my special break to go do errands and report back on what I saw in the ruckus outside.

When I was 15, I began to experience more airborne allergies. Specifically, to cabbage. I surmise, though there’s no way to verify it, that it was the stench of September 11 that affected my body. There were all sorts of FEMA indications that people with asthma and allergies would have worsened symptoms, so it was unsurprising to me that constant exposure to cole slaw that summer on my teen tour of the West Coast led to mild reactions. Mild meaning headaches, dizziness. Nothing too crazy by my standards, but my standards are, well, not typical.

In college, over exposure in the dining halls made my allergens worsen significantly. My list of airborne allergens grew to include all leafy greens. That was fun. When I went to the grocery store, I would simply avoid the section with the lettuce, and stay on the other side of vegetable aisle. If I was lucky — and I often was, as I tended to grocery shop in college with friends or at home with my mom — I stayed outside of the vegetable aisle all together and hung out in the adjacent aisle reading boxes of things. I didn’t always want to read boxes, and often insisted on trying my luck with the vegetables (“oh, I’ll just stand near the tomatoes…”there’s this thing called denial that’s really important) but my friends and family were really good at protecting me from myself.

And then I moved to LA, and lived alone, and had to grocery shop alone. Which was fine for a while. I could run through the aisles quickly, I could cover my nose and mouth if I ever had to pass the lettuce section. And then, it was 2012, and I started this blog because my allergies got crazy worse, and also kale and horseradish got more en vogue, and grocery shopping became harder.

I would go to the vegetable aisle and break out in hives, or have my throat swell. I would pop Benadryl in the supermarket, but then be all woozy while I shopped. It was totally unproductive. I was incredibly fortunate to have a friend offer to go shopping for me — really, N, you saved my life and my sanity a lot, and I am forever indebted — but sometimes I would forget I needed an ingredient and have to go myself. If it was between February and May, and horseradish was in season, all bets were off. I talked to my doctor about options. He suggested I wear a surgical mask. But since I don’t live in Singapore, I really didn’t want to. I have pride, you know? What was I going to do, go to the Whole Foods in Beverly Hills looking like I was scared of SARS?

But then I thought of scarves. Really, scarves are a genius invention. I often wore scarves to work because it was an easy way to dress up a T-shirt for the office, and I’d be damned if I was going to sit at a desk for 10+ hours in a fancy shirt. But scarves can also double as face masks. So, I would put on a scarf if I was planning to go grocery shopping, and in the vegetable aisle, I would lift the scarf to cover my mouth and nose. Not the chicest look, but less awkward than a surgical mask!

Sometimes, though, if I forgot a scarf, or had a last minute trip, I’d run into trouble. I broke down in tears a few times when I realized I wasn’t wearing a scarf and was really hungry and needed food and couldn’t decide what was a better option: eating less or worse food for dinner or braving the grocery store. How fast could I run in and out of the aisle? Six seconds? You should see me shop, by the way. I’m like the Flash. Lightning fast. In and out and don’t linger.

Now, though, I don’t need the scarf. That’s the biggest thing Xolair has brought to my life. Sure, it’s nice to eat spinach salad (usually I pick out the spinach), and it’s really nice to sit in restaurants, but it’s SO NICE TO GROCERY SHOP WITHOUT A SCARF. It’s nice to be able to go to this tiny little produce market with no windows or non-produce aisles and examine my fruits and vegetables before plopping them in my basket. Even with the scarf, I used to just take from the middle (less likely to cross contaminate) and run. I would still avoid shelves too crowded with allergens — like if eggplants, which are absorbent, were next to broccoli, I wouldn’t buy eggplant. Which was hard, because I can’t really eat that much to begin with, and my diet has to stay varied, and eggplant is really important structurally to my meal plans. That’s past Cindy’s problem, though. With Xolair, and its mitigation of my allergies, I can pop by a store on a scarfless whim and buy an eggplant no matter where its staged on the shelf.

