Photo by Matthew Worden
Birthday celebrations, like many celebratory and annual events, center on food, on families and friends, on being together. Every culture has food rituals, specific ways of growing, harvesting, preparing and eating food. And, the birthday celebration in America froths confections and favorite meals—a cupcake tower and frosting in the shape of cartoon figures. This year, I had my first surprise birthday party, and my hosts served two cakes—a tres leches (three milks) delight and a double chocolate layer cake. Bouncy cakes created from all that sifting and blending, eggs and flour, orange peel, a pound of butter, heavy cream, Sugar. Among the guests, there’s talk of favorites—red velvet with butter cream icing, black forest, caramel, jam, rhubarb, chocolate ginger, molasses, coconut, carrot and pineapple upside-down. I’ve grown up listening to cake recipes. My great aunts always had a cake under domed glass with at least one slice missing to reveal the inner delicacies—stacks with preserves hidden, sliced strawberries oozing into juice between the layers, pineapple chunks thick with butter. Growing up, my grandmother and those great aunts took my cousins and I to summer cakewalk competitions, or dances, at the community center, where you were likely to win a whole cake for your efforts at strutting and swaying.
While my birthday celebrations were literally a summer cakewalk, Sandra Beasley’s birthday treat could not contain most of the above ingredients, and one of her guests always reminded and teased with the line, “Don’t kill the birthday girl.” Beasley used the line that she refers to “as part joke and part prayer” for the title of her new book, a memoir and cultural history of food allergies. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life has just been published by Crown and offers not only a humorous narrative of Beasley’s life-long experiences with food allergies, but she devotes much of the book to a thoughtful discussion of ingredients, trends in food production and consumption, challenges facing those with food allergies and the newest developments in food and allergy research.
In the opening of her book, Beasley writes that her Mom would first bring out a Sandra-friendly dessert, then after Sandra got her piece, her Mom would “dish out the real dessert” to all of the guests. That’s when someone would give the reminder not to touch, hug or kiss Beasley from that point forward. They could give her hives “or worse,” she writes in the book. She follows that with a list of her allergies: from dairy, egg, soy, beef, and shrimp to mangoes, honeydew, mustard, and cashews. The list continues, and Beasley writes at the end, “But in particular, I am one of more than 12 million Americans who have been diagnosed with food allergies, a figure that includes almost 4% of all children.” Beasley is quick to point out that she hasn’t written a book about victimization or complaint. She writes in the Introduction, “But those with food allergies aren’t victims. We’re people who—for better or worse—experience the world in a slightly different way. This is not a story of how we die. These are the stories of how we live.”
In email correspondence, Beasley answered some of my questions about her book. First, I wanted to know what had prompted her to write a nonfiction book instead of poetry. Beasley has two published collections of poetry, and I was curious to know if the book about food allergies had been steeping in her mind for a while. In her email response, she wrote, “This memoir draws partially on personal experiences I’d already explored in poetry—my first collection, Theories of Falling, features a sequence called ‘Allergy Girl.’ It was great to return to those moments, but be free to expand the exposition in the roomier space of prose. Someone needed to write this book. Here is this major health problem, affecting millions of people and in particular children, yet so much of what has been written is limited to promises of a cure or milk-free, nut-free, egg-free recipes. Food allergies change one’s relationship to the rituals of eating, central to so many cultures; food allergies really do change your life. That demands a deeper discussion. So I’m really looking forward to touring and reading in support of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl. I wanted to share the quirky, frank, poignant stories we crave from contemporary memoir—while also weaving in the provocative, enlightening science of allergies as a serious and often misunderstood phenomenon. I can’t wait to meet the readers for that kind of book, and the families with their own food allergy stories to share.”
After reading the book, my second consideration was Beasley’s family. She writes about their efforts to maintain a safe diet for Beasley while the family travels to visit relatives and visit with friends. But, I wanted to know how her parents shopped for food when Beasley has such a wide variety of allergies. How did her mom and dad decipher the lists of ingredients, especially when some ingredients are hidden? To protect Beasley, did they avoid indulging in their own favorite foods?
