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Got Milk? Adventures With a Dairy Allergy

My legs seemed to dissolve beneath me. My eyelids grew heavy as I plunged into sleep like I was falling off a cliff. Actually, it’s more accurate to describe what happened this way: I passed out in my sister-in-law’s guest bedroom, as if I’d been drugged. Blame it on the dry milk.

Let me back up a bit, give you the full picture:

It was Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law and her husband were hosting the family gathering. While the 17 of us sat around festively decorated tables — the kids’ table was covered by a crisply ironed red tablecloth, the adults’ table by a cream-colored one — red wine was poured into long stemmed crystal glasses standing next to the white china, the pattern with a pop of indigo along the edge of the plates. The food, served buffet-style on the gray granite kitchen island, was delicious. Plump, moist turkey. A rich bread stuffing. Pan-roasted root vegetables with the perfect browned edges. Tooth-achingly sweet mashed butternut squash with maple syrup.

My favorite element of the meal: the gravy. I adore gravy. I would cover almost everything I eat with it if that was socially acceptable. The gravy my sister-in-law, Ellen, made was outstanding, so outstanding, that when I went back for seconds the mashed potatoes I heaped on my plate were just an excuse for me to have more gravy. I leaned over the counter, grabbed the closest gravy boat, and transformed my mashed potatoes into an overflowing, salty wetland. Polite conversation about how folks thought the New England Patriots would fare in post-season continued as the children were excused from the table and the adults lingered. I’d nearly finished the second helping of potatoes when a hand reached over my shoulder and snatched away my plate.

“Which gravy did you use?” Ellen asked urgently.

“What do you mean which’ gravy?”

“This one,” she said as she held aloft the gravy boat I’d just used, “was gravy from a jar. It has milk in it.” Worried they’d run out of gravy, her husband, Keith, had warmed it up, poured it into a second gravy boat, and placed it next to the rest of the food, next to the homemade, dairy-free gravy they’d made.

“Do you have an Epi-Pen?” Ellen asked.

After a lifetime of enjoying all things dairy, my body unilaterally decided 17 years prior that milk products would be greeted like poison. From that point on, any time I ingest anything with a dairy ingredient, my tongue and throat will itch and swell. Depending on the type of dairy product I’ve consumed, I may experience severe abdominal pain (like a fist being repeatedly jammed under my ribs), vomit, and/or enjoy other fun and messy gastrointestinal adventures unfit for a festive holiday meal.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I didn’t have an Epi-Pen. Mine had expired long ago. Never got another one. When am I going to accidentally ingest cheesecake or a glass of milk? I asked myself. Ever since a wildly skeptical allergist diagnosed me with the dairy allergy, “Adults don’t usually develop dairy allergies,” the grumpy doc said when my skin test came back positive; the blood test he subsequently ordered also came back positive — I now have to be careful about what I eat, or else I will become seriously ill.

I quickly learned that dairy — butter, milk, cheese — is present in a frighteningly large number of the products Americans eat every day, and in most restaurants except for lettuce leaves piled on a salad plate, and even then, the odds are 50-50 that somebody has sprinkled shredded cheese on top. I have become one of those label scrutinizers. I am that lady who blocks the aisle at the grocery store and squints at labels attempting to determine whether a box of crackers is safe for me to eat. When I’m in restaurants, I’m now that annoying customer who asks probing questions about ingredients, cooking techniques and cooking surfaces. A nuisance. I imagine the servers and the chefs roll their eyes as soon as they’re in the kitchen.

Some restaurants handle customers with food allergies with exquisite care. I once had an argument with a chef about eggs in a Pad Thai dish. He wanted to withhold the eggs because, he said, “Eggs are in the dairy case at the grocery store.” I refuted this by saying, “I can have eggs because they don’t come from a cow. I’m allergic to products derived from cow’s milk. Despite my explanation, in the end, the chef refused to put eggs in my Pad Thai, just to be safe. I reluctantly acquiesced. I was hungry and just wanted food as soon as possible.

Other restaurants aren’t quite as diligent. Once, after having an extensive conversation about my allergy with a waiter who assured me the restaurant “deals with allergies all the time,” I was served a hamburger oozing with melted cheese. Thankfully, I didn’t ravenously shove the burger into my pie-hole without first examining it, as I am wont to do on occasion. (Did I mention I get really cranky when I’m hungry?) The wide-eyed owner later profusely apologized, likely relieved I wasn’t poisoned by one of his employees. At a different restaurant, the staff did everything just right until someone decided to butter the inside of the roll on my crab cake sandwich just before the waitress picked up the order, something I quickly discovered after a couple of bites.

When I visit people’s homes, this allergy business gets trickier. It feels terribly impolite to interrogate a person about ingredients and the granular details of food prep, so I typically don’t eat at other people’s homes, except if there’s an item that’s clearly non-dairy: like a raw carrot, grapes, whole cherry tomatoes… anything that is unlikely to have been dressed with cheese or butter. It’s safer this way and doesn’t put the host or hostess in the hot seat, or corner me into eating something that could sicken me just so I can be polite. Even when some well-meaning people adamantly insist the food they’re offering is dairy-free, if they’re not accustomed to dealing with food allergies, they tend to forget things like that the pads of butter they used when they sautéed the onions that are mixed into the dish, or that light dusting of Parmesan cheese on top of the garlic bread.

Which brings me back to that Thanksgiving dinner and the toxic gravy. Ellen had invested a significant amount of effort into preparing food that was safe for me to eat. She explicitly identified what I could and couldn’t have and was proud of her non-dairy offerings. (They were, indeed, delicious.) However, she was concerned about running out of gravy, thus the purchase of the jarred gravy, which happened to contain non-fat dry milk. She didn’t think anyone would put milk in gravy but, as she watched me dig into my second helping of mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, she figured she’d check the label on the jar. When she discovered her error, Ellen panicked and persuaded me to take multiple doses of liquid allergy medicine, probably too much. Combined with the *cough* generous glasses of red wine I’d already consumed, I was essentially knocked unconscious in a spare bedroom, on Thanksgiving, after my gluttonous consumption of gravy. Just as the combination of medicine, food and fluids closed my eyes, I was thankful for the allergy medicine, the softness of the bed and the fact that I didn’t have to do the dishes.

Meredith O’Brien is the Boston area author of several books including “Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School
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Getty image by baibaz

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