Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

Holy Mole

Much as I would like to, I cannot be a fearless eater.  The range of edibles I am able to sample is limited by food allergies.

Just to give you an idea about what I’m dealing with, let me list everything I know of, and can think of, that I’m allergic to: peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, chestnuts (this includes all butters, oils, and other derivatives), sesame seeds (including oil and tahini paste), poppy seeds (in large quantities), fish (with fins, not shellfish–the opposite of most people).

It might not seem like much in the scheme of things, but it permeates more of my eating life than you’d imagine.  I must carefully read the labels of all foods I eat (which includes knowing alternate names for things–filberts=hazelnuts, etc.).  At restaurants, I pepper the staff with questions.  Even when I’ve put my server through the Spanish Inquisition, cross contamination in the kitchen can foil all efforts.  Seafood restaurants are a gamble, Thai food is almost completely off limits.  Ice cream parlors are always to be approached with caution.  Baked goods are treated with suspicion.  I order Asian cuisine expecting at least a minor reaction and rejoice when I get through a meal unscathed.  I cannot eat at friends’ homes without grilling the cook on the ingredients.  I even check with my relatives before partaking in unknown dishes.  I carry Benadryl and and EpiPen with me at all times.

Still, I am lucky.  Unlike many with food allergies, mine are relatively minor.  I will not get a reaction simply from peanut dust in the air (although my eyelids will puff up sometimes when fish is being cooked nearby).  My reactions, for the most part, have a relatively slow onset, allowing me to evaluate the situation and decide on a course of action.  However, I have made four trips to the Emergency Room over my lifetime because of severe reactions.

The most recent was about three weeks ago.  Adam and I decided we wanted Mexican food and chose a place called Nuevo Leon in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.  Mexican is a cuisine that I rarely worry about.  The foods I’m allergic to don’t tend to be integrated into Mexican food as deeply as others, and when they do appear, they tend to be obvious and easily avoided.  It is a rare chance for me to order nearly anything on the menu.

So it didn’t occur to me to worry when I ordered chicken mole, a dish I’d been craving.  I dove into the complimentary appetizer of pork and beans in red sauce with a fantastic soft corn tortilla.  I dunked my chips into the variety of salsas with abandon.  And I tore into the queso con chorizo with relish.  The service was quick, even though the restaurant was quite busy, and before we could finish everything that had already been put before us, our entrees arrived.

Our waitress placed the giant plate in front of me, laden with multiple pieces of chicken smothered in a thick layer of the deep brown sauce.  It smelled amazing and tasted wonderful.  But about three bites in, things started to go wrong.  Quickly, hives popped up in the back of my mouth and my throat began to feel tight.  I was frankly thrown off by the sudden onset of totally unexpected symptoms.  This, unlike some more minor reactions I’ve had, was not to be ignored.

I calmly told Adam that symptoms had popped up, but that I wasn’t worried quite yet.  Except I was. When the hives pop up this fast and this prominently, pharmaceutical intervention is necessary.  I excused myself and went to the bathroom, my stomach churning and threatening to expel the offending food.  My mind raced–What could it be?  The symptoms indicated pecans or walnuts–the foods that cause the most violent reaction for me.  When I returned to the table, my stomach contents thankfully still in place, my concern was impossible to mask.  I popped a Benadryl strip into my mouth and told Adam we’d see how that worked and begged him not to make a big deal out of it.

It seems stupid, but I think perhaps the thing that bothers me the most about the allergies is the fuss.  It’s bad enough I have to read every label and ask tons of questions, once something goes wrong, I’d rather deal with it in as quiet a manner as possible. Give me a Benadryl or two and put me to sleep.

Instead, Adam asked a staff member (likely the owner) whether there were nuts in the mole.  Yes, the man responded, there were peanuts.  Rather than solve a mystery for me, it deepened it.  Peanuts are one of my more mild allergies, and the easiest to avoid.  With the prevalence of peanut allergies on the rise, restaurants and food producers make it quite clear if peanuts are either in or possibly came into contact with a food product.  A few months ago, I bit into a pot sticker and discovered a peanut in it.  I consumed half of a nut and was still able to get through the symptoms with a glass of water and sheer stubbornness.  For my reaction to be this severe, there must have been an enormous amount of peanuts in that mole. I was a bit miffed that the man told us we should have asked, as had it crossed my mind to, I would have.  But both he and our waitress were apologetic and were even nice enough not to charge us for the mole. (Making an already affordable dinner even more affordable.)

I would have been happy to ask for take-out boxes and slide unnoticed out the door, citing some vague discomfort as our excuse for leaving early.  While it was perhaps beneficial to all for the staff to be alerted to a potential allergy problem they might think to point out to other patrons in the future, I hate to drag others into my allergies.  It wasn’t their fault I had a reaction, making them feel bad about it wasn’t necessary.  I hate how much my family and friends have curbed their eating habits around me as it is, I don’t need strangers involved as well.

As we exited the restaurant, my two doses of Benadryl had begun to kick in, and except for waves of excruciating heartburn, I was feeling better, but tired.  We rode the pink line train home and I settled into comfy clothes and onto the couch, expecting to sleep it off in a Benadryl-induced haze.

But this time was different.  Rather than the symptoms fading in favor of extreme fatigue, new and lingering symptoms emerged.  The heartburn came and went in painful waves.  I had a violent coughing fit, followed by some of the worst congestion in my sinuses I’d ever experienced.  My chest was tight and my breathing became labored.  I began to fear falling asleep, honestly not sure how my body would figure out how to breathe if I wasn’t actively working on it.  None of this went unnoticed by Adam, who, pushed to his limit with worry, finally insisted we go to the ER.

Grumpy from the onslaught of symptoms, I resisted as best I could, but ultimately I knew he was right. Even though my throat wasn’t closing in on my windpipe, threatening my life in a more immediate sense, the combination of symptoms and their unwillingness to go away, even hours after eating the mole, was deeply concerning.  And food allergies are not to be ignored.

The Rush University Medical Center ER team pumped me full of Benadryl, steroids, and acid reducers, and after a few hours hooked up to an IV, I finally felt like the worst was behind me.

I was gun shy for the next few days, sticking to familiar safe foods.  Though I was armed with a steroid prescription to keep my immune system in check, another reaction so soon after the initial one was bound to be fairly serious.  But by the weekend, Taste of Chicago had kicked off, and my cousins were in town, and I was ready to take some culinary chances.  Still, each bite I took carried with it the nagging feeling that I should have one hand on the EpiPen just in case.

Because unfortunately for me, if food is involved, fear will always come with it.

Mini review:  Nuevo Leon (Pilsen, Chicago, IL): Nestled in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen, this is one of many choices for Mexican cuisine.  But multiple recommendations steered us to this well priced spot.  The interior isn’t much, but the service is quick, even with a full restaurant.  Two kinds of salsa are provided with chips–I liked the smokier of the two.  A complimentary appetizer is a nice touch.  We had pork and beans in red sauce with a soft corn tortilla.  I’m told they rotate.  If the other dishes are half as good as the pork, they’re all worth the price of admission.  The queso con chorizo was a platter of gooey, spicy goodness.  The chicken mole was wonderful until I had an allergic reaction to it.  The staff was responsive when we asked (too late) about the ingredients, but I was a little off-put by the response of, “You should have asked,” when we informed them I was allergic to peanuts.  Had I thought to ask, I would have.  However, we were not charged for the mole and all staff members we dealt with were very apologetic.  We’ll return, but no mole next time.  Rating:  Food porn (“Can’t talk, eating.”)

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