Few people would consider my job as a food writer to be a dangerous one, but I just found out that I might have a deadly meat allergy.
Here are a few meals that might kill me:
- Corned beef and mustard on rye
- Chili con carne
- Cottage pie
- Grilled gammon steak
- Philly cheesesteak
Although there's always the real threat of contracting a norovirus or being hunted by a crazed chef I gave a bad review, I'm not exactly parachuting into forest fires or ice-road trucking on the work clock. But when I learned that I might have a fatal allergy to red meat, I started looking into safer career options. I can't confirm that I have the allergy until August, when I can order the only available test for alpha-gal antibodies, a test that is not FDA-approved and is of undetermined value in actually diagnosing allergies to meat. Like a baseball player who loses his poise at the plate, I have suffered a loss of confidence as a food writer.
As I am penning this sentence, I could be eating a hot dog from a Copenhagen street cart or a steak pie at a pub somewhere in London. If I did, my throat might close up and hives spread across my face like acne in overdrive. I'd collapse unless I'm quick enough to pull out the EpiPen that I ought to carry everywhere, but I never do.
The beginning of my problems with animal protein began with a mouse. Or to be precise, a drug called cetuximab, which is made from mice. In 2005, a group of cancer patients taking the drug developed urticaria (hives), angioedema (swelling of the lips and tongue), and anaphylaxis (a deadly allergic reaction). The symptoms baffled doctors. But when the patients reported similar reactions to red meat, doctors finally got a clue. Blood tests revealed that the patients had antibodies for galactose-α-1,3-galactose, a.k.a. alpha-gal, a sugar found in the muscle tissue of non-primate mammals—including mice. The reason the patients had alpha-gal antibodies remained a mystery until researchers noticed that the medical histories of affected patients included stories about tick bites. Cetuximab allergies were distributed across the habitat of the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum: Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri.
A Szechuan meat dish
Last summer, I was living alone in the Missouri woodlands, taking a break from New York City. After I had collected enough ticks to declare myself an arachnid preserve, I moved to Oxford, England, with my copy of Paula Wolfert's Food of Morocco. One Friday, I bought a kilo of lamb shoulder and braised it with almonds and raisins, Tiznit-style, and I spent the next day shitting out my stomach lining. When my nausea and cramping improved, I diagnosed myself with food poisoning and went to bed dreaming of a proper English breakfast. By 4 AM, I woke up covered in hives, and my lips had swollen to Pamela Anderson proportions. I called the village doctor, who immediately dispatched an ambulance. After a tablet of an antihistamine (cetirizine), the hives disappeared. I suspected that I was allergic to almonds or mushrooms, or any number of other foods I had ingested. And so I carried on in a state of continuous low-grade terror that a mouthful of anything might be my last.
In January, I took an impromptu trip to Paris, a city stuffed with tree nuts and wild mushrooms. I ate veal head, six or seven almond croissants, raw oysters, clams, a handful of foraged blue foot mushrooms, and lamb heart, all washed down with cheap red wine. The morning of my scheduled departure, I woke up in the hostel, stumbled to the wash closet, and painted every available surface with a boiling slurry of half-digested baguette. Because of the volume and variety of the food that I had consumed, food poisoning seemed likely. I hiked to Gare du Nord, boarded Eurostar, connected at King's Cross to Paddington, took First Great Western to Didcot Parkway (a mole on Britain's beautiful ass), caught the 40-minute rail-replacement bus to Oxford (which was blasting Duran Duran and 80s pop music louder than my diabolical burps), and managed the walk back to my flat before I vomited. I woke at 4 AM with hives, surprised because, in the months between episodes, I had eaten almonds and mushrooms without problems. An American allergist hypothesized long-distance that I had an allergy to alpha-gal. It would explain the delayed reaction—the allergy takes three to six hours to begin—and the months without symptoms. For unknown reasons, the allergy depends on the type and cut of meat, portion size, and processing. Beef, pork, lamb, deer, and mice can trigger the allergy. In my case, I reacted most violently to lamb.
While I could take this as a call to vegetarianism, I think I'm in a state of denial. Like detective stories, medical mysteries are exciting because they fulfill our need to figure it out and taste a blend of empathy and disgust. We feel compassion for the patients, even imagine the horrors of their suffering, but seek to distance ourselves. It could never happen to us. But when it does happen to you, the pleasure of the puzzle is connected to fear.
Yet I keep playing Russian roulette, knowing that one day I may end up cold and blue, eyes glazed open to the dark abyss. Pump my stomach and look for deer sausage, squirrel, and the remains of a nice prime rib still slathered in horseradish cream. In part, I keep eating meat because the danger has heightened the pleasure factor, like bareback sex, mainlining heroin, base jumping, or motorcycling sans helmet. In part, I eat meat to prove to myself that I am normal. But mostly, it is my love for my job and my passion for food that drives me toward death.
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2014.