Beasley responded, “When I was growing up, my family largely adapted to my allergies by not keeping things around that I couldn’t eat. I can remember only a handful of exceptions. My mother might pick up a few steaks for the grill, knowing my roast chicken would be cooked far away in the oven. And after I’d gotten to bed, safe from any milk-tainted kisses on the cheek, my father loved to make late-night sandwiches piled high with swiss cheese. But overall, it was a Sandra-friendly kitchen. I remember the first time I came home from college, having been gone a few months, and opened the fridge door to find a carton of milk, a bag of shrimp, chopped egg salad, cucumbers, and so on. It was a shock. I realized how much they had sacrificed over the years, so that I would never feel quarantined in my own house.”
In one of the last chapters of the memoir, “The Nature of Nurture,” Beasley writes, “For weeks I’ve been obsessing over the ways food allergies come between a parent and child. The rejection of breast milk; the anxiety of a mother trying to cook foods she would never touch for herself; the hesitation of a father who does not want to give his child hives with a kiss. But I have to honor that there’s an intimacy being created there, too, one unique to any parent who manages a child’s chronic illness. My mother, the diplomat. The mother, the (un)registered nurse. My mother, the translator of cries and bubbles.”
In the book, Beasley’s family tries to find safe foods, but Beasley still struggles with her environment at school. When it’s her turn to bring the snacks, she can’t eat the snacks that she has chosen to share, nor can she trade foods at the lunch table. How did this exclusion from cultural and social activities surrounding food affect her? In her book, she mentions research and development of new allergy-friendly food products that look and taste like popular food products. How could these products help children with food allergies or do they create more confusion surrounding safe products?
“Because I’ve had most of my food allergies since birth,” Beasley wrote, “I don’t know what I’m missing. I’ve never had an omelet, or a bite of cheesecake, or a craving for chocolate. So a lot of the allergy-friendly products that have flooded the market don’t appeal to me. Why buy rice milk? I have always had my cereal dry, and my coffee black. I think these products are geared more toward those who have adopted a dairy-free or gluten-free diet later in life, and miss the things they once ate. And these products are great in terms of helping food-allergic children share desserts with their friends. Kids can be blunt, and a few times when I tried to share my Sandra-friendly treats—such as an applesauce-spice muffin that included raisins and walnuts—I got a ‘ick, that’s way too healthy’ shrug. They went for the cookies instead, while I yearned for a Sandra-friendly cupcake that would have tempted everyone.”
I was further curious about schools and how much progress has been made to avoid cross-contamination in recent years. Certainly, the cook who used tongs to serve pizza to a kid in line also picked up the fish for Beasley with the same tongs. It goes beyond double dipping at parties. In the book, Beasley shows that this gesture of cross-contamination was often overlooked in our social sphere, but what about now?
“The awareness of how to recognize and respond to allergy issues in schools has improved drastically since my childhood,” Beasley wrote in an email. “Teachers and nurses are more familiar with the mechanics of Benadryl, Epipens, and inhalers; lunch rooms are designed with an eye toward minimizing casual cross-contamination of dishes and eating spaces; craft projects revolving around food are no longer used in the classroom. I am deeply grateful for this, even though a small part of me mourns the loss of making peanut-buttered-pinecone bird feeders in first grade. But having spent my 1980s watching countless classmates celebrate with birthday cupcakes or Christmas cookies, while I had to settle for a handful of saltines or raw hazelnuts, I can tell you: those traditions aren’t worth exclusion, especially in the secular and socially vulnerable space of elementary school, especially when a young child’s life could be threatened.”
In the memoir, the reader views the repetition of Beasley wanting to join her friends and family: at the lunch table, at the messy birthday party, in the food fight, in the kitchen while preparing dinner, but her food allergies prevent her from fully participating either because she must excuse herself from the scene, an allergic reaction sends her to the ER, and/or she’s unable to enjoy the fruits of culinary labor. Yet, in the book, Beasley is reluctant to ban foods from public spaces, even though an allergen in a food could cause her to be excluded.
