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Munchies

I’m an Irishman with a Lethal Potato Allergy

My life-threatening allergy to fries, mashed potatoes, and even potato vodka has made life difficult—and painfully ironic. But I've always wondered what my fate would've been like if I’d been born in Ireland some 200 years ago.

by Kevin Zawacki
Sep 1 2017, 10:00pm

In life, some of us are forced to endure poetic ironies: A tone-deaf child born to accomplished musicians. The klutz with two left feet, cursed with the last name "Dancer."

I, too, am a victim, although my irony is far more dangerous: I'm an Irishman who's utterly, severely, and lethally allergic to potatoes. Despite my Irish first name, heritage, and citizenship (obtained here in the US, years ago), to me, tubers are tantamount to poison—a poison most other people relish.

It's no meek aversion, either. The slightest trace of potatoes sets off a harrowing reaction: a closed-up throat, difficulty breathing, horrid cramps, and profuse sweating. It's mandated the embarrassing habit of carting around an EpiPen—or, at the very least, a package of Benadryl.

I've nearly met my demise in the most mundane of places: in a diner booth, at the hands of a turkey-and-stuffing sandwich.

Amplifying this allergy is the fact that potatoes are everywhere. They're sometimes obvious, frequenting chip bags, shepherd's pie, and Wendy's deep fryers. But they lurk in the most unexpected places, too. Potato flour is often used in bread and baked goods. It's hiding in pre-packaged shredded cheese, and it turns up in crackers, soup stock, hot dog buns, candy, stuffing, microwaveable snacks, and more. You may spend your time savoring dinner; I spend mine scanning microscopic ingredient lists for that telling passage, "Made with potato flour." Or, I'm busy pestering the wait staff: "Excuse me, is there any potato in the pot roast?"

As a result, I've nearly met my demise in the most mundane of places: in a diner booth, at the hands of a turkey-and-stuffing sandwich. At a Fourth of July picnic, via a deceptive hamburger bun. The smell of frying tubers in fast-food lobbies is enough to turn my stomach. And I was once almost rushed to the ER after eating a grilled cheese sandwich.

Potatoes have also sapped some of the romance out of life. As a teenager, a well-intentioned girlfriend prepared me a tortellini dinner. Only after we cleared our plates did we read the ingredients, horrified: "Prepared with potato flour."

"I'll be OK," I mumbled, stumbling out the door and preferring to endure the reaction alone. I believe she's still in shock.

Now, my fiancée and I don't dare kiss after she's had potatoes until she's brushed her teeth—even a peck could be catastrophic. It would be overwhelmingly easy for an angry paramour to off me: a quick latke, a minor spell of seduction.

When I first arrived at college—uninformed in liquor composition and eager to impress—I downed a series of potato vodka shots and paid dearly. I spent the bulk of my first night sick, tipsy, and confused. "I guess I'm not a good drunk," I recall telling my friend John. I didn't learn until months later that some vodkas are indeed liquified potatoes.

Misery is usually a bit more palatable when shared with others. But in the case of my potato aversion, it's been lonely. There are rumors of a great-grandmother on my mother's side who developed rashes when peeling potatoes—but she could eat them like any other respectable Dubliner. And I haven't crossed paths with anyone who shares the strange affliction. The gluten-intolerant have their own foundations and communities, and the peanut-averse have lobbies working tirelessly to remove the legumes from planes and elementary schools.

Potato allergies aren't even awarded a Wikipedia page.

The allergy is a rare one, confirms Stephen Taylor, the co-founder and co-director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. "In most affected individuals, potato allergy occurs with raw potatoes," he said. "But there are rare individuals with reactions to processed potatoes. Severe manifestations from potato allergy are even more rare."

Might my heritage play a role? After all, I'm Polish, too—another ethnic group known for eating tubers. Not so, Taylor says: "I am not sure that your Irish heritage plays any role."

However cruel the irony may be, I still feel a sense of relief. Better to endure irony here and now than true peril in 19th-century Ireland. I've always wondered: If I'd been born in Ireland some 200 years ago, what would have been my fate?

"It's totally a question about geography and class," explained John Waters, a clinical assistant professor of Irish Studies at New York University. Had I been born wealthy and in Northern Ireland, I'd have managed just fine on oats and oatmeal. But not so as a serf elsewhere on the island.

"If you were a poor peasant farmer or a landless laborer… it would have been very hard for someone like [you] to survive," Waters said.

Kerby Miller, a professor of History at University of Missouri who specializes in Irish immigration, is a bit blunter. "You'd probably be dead," he said. "Even if you lived through childhood and adolescence, you would be at a great disadvantage."

An Irishman or Irishwoman would often eat upward of 12 pounds of potatoes daily, Miller said. And he notes my affliction wouldn't even have offered a leg up during the Famine. "You… would not have been as well-nourished and healthy as your neighbors, [so] maybe you would have been weaker and died sooner," he said.

Both Waters and Miller agree my luck would have been better in medieval Ireland, in the centuries before the potato arrived from South America. "You would have to subsist largely on a diet of dairy products," Miller said. "Milk, butter, and cheese."

"[The medieval Irish] consumed an enormous amount of dairy products," Miller added. "They'd sit down to meals of butter." A stick of butter doesn't sound like an appetizing dinner, but it's certainly better than the alternative.

Besides, it's not like I'm lactose intolerant.


This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2015.