In fact, I haven’t worn most of my scarves in a while. Except on airplanes. I don’t want to be caught with stale air on a flight where someone decides to eat wasabi snacks (now sold in LAX!) and tempt fate. But my grocery scarves are now travel scarves, and who knows…some day they might just be scarves…

And side note: the writing group is a Muslim/Jewish writing group, and it’s really interesting to me that I’ve found ways to incorporate scarves into my wardrobe for a totally non-fashion related reason, and many of my Muslim friends do the same to cover their heads for prayer. While I was thinking, “I can’t leave my house without a scarf today” I’m glad to know I had friends-to-be-made that were doing the same, creating a kind of retroactive kinship.

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It’s That Season Again…Not Holidays, But Horseradish

First of all, sorry for the TERRIBLY LONG OVERDUE post. Seriously. So much has changed since I’ve last blogged, and I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to keep you all updated. The food challenges are going well (yes, I will recap them, no I haven’t any failures as of late!), and life is generally good.

But I’m inspired to blog tonight because I’m frustrated with my body, and blog and body share two of the same letters, so I figured this was the answer.

I’ve decided I’m entitled to a handful of “woe is me” posts a year, so consider this the (hopefully) cap of 2013’s.

It’s horseradish season again. I remember this starting last year in February, and I was all mentally prepared for that — the halting of grocery shopping, the need to rely on others, not really eating half the foods I can eat because they’re too close to horseradish in the supermarket, the fear of impending death every time I went into Whole Foods. That was February Cindy’s problem…or so I thought.

On Thursday night, I went to Whole Foods to buy an eggplant, and they were next to mushrooms and on top of lettuce, and I called my mom asking how to navigate the situation when I noticed that diagonally under the eggplants was my enemy: HORSERADISH. Like, a ton of it. Where it usually isn’t, at least not in that abundance.

So I ran. I ran away from the offending root toward the fruit section where I saw pomegranates that I’m mildly airborne allergic to and ran farther and started to cry.

I didn’t leave the store with an eggplant. I figured out how to make eggplant/zuchinni parmigiana, though, so WIN! (I’m trying so hard to be peppy and positive. Probably helps that I just slayed Superbass in my totally sane “rap to see if you’re breathing well” diagnosis).

Anyway, I cried about the horseradish and its early resurgence into my world for a while. Not just horseradish, but this reminder that the littlest things can be so hard for me, for all of the people who have food allergies, especially airborne allergies. That going to regular places is a life-risk. It’s not like, “Oh let me grab some groceries.” It’s “Oh, I need to grab some groceries, hope I make it out okay and can spend the rest of my day as planned and not in bed, or worse.” Plus, sometimes I just want to eat. And when my airborne allergies make it harder to eat the things I can eat because of their proximity or my getting sick, it’s just horrible. I feel helpless and hungry.

Tonight, I wanted to spend time with a friend who was hungry, and I accompanied her to a restaurant. I was fine staving off my own hunger to join her where I couldn’t eat. That’s par for the course, and I’m fucking Tiger Woods of this restaurant golf metaphor. But then I wasn’t fine. I could feel the avocado and lettuce of her salad on my tongue. I’m usually okay around those if the space is big enough, but those allergies are the kind that you don’t know until you know, and I knew. We moved outside where I could get more air and less avocado. But to no avail. My tongue was prickly, my throat was hurting, my thoughts slowing down. I felt like I had at the moment before my doctor stopped me at my avocado challenge way back when.

So I came home. In tears. Because I wanted to hang out with her. I wanted to then come home and eat dinner. But I have to wait for the Benedryl to kick in first so whatever I eat next doesn’t get conflated with the previous poisons. Because my body does that. It loves to have allergic reactions all the livelong day to foods that are generally fine because it lives on the tipping point. If my body were a Lady Gaga song it would be “The Edge of Allergy.”

I should be able to be around my friends when they eat without dictating their diets (and making them feel guilty for something they didn’t do wrong — J, you are TOTALLY entitled to your dinner, and if you feel bad for even a second I will feel worse). I should be able to have normal social interactions. I should be able to eat dinner when I damn please and grocery shop, too, and get along just fine. And 99% of the time, I do.

But it’s horseradish season.

And I’m the one who has to hibernate.*

*I may be overdramatizing. But hey. It’s a good closer.

