Gut Reaction


I’m not allergic to anything. Thank god. My parents probably would have disowned me—maybe just tossed me in a basket and sent me down the Delaware River. In our house, eating what was on your plate didn’t usually present a problem, but if you happened not to like what was being served, Mom had three words for you: Too. Freakin’. Bad. Strangely, Dad has sort of denied the existence of food allergies—especially nuts. Of course, there is loads of evidence to the contrary (and some extremely vociferous parents), but he found an article in the New York Times to support this view, and now it’s pretty much a done deal.

I’ve seen too many kids stuck with epi pens to truly agree with him, but I do find the whole concept annoying. Kids not being able to bring PB&J sandwiches to school under penalty of expulsion, airlines switching to pretzels (when honey roasted peanuts are clearly superior), and people just coddling and Purell-ing the crap out of their kids to the point where they can’t eat anything or spend 20 minutes outside without breaking out in hives.

Mom and Dad let us eat dirt, play in raspberry brambles, build tree houses, and generally be kids, thus we’re reasonably well-adjusted and food-friendly. I do, however, have a few weird food reactions—some of which are cool, others not so much. I like to think of them as quirks, though, so as not to run the risk of getting shipped down river to another family.

Celery: These long, slender unassuming stalks are one of my favorite vegetables. I know, that’s kind of like saying “vanilla is my favorite ice cream flavor.” But, much like vanilla ice cream, celery is a great vehicle for toppings—hummus, dressing, peanut butter and raisins. Its crunchy texture and refreshing, watery blandness is addictive. It’s got something else going for it, too. Celery makes my mouth tingly and my tongue numb. It’s a bit like the good-for-you version of Pop Rocks. I first noticed this sensation at snack time in kindergarten, and I’ve since conducted some very unscientific experiments. It’s taken me 20 years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s mostly the celery strings that pack the punch. Also, the bigger and greener the stalk is, the number I get.

When I was a kid, I wanted—no joke—to extract and concentrate whatever it is in celery that caused temporary numbness, and market it as an all-natural alternative to anesthesia or novacaine. I’ve since been informed that I am probably just mildly allergic (gasp!) to it. Finding out that a. I had a food allergy and b. that tingly feeling wasn’t universal was more devastating than when Cassie Bowman told me there was no Santa. Losing the magic of Christmas vs. waving goodbye to a scientifically distinguished and financially charmed life that might involve me having a yatch? Even at 8, I totally had my priorities straight.

Milk: I’m lactose intolerant. I swear, it’s not an allergy, it’s an enzyme deficiency! So, partaking of just about anything in the dairy family makes me, well, let’s just say somewhat rumbly in my tumbly. In similar non-scientific experiments—a kind of high-stakes game of dairy roulette—I’ve discovered that milk and cheese are not too bad, in reasonable quantities. (That does not include a large calzone consumed mostly by oneself). Yogurt is absolutely fine—something about the good bacteria helping my stomach breakdown the lactose? Tragically, ice cream is pretty aggressive. Given the consequences, I’ll usually pass on spooning Kirkland brand vanilla straight from the carton in favor of a little Hunka-Chunka-PB-Fudge (yeah, that’s a real flavor).

And you can just forget about milk that has been frothed, blended, or otherwise aggravated. Cappuccinos and smoothies are a risk I am sometimes willing to take. But ordering a milkshake (ice cream and milk all whipped around and frothy) is just like throwing my head back and laughing in the face of certain danger. Ugh.

Spinach: I don’t know if this is a universal thing or not, but spinach makes my teeth feel like they’re covered in a thin layer of chalk. It’s not too bad eaten raw, but when it’s cooked it feels like someone is outfitting my teeth with little calcium sweaters. I recently spoke to a friend about this phenomenon, in was one of those extremely satisfying “you get this too?!?” conversations. So, I am beginning to think it’s not just me. (Phew!)

It’s a seriously unpleasant sensation, and I like a lot of other equally green and leafy vegetables better (broccoli raab, kale, swiss chard), so why do I keeping eating it? Before, the answer was simple, because Mom kept making it. But now, I think I am going to stop (ok, except for spanakopita).

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  1. Maggy says

    There are few things I won’t eat, but there’s really nothing I can’t eat. You know the kind of thing that makes you gag and you would never eat unless you absolutely had to. My friend Gemma is like this with mushrooms, she’s always trying to explain to me that they are disgusting and that they live on decaying matter, this was her opinion. And then she went to India and her yoga instructor/health guru confirmed what I’m sure she already believed: they are like poison to the body! Now she had proof for me. Poison or not, I love ‘em. In fact the night before the big mushroom lecture I ate two grilled portabella mushrooms with pesto and melted mozzarella on a ciabatta roll. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Like you said, Shaz – growing up in our house there was no choice. You ate what was put in front of you, so we ate it all. We even ate raw clams and mussels in France when we were 10 and 12. We certainly didn’t enjoy the experience, but we didn’t gag. Nearly fifteen years later I know mom counts that as one of the proudest moments of her life.

