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Q&A: Sandra Beasley says allergies can bring out insensitivity in others Add to ...

Dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, mustard, mould, dust, grass, tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses and wool.

That's a laundry list of Sandra Beasley's allergies, one the author has spent years dodging through treacherous dates, dinner parties and holiday feasts, and now details in a new memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.

There were the near-weekly birthday parties at school, where she wolfed down hazelnuts safely stored in a classroom supply closet while the other children enjoyed cupcakes. During a "much-anticipated pizza party," little Sandra retreated to the library.

"That's not somebody designed to survive, now, is it?" snorted a nutritionist who visited Ms. Beasley's Grade 4 class days later.

In Grade 9, the author ducked a spin-the-bottle kiss; the boy had just gobbled some M&Ms. In college, some dubious hummus on a dinner date sent her running her fingertips over her cheeks, "hoping it looked like a flirtatious gesture as I felt for radiant heat or hives." (The date ends in an ambulance.)

Beyond telling her own story, the author traces the historical, cultural and scientific topography of allergies. In Canada, about 2.5 million people suffer from a significant food allergy, according to a 2010 report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The next peanuts? Corn and sesame, experts suggest.

Ms. Beasley spoke with The Globe and Mail from Washington about her allergies and the persistent chorus of deniers who deem the rise in sufferers an "inflated product of the yuppie imagination."

As a severe allergy sufferer, you write that you felt "like a kid playing dress-up."

When you have food allergies as a child, you do cultivate a hyper-awareness of the world. Parents of children with food allergies tend to raise very intelligent, responsible and mature little kids. The downside is that you can feel a burden that's out of proportion to what we think of as the pleasures of playful childhood. I never went into a birthday party as a kid without worrying because I knew that it was going to be a series of land mines.

Many of your anecdotes revolve around food at rituals, which become rituals of exclusion for you.

Food is key to a lot of community rituals, everything from taking communion to holidays such as Thanksgiving. When people come together to share food and one person not only cannot share that food, but the act of it being shared by others might bring danger to them, in the sense of not being able to get kisses at the end of the night or pass a plate as it goes around the table, it's tough. The flipside of that is when your community adapts to whatever your need is: That can be a tremendously welcoming thing. I have been to Christmas dinner where the entire household opted to serve only things that I could eat. That is truly a gift. The best gestures are voluntary and spontaneous.

Which was the worst incident for you?

The worst is when it's something really important to me and my ability to take part gets cut off by a reaction. The weddings, the vacations where we had to cut short a trip with the family; those are the worst because the physical discomfort of the reaction is paired with the guilt of having everybody forced to switch their focus to taking care of me instead of enjoying the moment.

As an adult, you write about never being "entirely swept up in the moment" romantically: "I have to be meticulous about the other person's hygiene, at the risk of feeling less like a lover and more like a mom."

At the moment I don't live with anybody; I have the freedom of essentially maintaining a household that is entirely Sandra-friendly, so to speak. I do struggle with trusting my partner to be as sensitive to my allergies as I am. I've had a lifetime of having to watch out for it and they've had maybe a couple of months or years.

At the same time, you aren't particularly empathetic about your sister's vegetarianism, which is a choice, not a necessity.

I've since come around and realized how important it is for everybody to feel the freedom of making their own dietary choices. But I did have that reaction. In talking with others in the allergy community, we do feel these little twinges of betrayal sometimes because people make decisions that we can't relate to.

In the history of allergies, when did the deniers show up?

Older generations of Americans will remember a sense that allergies were a choice or a weakness rather than an objective and undeniable condition. I can definitely remember my grandmother saying when I was a child, "Well back in my day, we didn't have the option of having food allergies." Over time, she's come around.

Any time there is a tremendous energy towards accommodating a subset of the population, another subset is going to become resentful and deny the concerns. When the focus switched from protecting the individual with allergies to shaping the communities in a way that was pre-emptively protective, when schools started asking parents not to send peanut products in school lunches, that created an awareness that joined up with a certain amount of frustration. It doesn't mean that they're wrong. I think it's so critical to find the balance between taking care of ourselves and asking the world to take care of us.

What about the backlash schools, like in Florida, where parents picketed an allergic student. They resented her for wasting their own kids' learning time with hand-washing and the like.

I think there are a thousand small ways in which every school has bureaucracy that takes time away from learning. It's certainly not all associated with food allergies. It was just an opportunity for a parent to vent frustration, but picking on the one thing that could really keep somebody safe seems kind of silly.

You write about Pope Benedict decrying gluten-free wafers as "invalid matter" in 1994. "Embedded in the Vatican policy," you write, "seems to be the suggestion that allergies are a challenge to willpower rather than an absolute barrier."

I have heard anecdotally that more and more churches have relaxed their attitudes towards serving wafers that are either gluten-free or have extremely small amounts of gluten. But the Vatican dictate was very clear. Philosophically, what is the point being made? If somebody is medically unable to consume this material which is associated with the faith, is the Church essentially saying that that person's body was not designed for that faith?

Restaurants are also now recoiling: Damian Cardone of New York's Tavern on the Green took to Facebook to gloat about serving gluten-loaded pasta to celiacs at Florindo's and David Chang suggested people will claim they have allergies to score better service.

We have chefs in D.C. who have flat out said, if you're going to request accommodations or substitutions, I would prefer you not dine at my restaurant because I have a vision for my food and I want to serve it that way. What I would say only in mild defence of the chef is that there are a lot of people who go in and they use the phrase "food allergy" as a shorthand for dietary preferences or to avoid something they don't like. I really object to that behaviour because if that person does ingest a tiny amount, either accidentally or because maybe at the end of the night they choose to have something because it's worth the trade, if that chef doesn't see somebody have a reaction on the grade of allergy, it really does damage the credibility of a community.

But this idea of refusing to accommodate people based on a legitimate true food allergy is ridiculous. I wish chefs would realize if we come to your restaurant and your cuisine is not a good match for us because of our allergies, we're probably not there because we chose to be there. We're probably there because someone we love chose to be there. We're not walking in there to make your life harder. We're just walking in to have a safe meal and go home at the end of the night not on a hospital stretcher.

What do you eat?

I eat a lot of salads, almonds. Bananas, chicken, rice. I love sushi. Once you stop fixating on all the things that I can't eat, you realize all the things that I can eat. I'm like everybody: I have my good eating days and my bad eating days. It's just that sometimes my bad eating days involve hives and swollen lips.



This interview has been condensed and edited.

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