Food Challenge Round 17: Cindy vs. Roasted Garlic Hummus

I was terrified before my challenge this morning. The last time I had sesame, I just barely passed, and since Sabra Roasted Garlic Hummus has some tahine in it, I was nervous. But I miss hummus, it’s a great and popular food, and I know I’ve eaten it successfully on may an occasion. So it was worth a try.

I used to eat these every Friday for lunch. Good to know I can know eat this on occasion.

I used to eat these every Friday for lunch. Good to know I can know eat this on occasion.

And in fact, I am not allergic to it! Hooray! That part of my doctor’s visit was uneventful. I ate half the tub of the snack size hummus, and was fine. Until about an hour when I got a sesame migraine, but that’s nothing a little chocolate, caffeine, and tylenol can’t handle. I probably won’t eat hummus often, but on occasion? A hummus migraine is better than a hunger migraine, right?

Plus, the snack pack came with pretzels. Which I have been DYING to try but the doctor has said it’s a bit of a waste of  challenge because I can already have “so much” wheat. But, he let me eat these pretzels. I “accidentally” ate all of them, which was a badish idea, but hey. I feel okay, I ate pretzels, and I am renewed.

What did terrify me, however, were the following insights:

1. There’s no solution to my horseradish problem, except getting someone to shop for me (as the doctor put it, “Don’t you work with a lot of men? Shouldn’t they be chivalrous and help you?”); asking someone who works in the store to get me an item from the back while sating far away from the horseradish, and trusting that they will not touch anything bad in that process which he said he wouldn’t trust them about; buying the items that are too close to the horseradish in a non-organic store that wouldn’t sell horseradish, but that’s a bad option because I need organic foods. Hi, rock. Hi hard place. Nice to be between you both.

2. The other solution he presented was eating more vegetables, so that the ones I can eat aren’t in the horseradish section. But to do that, I have to try vegetables. With which I have a bad history. But he said he wants me to try everything I have had reactions to in the past (with some obvious exceptions, like fish and horseradish). That’s why we’re doing this, he explained. He wants to do a double blind test, where he blindfolds me, feeds me the food and a placebo, and we spend all day making sure I don’t die. Because there’s a teeny chance I’m not allergic to the foods themselves and just think I am, or outgrew them, or something. That’s why we do food challenges in the first place, he explained. So here’s the thing. I’ll have to take off like a month from work all tolled, and potentially die. Like, “Hey, I can’t come in today, because I’ve decided to out myself in a precarious near-death situation, but dont worry, there are epipens, so I’ll be decently okay, but probably out of it for a week, but in the end there’s a small chance I can eat lettuce?” How does that work? I can;t imagine waking up in the morning and knowingly feeding myself cauliflower. That’s like waking up and saying “Today, I’ve decided to drive with my eyes closed. But it’s cool, I have airbags and bandages and a paramedic in the car, so if I’m almost dying, someone will fix me.” Bad idea. And yet, so is not eating. Slow death vs. death challenge in a controlled environment? This is like the real Fear Factor, people.

3. He also wants to test antibiotics when we’re done with foods. That’s also a full day, because those last in your system for a full day. Basically, I’d come to the office, take biaxin that has no additives, made by his pharmacist with special care, and see what happens. Last time I had biaxin, I blacked out in Mrs. Agassi’s 10th grade English class. But this time, I’d be sinus-infection free and in a doctor’s office, so…cool? I wonder if it makes more sense to do those challenges when I’m already sick. So a) I miss fewer work days and b) I’m not on unnecessary meds.

In good news — because amid all my fear, I have to stay sunny and appreciate this ridiculousness — there’s a new epipen on the market. It’s actually not an epipen because that’s a brand name. It’s an Auvi-Q and it’s badass. Thanks, T, for sending me the info from the NY Times. The doctor showed it to me today and I’m obsessed (what has my life come to?!). It’s the size of a nano and the thickness of a cell phone/two chocolate bars, and it TALKS TO YOU. Like it says, “remove the red cap. Place against your thigh. [it clicks to inject] 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Inejction complete.” It’s so slick and small and easy to carry and not pencil-case shaped and an idiot can use it and feel comfortable. It’s like a GPS epipen. It’s genius and I want one.

I don't know why I'm so excited about a medical tool but I really am. Look how sexy this is!