    But I’ve finally met my match. Last week we had lunch at the building site. Lovely Agnes Lungu cooked lunch for the maternity clinic committee and made extra for us. She made nsima (the local staple made of cassava or maize), a green, leafy vegetable and usipa. I knew from my previous trips to Malawi that I wouldn’t like usipa, these small dried fish which you eat whole. Heads, tails, bones, guts and all. But I would never dream of appearing rude or ungrateful for the lunch she had kindly prepared so Andy and I wasted no time, eating an chewing at first one small, silver fish each. I gagged. It turned my stomach inside out. The fishy taste was so overpowering and the sensation of chewing on bones, however small, was enough to make my eyes water. By the grace of God we were left to eat alone, so we could commiserate. I said to him, “I can’t do this. This is the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted.” But I knew I had to keep going.

    We both found our own coping mechanisms. I’m not proud when I say that at 26 years old I was making a ball of nsima, pushing a piece of usipa inside the ball and wrapping it in vegetables, swallowing the whole kit and caboodle whole so as not to taste the fish. Andy was playing Operation, cleverly devising a way of de-boning these fish no more than three inches long and half an inch wide. We managed to make a pretty decent dent in the bowl, but left some, thinking it might appear polite. But then we had a horrible thought: now they think we like usipa and will make it for us again!

  2. Pam says

    We have friends whose son could pretty easily die if exposed to nuts, so David and I respect serious food allergies. It’s just the mild to imaginary ones we tend to be skeptical of. I’m much more interested in responding to the teeth-coating, tongue-tingling affects of spinach and celery.

    Unlike you, I don’t like the mouth-numbing I get eating dark bitter celery stalks. As much as I love the mild tender inner stalks (I crave salad made with the final inner trunk), I avoid the exterior layers—at least raw. When I was a kid I’d pull back the first layer or two, and pluck one straight from the heart. I’m surprised Mom didn’t call me on it.

    These days I buy celery hearts, a virtually nonexistent product not that many years ago, which leads me to believe there are an awful lot of people who feel the way I do about it.

    On the other hand, the spinach phenomenon you write about bothers me less. Many years ago I remember writing a Cook’s Illustrated article on how to cook tender greens—specifically spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard. I concluded that, unlike the tough ones that need a shallow blanch to remove bitterness, tender greens simply needed a quick sauté.

    Paula Wolfert took issue with me, citing the morning-after-you-forgot-to-brush-your-teeth feeling most people get when they eat it sans blanche.

    It’s true that if you blanch spinach in a pot of salty boiling water, drain it under cold water and squeeze it dry before sautéing, it loses its teeth-coating quality. It also loses something else… a whole lot of flavor!

    Going forward I promise to blanch your spinach if you’ll agree to eat my outer celery stalks.

  3. Holly says

    Sharon, you do know about Lact-aid, right? My husband is lactose-intolerant, and it’s a miracle pill! He just takes one (the fast-acting kind) as he eats his first bite of ice cream, and it makes the rest of the evening much more pleasant for both of us!

    I just wanted to share … anyone being forced to go without ice cream, really creamy mac & cheese, or large quantities of calzone is just sad.

  4. Elizabeth says

    Here’s a weird one to add to your repertoire of “not your run of the mill” tingly tongue reactions. Pine mouth. My sister recently experienced this after cooking a romantic dinner for her husband on a weekend away. Evidently some might experience what is sometimes called a “taste disturbance” for days after consuming pine nuts of all things! It is described as a metallic taste rendering everything else tainted with the overriding bitterness left behind. Thank you Mr. Pine Nut. As for me…coming from a long line of eaters, primarily on my paternal side, I am pretty confident I could indulge in a spinach salad topped with celery and pine nuts, washed down with a glass of cold milk and be contemplating the next meal with no discernible distress. So long as it doesn’t include usipa.

  5. Margaret Anderson says

    I’ve been enjoying reading Threemanycooks and finally got an opportunity to join in. Food allergies! Never thought I had a one.. until one breakfast buffet at a hotel in Switzerland,I tried this round white golf ball sized thing in the mixed fruit platter.We finished breakfast and went up to the room to pack and join the tour. I felt most strange trying to pack and passed out on the floor and Bill had to get the hotel doctor,etc. To make a long story short it was canned lychie nuts.Very scary. I know that food allergies can be no joke.

  6. Liz says

    Ummm – That looks good. I might have to give it a try. I do like pasta dishes, but I tend to default to spaghetti sauce (which I love), so new ways to prepare it are always fun.

  7. says

    i know this an old post, so i feel like commenting should be off limits, but a.) i am reading all of your archives (ps i love your blog) and b.) i totally get the same numb tongue sensation from eating celery. i had to share so you knew that you weren’t alone.

  8. Tana says

    Wow, this is amazing! I just Googled “kale makes my mouth feel strange” and there you were, describing me perfectly. I couldn’t have said it better. It happens with kale and spinach most notably and lately it seems to have gotten worse. I quit eating meat about eight months ago and I’m mostly eating raw as well. That means TONS of vegetables. I think my “reaction” is getting more pronounced or else I’m allergic to one or more of the veggies I’m eating. Guess I’ll have to run a test and figure out what’s going on, but in the meantime, it’s good to know I’m not totally weird and there are others out there with “sweater mouth.” LOL

  9. says

    Celery, celery gets to me. I’ve also noticed that the effect grows over time. It affected me less when I was younger and ate it more frequently. Now that I so rarely have it, it gets worse each time. Also, it’s less tingly cooked than raw.

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