“Though I am very protective of making schools an allergy-friendly space, I have mixed feelings on the issue of restricting foods in other shared spaces, where presumably young children have individual adult supervision,” Beasley wrote in our email correspondence. “A decade ago, the media drew attention to two allergy phenomena—the potential for anaphylactic reactions, and the potential for reaction to airborne particles of a food—and people conflated the two. So we ended up with this mainstream anxiety over death from being in the same room as a peanut, when the reality is that such a severe reaction would almost certainly require direct ingestion of the food. If I walk by a ballpark snack stand that sells spiced cashews, I have to keep moving. If someone with buttered popcorn sits down next to me in a movie theater, I might have to change seats. But I don’t blame the vendor or the patron for my itchy eyes, and I’d never suggest banning either food.
“Airplanes are a trickier issue because there is no seating flexibility,” Beasley continues. “The allergy world has recently been up in arms over American Airlines’ obnoxious policy of roasting peanuts for first-class passengers while in flight. Now that’s just excessive, particularly since the act of roasting significantly increases the amount of airborne peanut protein. And I don’t think airlines should issue nuts in their snack packs, because there are so many other options. But as someone with food allergy who relies on almonds and peanut-butter pretzels as my primary ‘safe’ snacks while on the road, I hesitate to say that even passenger-carried nuts should be banned from planes.”
All of the awareness about food allergies has not convinced some skeptics. And, in spite of more educational material available to the public, there are people who say that they have a food allergy when they may be lactose-intolerant or simply on a diet, not allergic to a specific allergen. I asked Beasley what it’s like when people think that food allergies are eccentricities to be claimed.
She responded, “I think most of us have known someone who has on occasion claimed, ‘oh, I’m allergic’ in a restaurant in order to avoid a certain food, based merely on taste or calorie preference. The problem is that when that person cheats on their diet later in the meal, or is accidentally exposed to a food and shows no reaction, it damages the credibility of the entire food allergy community. If Jessica Simpson is truly severely allergic to tomatoes and cheese, then why is she filming a commercial for Pizza Hut? You would never catch me carrying around a pizza box in my palm—the grease alone can cause hives. My grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, once joked, ‘We couldn’t afford to have food allergies when I was your age.’ But overall, I hope people have relaxed their prejudice that food allergies [are] some kind of imagined, neurotic tic.
“As a teenager,” Beasley continued in the email, “the tables were turned on me when my younger sister decided to go vegetarian. You’d think I’d have been sympathetic to the difficulties created by that lifestyle, in terms of eating out and traveling. But actually, I was bratty about it. I labeled adopting a restrictive diet in the name of ethics as a kind of luxury. I’d always had to be an utterly pragmatic eater, choosing what was safe instead of what I wanted. I was jealous that she had the choice.”
When I read the section in the book about Beasley’s sister, that’s when the restrictions in Beasley’s diet really started to sink in…for many, being a vegetarian or a vegan means limitations. But for Beasley, some fruits and vegetables, and more, are also allergens. So, what does she eat? In meeting for breakfast, lunch or dinner, what would she choose from a menu or select at the grocery store? What foods make up Beasley’s meals?
She wrote in an email, “…[A]t this point in my life, I pretty much stick to a whole foods diet. Breakfast: orange juice, almonds, banana. Dinner: tinned sardines or a sliced avocado over greens, with peppers and tomatoes. Snacks: a pint of blueberries, or a bowl of quinoa. When I’m not on the road—or indulging in DC’s amazing sushi scene—I eat very simply and very repetitively. And I know a lot of food-allergic adults from my generation who do the same.”
Watch a book trailer for Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life on YouTube.
Read my first interview with Sandra Beasley about her poetry collection, I Was the Jukebox (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010).
Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, published by Crown, is available now.
Buy the book Amazon
Sandra Beasley won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize for I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo (W.W. Norton, 2010). Her first collection Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Slate, and The Believer, and was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2010.
Other honors include the 2010 University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She has received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, VCCA, and Vermont Studio Center.
Beasley lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of the Writer’s Center. Her nonfiction has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.