I don’t know why I’m so excited about a medical tool but I really am. Look how sexy this is!

In other good news, the world is starting to hate xanthan gum. Ten points to the anti-xanthan gum crusade! And thanks, E, for sending along this brilliant article.

I have the best friends, and I love the NY Times. That’s the moral of this story. Despite all the fear, all the anxiety, all the unclarity about how to proceed, I know I have support, I know the world is listening in its own way, and I can sort of kind of eat hummus and pretzels. So this is a win. Just a “tread carefully as we move forward but never stop moving forward” kind of win.

FOOD CHALLENGE TALLY

Cindy: 13 (including the sabra pretzels)

Allergens: 5

Next Up: Buckwheat (can someone tell me what the hell buckwheat is? It’s on my list of not terrifying things to try but I don’t know what to do with it. The doctor said “make pancakes” but that seems unnecessary).

Oh, It’s Horseradish Season Again.

I haven’t had a horseradish reaction since early September. But I guess four months was all I got, because today, I ran into some horseradish in Whole Foods. Oh, airborne allergies, how I love thee.

I was looking at some eggplants and found myself a little off, but I was mulitasking on the phone. I look down, see horseradish, gasp (smart — intake the breath, Cinds) and run out of the vegetable aisle. Well, jog-ish to the peppers, look to see if the yellow ones are organic, and jog away.

And then the tongue tingling started. Like I had just burned my mouth with hot soup. Burning and itching (delightful, right?). No swelling of the throat so that was cool, but I ran through the rest of my grocery order, started feeling like I was going to pass out, and drove home.

Seriously, this ugly random food is my kryptonite. Can I at least get a cape?

Seriously, this ugly random food is my kryptonite. Can I at least get a cape?

Took some Benadryl as soon as I got in, and glanced in the mirror. There were so many hives on my chest and neck. Like, 10? Maybe more?  And then one appeared on my left wrist, which is where my horseradish hives have tended to appear — why, I have no clue. All I know is, thank God for steroid cream!

But seriously. Does this mean I’m not going to be able to grocery shop properly? Do enough people even eat fresh horseradish root to make it a good item for sale? It’s a bitter herb, folks. It’s supposed to symbolize torture and slavery. It’s the Zero Dark Thirty of foods. Not that I’ve ever tasted it — never been close enough to try — but I can’t imagine it’s that good (I know my family members may disagree, but I still don’t get it).

I don’t really know what to do. Last time it was in season, I just ran out of the Santa Monica co-op all the time. But I was at a job where sensitivity to my allergies was abundant, and if I was off my game from a reaction one day, the world went on turning. Now, notsomuch. Which is fine. But worries me, because if every time I grocery shop, I’ll have to take Benadryl, I’m bound to be a little woozy.

Anyone want to be my personal grocery shopper during horseradish season? Like Fonzworth Bentley, P.Diddy’s umbrella carrier? I’ll cook you dinner every Sunday if you go to Whole Foods for me…

Homemade Ketchup, Onion, Horseradish, and Fish Free BBQ Sauce

You’d think it would be easy to find a BBQ sauce recipe that doesn’t include ketchup, onion, horseradish, or fish (damn you worcestershire sauce!). You’d be wrong.

So, since all I wanted for dinner was some BBQ wings, I had to go invent a sauce myself. And it’s DELICIOUS. Bookmark this one for Superbowl Sunday, folks.

As always, I don’t measure my ingredients with things like measuring tools and whatnot. I use my eyes. And it works. The below measurements are what I think the things I dumped in would measure out to, but please, please, pleasure trust your gut and eyes.

14ish oz can Tomato sauce/paste

1/2 cup beer (Heineken!)

a little oil to prevent from sticking (I used canola, anything should work)

2 tsp honey

1 tsp salt

1 tsp ginger

1 tsp garlic

sprinkle of parsley

sprinkle of paprika

sprinkle of cayenne pepper

salt and pepper to taste

Heat and mix in the saucepan until it just about boils. Pour on to wings, ribs, etc.

Eat.

