Aspen Times Weekly: Touchy Subject |

Aspen Times Weekly: Touchy Subject

Open hand raised, Stop Allergy sign painted
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

I SET MY PLATE down across the table from an acquaintance, and comment on the food. She eyes the meatballs, bruschetta, and quesadilla — I picked one of each appetizer offered, natch — and sighs. “There’s nothing gluten-free here!” she moans. Even the meatballs are packed with breadcrumbs, as confirmed by the management.

I can’t help but study her suspiciously. Is she really part of the estimated 1 percent of Americans with a legit gluten allergy or is this a personal preference based on consumers’ sudden and overblown fear of wheat? Indeed, as a kid she tested positive for Celiac Disease — a genetic autoimmune disease that attacks the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption. Any exposure to gluten causes severe symptoms that require immediate hospital intervention. Ditto for dairy, nuts, and something else I can’t recall because I was too busy rolling my eyes. Sure, I think to myself, she’s allergic to three of five major food groups. Likely story.

As it turns out, a whopping 20 to 45 percent of the general population reports adverse reactions to food, according to the World Journal of Gastroenterology. But Aspen-based family physician Dewayne Neibur pins the estimated number of true food allergies at just 3 percent. The discrepancy, he says, is due to the fact that many individuals, while sensitive to certain foods that cause them discomfort, are not technically allergic.

Later, I wonder if that’s what’s going on with me after I wave hello to a friend at Ricard Brasserie & Liquor Bar in Snowmass. An empty cast-iron pan sits before him. “Get the Thai curried mussels!” he calls from across the room. “These are THE BEST mussels I’ve ever had.”

“Often it’s hard to separate what is a true allergy versus a sensitivity. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.”– Dr. Dewayne Neibur

It’s a bold claim from a well-traveled, retired gentleman, so I’m tempted. Unfortunately, I believe I may have developed an allergy to mussels a few years ago. “What do you mean, you believe?” my dining companion asks. Well, I might be allergic, but I’m not sure, I reply. Here are the facts: A few years ago, I ate mussels often with an ex-boyfriend who adored them. Eventually we stopped seeing each other, and I stopped ordering them. A year or two later, I attended a Mediterranean wine dinner, one course of which consisted of a single shucked mussel in a pool of saffron-tomato broth. At home a few hours later, I became violently ill, but only briefly. Not convinced that one plump mollusk could provoke such an intense, delayed response, I chalked it up to another food I ate that night. Or the copious wine.

The next ordeal occurred at an acclaimed French bistro in Manhattan. I split a portion of mussels simmered in garlic and white wine, soaking up the fragrant broth with crusty baguette. A few hours following bliss, I found myself doubled over the porcelain in my friend’s apartment. Perhaps the mussels were contaminated or hastily cleaned — they’ve always seemed like the dirtiest of shellfish to me; freshwater mussels and clams, at least, are known for absorbing pollutants in rivers and streams.

I encounter a petite portion of mussels again at another coursed event many months ago, and the same thing happens. But due to multiple variables, I can’t justify blaming the bivalves definitively.

Though wary of mussels ever since, I enjoy all other shellfish — shrimp, scallops, king crab, raw oysters, especially — as often as I can afford, without consequence. Octopus is my favorite fruit of the sea. Fish is no problem; I just overcame a lifelong distaste for salmon. So I can’t help but wonder: Have I developed a late-onset selective shellfish allergy? Or is it all in my head?

To find out once and for all, I decide to devour a dish of those praised curried mussels at Ricard. Worst-case scenario: I’ll endure 10 minutes of forehead sweat and throat burn hours later. Call me a masochist, but I need to know. Whatever happens, I’ll get a great meal out of it.

When I approach Ricard manager Danielle Becker with my plan, I half expect her to talk me out of it. Instead, she one-ups me. As an adult, Becker developed an allergy to white and yellow onions. As eating onions is an unavoidable part of her job, she deals. On days leading up to a tasting or beer dinner, Becker pops Benadryl every few hours to mitigate the inevitable skin itchiness that follows. It sucks, she says with a shrug, but it could be worse.

Once I announce my experiment, anecdotes pour in. A colleague tells me her Seattle-born boyfriend developed a severe allergy to fish recently; now his favorite food is off limits. A nurse at my doctor’s office says she went into surgery and emerged with a skin rash. Apparently she’d been exposed to iodine so frequently while working at the hospital that she developed an allergy to it. The Boston native can no longer consume shellfish. Bummer!

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, shellfish is among the most common food allergens, and for approximately 60 percent of folks it develops in adulthood. Symptoms may affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and/or cardiovascular system. Allergic reactions to shellfish are unpredictable, too, sometimes occurring long after a person has consumed it and despite lacking other symptoms. What’s more, such backlash may become more severe with each exposure. Gulp.

Back at Ricard and armed with an emergency stash of Benadryl in case of sudden respiratory trauma, I ignore warnings to consult a physician before attempting my experiment and pick a mussel from its shell. Down the hatch it goes. I end up eating eight, plus a few twirls of rice noodles marinating at the bottom of the dish in light coconut milk seasoned with kaffir lime, yellow curry, ginger, tomatoes, and cilantro. Just as that guy proclaimed, the dish is divine. I could drink the broth for breakfast.

Periodically, Becker asks how I’m feeling and studies me for clues. I tell her to ask again in a few hours, go about my afternoon as usual…and nothing happens. The next morning, I almost forget about the test. I’m relieved, of course — who enjoys barfing? — but also strangely disappointed. There goes my big fat conclusion. No “cautionary tale” here.

I consult Dr. Neibur. Might psychology play a role in phantom food allergies?

Perhaps. “One may be exposed to something that they perceive as an allergy, and symptom magnification is not all that uncommon,” he says. “Say you went out to dinner, had some shellfish, developed a rash, maybe some tightness in the breath, and had to go to the emergency room. It’s a really scary situation. There’s a definite fear that is fairly justifiable. But when specific testing is done to see if their immune system is hyper-reactive, it wouldn’t be able to define (it).

“Often it’s hard to separate what is a true allergy versus a sensitivity,” Neibur continues, adding that gluten and dairy are most common in these cases. “If people are good about keeping exposure to a relative minimum, we can do OK. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Moderation is a nice concept.”

In conclusion: I’m perplexed. But happy knowing I might enjoy mussels again without consequence. For now.

Amanda Rae will be back for mussels—at least once more.

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