My doctor could never have known her story would forever change my relationship with food. “Strangest thing,” she said as she looked in my ear. “I saw a patient with an anaphylactic reaction to celery yesterday. First in my career.” I froze. I’d never before considered celery to be a biohazard. “Poor guy just about died,” the doctor added.
It was all I needed to hear. I would never eat celery again. From that moment on, I became Zeligphobic—I assumed other people’s food fears as my own. My puzzling psychological condition is, as yet, undocumented in medical journals, but has been closely paralleled on film. Woody Allen’s character, Leonard Zelig, was dubbed the “human chameleon” for his tendency to match his appearance to those around him. Always in the name of social acceptance. But quite frankly, sitting beside Ichabod Crane on the subway and suddenly finding myself atop a thundering steed—caped and headless—seems almost trifling compared to years of fearing the food intolerances of anyone and everyone who shares with me their allergic condition.
My food selections have since withered down to exclude nuts, sesame, eggs, fish, celery, wine and the dreaded nightshade vegetables; prompting friends, waiters and business peers to brand me as fussy and difficult in restaurants. They don’t say it outright; it’s written in the barely perceptible arc of their brows.
I haven’t eaten green peppers for five years. I’m afraid of cherries, salmon, shellfish, peanuts, and anything that may have come into contact with a peanut. I flirted with a fear of carrots for a season or two after hearing about an allergic baby, but thankfully that phobia didn’t take.
Because food allergies have become metaphorical tattoos—another way we brand ourselves as individuals—conversations about erratic histamines are everywhere. I stopped eating ketchup for three months after overhearing a teenager at Wendy’s relay her grim physical reactions to tomato-based purées. Short of plugging my ears with my fingertips in public and singing, I can scarcely avoid hearing about the latest tongue-swelling by strawberry or death by macaroon.
I’ve tried to fight back with friends by politely refusing to hear the gory details. I explain I’m battling an ever-increasing number of food phobias and if they share their own, I’ll embrace it like I’ve been hooked up to the Benadryl drip myself. Sometimes people understand, other times they assume I’m kidding. Recently, when a friend launched into a gruesome account involving lip swelling and toothpaste, I mumbled something about my hands being sticky and left the room. I can go months without a banana—which can cause cross-reactions to latex-allergy sufferers—but if I’m to venture out into the world day after day, I’m going to need my Colgate.
That I don’t have these particular sensitivities is inconsequential because, as any allergist worth her tiny histamine bottles will tell you, one can be stricken with a food allergy at any time. She’ll then add that it’s highly unlikely, but I won’t hear her over the sound of panic throbbing in my ears.
For me, it all comes down to a simple choice. Avoid eggplant and live. Or eat eggplant and probably live. For the Zeligphobic individual, for me, probably living isn’t good enough.
These fears can be traced back to a fear of death, which I probably developed at birth. Maybe my umbilical cord was cut too quickly—knowing my mother, she would have had it sliced in utero to minimize clutter. Maybe I wasn’t swaddled right away and left to flail around on the metal scale because the nurses were dressing my much prettier sister in my pink flannel blankets.
Or maybe, like Zelig, I’m just desperate for approval and willing to go to extreme subconscious lengths to not offend by being the first one to leave the party—life being the ultimate social gathering. Any way you look at it, I’m spending way too much time dodging the shrimp platter.