I Have An Airborne Allergy…And It’s Not To Peanuts

Grocery shopping is tedious. But it can also be fun; sometimes it’s cool to go to different cities and wander through the supermarket to see what different places sell. My family always stops by a local supermarket when we go on vacation both to get provisions and because my dad loves discovering new products. Like interestingly-flavored Triscuits or cool oreos or whatever’s new. So buying food can be an adventure.

Sometimes, it’s not a great adventure. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland instead of the awesome Indiana Jones (no offense, Pirates fans, but the ride is mediocre).

For instance, tonight I went to the Santa Monica Co-Op. A lovely place with lots of organic fruits and vegetables. Unique products. I go there because I know I’ll get organic stuff (which I have to these days) and they have so many kinds of squash, and it’s right near my office. It’s a delight.

Except when they have horseradish. They don’t always. But this was the second time I’ve noticed fresh horseradish there, and of course, been sick.

Yup, I have an airborne allergy to horseradish. Not peanuts. Not treenuts. Not eggs. Not the “usuals.” But horseradish. That food that almost no one uses.

So yeah, it’s a lot more simple than managing an airborne peanut allergy. People eat peanuts a lot. Though, people also get it when you can’t be around them.  I must look like a crazy person run away from the fruits and vegetable aisle. Literally, run.

Luckily, this time wasn’t so severe. I just got dizzy, lost most of my voice, got cloudy thoughts, and some ear itching. My throat is swelling a bit now. See, you can’t take benedryl when you have to drive home from the grocery store. I’m not dying, just uncomfortable and I guess sick, but a car accident could be a lot more fatal. (Don’t worry, I’ll take the benedryl as soon as I finish writing this. At this point, time doesn’t matter).

It got me thinking, though:  you never hear people talk about doing adult activities with an airborne allergy. What do you do when you’re grocery shopping and you suddenly can’t anymore? Or you can’t buy the foods you needed to because they’re too close to your allergen? The last time I ate food that was near horseradish — an apple that was in the fridge with the horseradish we were going to use for Passover (yes I’m stubborn and don’t want my family to use a different vegetable for maror so I used to just leave the house when my mom would grate it and we’d keep it in another room for the whole seder except when people would gulp it down, and yes, now that I’m hypersensitive we won’t use it again) — I went to the ER. So I don’t buy anything near it anymore. I run.

The solution, I guess, is for someone to grocery shop for me. Once, my friend J came to visit me in LA and we were going to cook for Shabbat together. I had a cold at the time, and she asked me to stay away from the vegetable aisle in the supermarket while she shopped there because I’m always more allergic when I’m sick. I refused. Then I started uncontrollably coughing. She sent me to the cereal aisle and told me to wait there while she picked out the foods we needed. I told her I didn’t need to.

“Cindy, you can’t be in the vegetable aisle.”

“But you’re not always here, sometimes I have to be in this aisle.”

“And then you don’t buy most vegetables because they are too close to things you can’t be near. I want to cook with these vegetables and you can eat them, so let me buy things you otherwise couldn’t. Take advantage of my being here. Stop being stupid and go wait.”

And she was right. I almost never bought fresh produce. If I did, it was whatever came in plastic boxes and was kept far away from everything else. But I can’t eat processed foods right now so I have to buy everything fresh. It’s delicious, but hard. Because I can’t just wait in the cereal aisle while I astrally project my non-allergenic self to the produce aisle.

J, wanna come back to LA and help me grocery shop? And make delicious soups from peeled carrots and celery? Because that’s the other thing – I can’t touch the vegetables that touch the things I’m airborne allergic to (horseradish, and I’m guessing the bacteria on leafy greens [I’m not allergic to leafy greens themselves, apparently, but I can never be around too many of them without getting sick and I’m allergic to the xanthan in xanthan gum, which is the aforementioned bacteria]). So J peeled, washed, and chopped everything we made that time.

But I wonder…how can one be truly independent when one can’t even be around certain foods? It’s not like we can ban any allergenic foods from grocery stores. And even so, who else is allergic to horseradish to my degree? Not enough people, that’s for sure. Food delivery services don’t let you pick, and everything is cross-contaminated. Friends are nice, but I could never accept that help on a regular basis. A food nanny? Maybe that’s the solution.

For now, I guess I’ll wait for the dead of summer so horseradish season will be truly over.