For the past couple of weeks there has been a surge of interest in food allergies and in particular the way ingredients are displayed near sandwiches and other such items of food in coffee shops and convenience shops.
An inquest in the UK last month found that a young woman’s death could have been avoided if a label had been made clearer on a sandwich bought from a major cafe chain. The sandwich had been bought at the airport branch of the food outlet and the family had boarded their plane when the young woman began to feel the effects of the food. She was allergic to sesame seeds, which happened to be in the sandwich, but which allegedly wasn’t properly displayed. As a result, she died on an aeroplane despite taking two injections of adrenalin that she carried with her always.
The case has got me thinking. My partner is allergic to nuts. I had never met anyone with such a serious allergy before him. It’s terrifying. If he eats a tiny piece of a nut he will be able to feel it instantly on the sides of his lips first and then his throat will begin to tighten and he will eventually stop breathing. If he is not treated immediately or given an injection of adrenalin he could die. And all this from a little nut? That’s nuts.
Living with a Sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head must change one somehow and I can see it in his behaviour with food. It’s taken me a while to understand and come to terms with it and I’m not entirely used to it yet, which I suspect is a good thing to keep levels of vigilance high enough to prevent accidents occurring. To be in a constant state of concern when deciding what to eat is completely new to me. I can’t imagine what the parents of that young woman must have felt watching their child die in front of them over something so simply avoided. It’s tragic and heartbreaking, and a wake-up call to how we display the ingredients in food for sale.
In my home I worry that I’ll I accidentally kill my partner one day by bringing an innocent-looking jar of pesto into the house. I’ve stopped eating nuts, one of my favourite snack foods of all time, out of fear that a piece of nut will lodge itself in my teeth and find its way onto his lips. When we’re out having coffee and he fancies a cake with, I dread going to buy him something and ask about nuts, prepared for the looks of frustration and annoyance when there are no nut-free options; the look of abject disappointment in his face reducing me to tears in the middle of Nero’s.
I may be slightly exaggerating here. We’ve brought it to the attention of his favourite coffee shops to little effect. It seems people with allergies just don’t really matter in the grand scheme of coffee shop owners.
My partner has regaled me with stories of his brothers trying to play ‘tricks’ on him when they were children and not fully aware (I hope) of the effects that the humble nut would have on their brother. The trip to the emergency room taught them a lesson, one I am trying at all costs to avoid.
I refuse to allow a nut to pass the threshold to our home so in a way I’ve become a nut-free person, simply going about life without the luxury of snacking on almonds, enjoying the sweet, delicious taste of hazelnut chocolate or the savoury brilliance of walnut with cheese and chutney. However, my life will not be restrained by the paucity of those pebbles of protein-packed pleasure, and I have found something much sweeter. So I will resist nuts in all their retched reverence for the sake of my sweet, defective darling, an innocent victim of a mysterious and menacing condition. We just need those coffee shops to be more careful.
Christina Curran is freelance journalist based in Northern Ireland.