A Nut Allergy Skeptic Learns the Hard Way

I had an airtight, zero-tolerance stance on nut allergies. Then my son developed them

  • Illustration by John Ueland for TIME

    Years ago, sitting on an ear doctor's examining table after causing my inner ear to bleed for days by puncturing it with a Q-tip, I looked up to see a framed copy of a column about how stupid it is to put Q-tips in your ears. It was a column I had written. When you publish hundreds of obnoxiously self-righteous proclamations, some of them are going to cause you embarrassment. Which doesn't seem all that big of a deal when you also have blood leaking from your ears.

    At the beginning of last year, I wrote a column that questioned whether the increase in food allergies among children was a matter of overreporting. It began with this carefully calibrated thought: "Your kid doesn't have an allergy to nuts. Your kid has a parent who needs to feel special." After that, I got a little harsh.

    The column was not the first thing that came to mind after my 1-year-old son Laszlo started sneezing, then breaking out in hives, then rubbing his eyes, then crying through welded-shut eyes, then screaming and, finally, vomiting copiously at the entrance of the Childrens Hospital emergency room an hour after eating his first batch of blended mixed nuts. But it was the second thing. Because after my nut-allergy column came out, many parents wrote me furious e-mails saying they hoped that one day I would have a child with life-threatening allergies. I realized I was learning a terrible but valuable lesson: it's really mean to wish food allergies on a kid who isn't even born yet.

    After some Benadryl, instruction on using an EpiPen and shock at the fact that the Childrens Hospital contains a McDonald's, we went home. Sitting up at 3 in the morning, I found myself totally believing in the nut-allergy epidemic. I was ready to ban nuts from schools, parks and all the blue states, since I was unlikely to go to any of the other ones. I started to think that Jenny McCarthy was right about all kinds of things, even acting choices. Also, oddly, I really wanted some nuts.

    My lovely wife Cassandra luckily did not blame Laszlo's reaction on karma for my column. Instead, she blamed the fact that if one parent has an allergy, like my hay fever, his child has up to a 50% greater chance than average of having any allergy. Specifically, she said, "I'm sorry I married a Jew." I cannot tell you how relieved I was.

    Six weeks later, a blood test showed that Laszlo was very allergic to pistachios and cashews, pretty allergic to a bunch of other nuts and seeds and totally pissed at his father. At the end of our appointment with allergist and immunologist Dr. Rita Kachru, I told her about my column. And then hid behind my 1-year-old.

    "I don't take offense," she said. "There is a lot of craziness going on. There's a lot of 'science' that's not really science, where doctors tell them to hold the food in their hand and see how they feel."

    She said no one knew why food allergies were growing so quickly but that one factor might be improved hygiene. "Our immune system has developed over time to be protective. In third-world countries where they don't have a lot of allergies, they're fighting viruses and parasites, and their whole immunity is built up. But the mortality rate is very high. People on farms who are exposed to poop tend to not be allergic. If they can survive all that, they'll have a stronger immune system." I'm pretty sure Dr. Kachru was saying that, at some point in Laszlo's infancy, I should have pooped on him.

    Unfortunately, having only friends who don't farm meant I knew a lot of people with kids who had nut allergies, all of whom were still mad at me. So I started by telling my friend Heidi Miller, who writes the blog Living Well with Food Allergies. She said, graciously, that she was deeply upset to find out about Laszlo's reaction. "Laszlo is not the one I wanted to get a food allergy," she said. She added that she was hurt by my column, because, after all her fear and suffering with her daughter--who is five times more allergic to pistachios than Laszlo is--she thought I made it sound as if Heidi had been faking it for attention. Largely because that's exactly what I wrote. "I blog about food allergies because I can. Not because I crave the attention," she told me. "That is what my baking blog is for."

    We're not banning nuts from our house, and we aren't going to send Laszlo to a nut-free school. But knowing my son can never be a superspy because the enemy can so easily poison him with candy bars made in facilities that may produce other candy bars with nuts, I realize that the more I understand of other people's difficulties, the less funny they are. I only hope that Laszlo doesn't grow up to be a good-looking jock. I can't give up making fun of those guys.

    This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2010 of TIME.