I’m interested in how people learn to avoid foods or, more rarely, learn how to re-introduce them into their diets. More specifically, I’m interested in the emotional and social journey that learning to avoid or beginning to eat foods can mean, especially for those people for whom certain foods can cause a dangerous anaphylactic reaction. These transitions that people with food allergies must navigate make for compelling stories that highlight the emotional and social power of food in our culture.
My standard breakfast these days is a fried egg, a bowl of fruit, and a cup of black French press coffee. I can buy great organic eggs from the butcher shop on my corner. I have a dedicated stainless steel pan for my morning egg, which I fry in half a tablespoon of browned, salted butter. Sometimes my local grocery store has good fruit. As the weather has warmed up, I’ve also been grabbing fruit from sidewalk stands in Manhattan when I’m out and about. My preferred coffee these days are the South American beans (Chiapas, Mexico, Peru, and right now, Brazil, YUMMM) from Brooklyn Roasting Company.
This a delicious way to start the day. I’m grateful every time I sit down to this simple, quick, healthful meal.
Eggs and my body haven’t always gotten along. When I was a child, I remember complaining about “yucky burps” to my mom whenever I ate them. Around age 7, I stopped eating them altogether. In college, I tried lots of foods that I had rejected as a child, but I never caught on to eggs.
After college, I started eating them all the time because they were about $1 a dozen at the big regional grocery store in my town. I ate them several mornings a week, and those mornings I would reliably feel ill. Eventually I talked through this pattern with a doctor and realized that I should maybe give up eggs in the morning.
I ended up cutting out all eggs. No mayonnaise, no eggy cake or muffins, no challah or brioche. Lots of things were going on with my stomach and sinuses at the time. Giving up eggs made a huge difference to how I was feeling overall.
But I was weak. I loved muffins, and they were easy energy boosts in the afternoon at my office job. I snuck bites of dense, white vanilla cake with buttercream frosting from a local bakery when my friends bought it for dessert at dinner parties. The pastries were ok for me.
Over time, I got a little bit more adventurous. Pancakes and waffles were iffy. But then all of a sudden they were ok. I had made other big changes in my diet after cutting out eggs, the biggest of which was ending four years of vegetarianism. My body felt stronger, I gained a little bit of weight, and my stomach was more settled in general. Eggs were back in, at least in well-cooked forms.
Over the next couple years, I slowly ate eggs more and more. I started making pancakes on Sunday mornings and freezing the leftovers to eat during the week. I made a few quiches and invited friends over to share them. I got farm eggs from a good friend whose in-laws had a flock of ducks and chickens and made a regional custard-based dessert called an “apple baby”.
Eventually I fried one of those farm eggs and ate it on its own. And I was fine. And I ate farm eggs on sandwiches, for breakfast, as omelets for dinner. Eggs were back in my life.
I’m not a doctor or a lab scientist, so I can’t diagnose why I’ve had such an up and down relationship with eggs. Blood tests for egg-specific IgE came up negative around the time I cut eggs out of my diet, but they were definitely making me feel ill. Though physicians are good at describing food allergies and intolerances and making recommendations about how to deal with them, they’re not so good at predicting when and why they develop or why they clear up. There is lots of research going on as we speak to try to figure those things out.
Whatever the reason, those mornings when I start my day with eggs, fruit, and coffee, I feel incredibly lucky to have eggs in my diet. As I talk to people with food allergies, I’m reminded of how difficult it is to avoid common foods like eggs. Foods can become a source of anxiety and fear when they are potentially harmful to an individual’s body. Since food is so central to social life, having to avoid a food can mean feeling socially marginalized, as well as posing an inconvenience to ordering from a menu or picking up an afternoon snack at the corner store. My own journey with eggs – whether the problem was an allergy, an intolerance, something wrong with another aspect of my diet, or something else – illustrates the way that foods can inspire anxiety and desire in a very personal way.