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BOOK REVIEW

Memoir with life lessons on surviving food allergies

By Judy Bolton-Fasman
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2011

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In this charming book, part memoir and part handbook, poet Sandra Beasley forthrightly casts herself and others with serious food allergies as “people who - for better or for worse - experience the world in a slightly different way.’’ Beasley is a warm and lively guide to the quirky world of allergies, demonstrating on page after page that this “is not the story of how we [the allergic] die . . . [but] the stories of how we live.’’

The book’s title resonated with me; my daughter has a milk protein allergy. No, she is not lactose intolerant. Traces of whey in a piece of bread can send my girl gasping for breath and scratching at red-hot hives.

Beasley, who is in her early 30s, writes that she is among the more than 12 million Americans - 4 percent of whom are children - with life-threatening allergies.

Like Beasley’s, my daughter’s allergy initially pointed us to the safe, neutral world of pareve food preparation - strictly kosher food that contains neither milk nor dairy products. Pareve food was a lifesaver for Beasley long before rigorous ingredient lists were standard.

Beasley is spot-on in telling her story as the food outcast turned hapless birthday girl. Children’s birthday parties are minefields for the highly allergic; one person’s butter frosting can be another person’s poison. Eggs, whey, walnuts, dairy-based margarine - all of it and more can be lurking in a bakery cake.

And while Beasley lives a full life even as she nimbly avoids a panoply of trigger foods, she also helpfully turns her attention to the recent wave of medical research and hypotheses about food allergies. In the past decade alone peanut allergies have doubled. One prevailing theory, the hygiene hypothesis, posits that our obsession for creating germ-free environments for our children is weakening their immune systems. Children are no longer routinely exposed to crucial microbes in playground dirt or other children’s runny noses - microbes that signal the difference between dangerous pathogens and nonthreatening nutrients. Similarly, many children are kept away from peanuts as babies and toddlers.

Research on childhood allergies has recently reversed course by advocating for exposure rather than avoidance of allergens. Beasley illustrates the point by citing “The Bamba Case.’’ For many Israeli babies Bamba, the peanut-flavored equivalent of a Cheez Doodle, is among the first solid foods introduced into their diet. She cites a British study which theorizes that for these babies, sucking on Bamba has the same salutary outcome as an inoculation against peanut allergy. Statistics seem to prove that babies are 10 times more likely to have peanut sensitivity outside of Tel Aviv.

For all the new research, Beasley says that allergies are still too often dismissed as psychosomatic or, as one study brushed off, a catalyst for “contagious anxiety.’’ Allergy awareness won a huge public relations victory in 2009 when Massachusetts passed the Food Allergy Awareness Act. Beasley praises the efforts of celebrity chef Ming Tsai, who became one of the bill’s most vocal supporters. Tsai described an incident in which his son was turned away from a restaurant in Massachusetts because of the boy’s food allergies, citing it as an illustration of the callousness of some members of the food industry. The bill requires all restaurants to display a poster listing the “big eight’’ allergens in their kitchens along with reaction symptoms and emergency protocols.

Allergic children like Sandra Beasley have come of age, knowledgeably and even humorously articulating their condition. At birthday parties, Beasley recalls, she was especially on high alert to avoid kisses, hugs, or even the touch of a hand from a person who had just eaten a dairy product or tree nuts. Indulging in a bit of magical thinking, Beasley still chants that tittering phrase from her childhood, “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl’’ as “part joke and part prayer.’’ But ultimately her book vividly transforms the phrase into a vital call to arms for allergy awareness.

Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at jbfparent@gmail.com.

DON’T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL: Tales From an Allergic Life
By Sandra Beasley
Crown, 229 pp., $23