Monday, February 8, 2016

Investigation of a Menu Above Suspicion...

Before I begin my first attempt at a restaurant review here on Intelli-Allergentsia, I want to lay down some ground rules as to what will and will not be done in my restaurant reviews. This is not meant to be a full overview of the restaurant under review, and at no point before dining there did I let the staff know that I am reviewing them online. (I may let them know further on down the line that I have published a review regarding their establishment, but that is up to me.) Likewise, these are not paid advertisements by the establishment nor are they articles for which I have been given compensation at all, either in goods, services or monetary payment. There will be no star, number, or letter grades given either to make it easier for the reader to have the article summed up instantly for him or her.

Each review will be comprised solely of my personal opinion built upon my interest in finding places where I can eat my favorite foods comfortably and safely. The assumption is that the reader is here for the same reason that I am. When you are dealing with a health-diminishing food allergy (or, even worse, several allergies), it is hard enough to negotiate the minefield that is the supermarket in order to find foods that fit your lifestyle. Common, popular recipes usually need to be altered to allow allergy sufferers to enjoy them, and the increased inclusion of allergy-free flours, mixes, pastas, breads, tortillas, etc. in the everyday supermarket has proven helpful. The downside is that stores often keep underestimated inventories of allergy-free goods, and getting to the store to find that my favorite bread is sold out is a frequent occurrence for me. Sometimes, approaching allergy-free as a mere fad, stores will only carry certain items for the short term before replacing them with another brand or, even worse, only carry them for a test run. Overall, though, the average grocery store has become better and far more diverse in food choices for allergy sufferers in the last few years.

And then we get to the restaurant world. A whole other ball of wax, as the saying goes. (I don't even want to get started on the whole "Is the wax on my apple gluten free?" debate.) There are chains that are better at catering to allergy sufferers than others, though this is often dependent upon what type of fare they commonly serve. When you get to a place like Panera Bread, you should know just from instinct alone that if you are a celiac or gluten/wheat sensitive at all that a bakery attached to a cafe might not be the sort of place you should be inside in the first place. If you are going to brave the circumstances to eat there, you will probably be stuck with a salad choice and a bag of potato chips. 

But other chains do remarkably well at catering to the interests of allergy sufferers. In-N-Out has "protein style" burger options on their "secret menu" (which is really not so secret -- that's sort of the joke), where they will lettuce wrap your sandwich for you, and since they don't fry anything except for french fries, you are pretty safe if your allergy is a simple wheat one like mine. (We ate there just last night as a matter of fact.) Five Guys is a fave burger spot of mine for this same reason, though in two consecutive trips there recently, I think the guy working the grill really didn't want to assemble a lettuce wrapped burger for me, and asked me if I had ever tried a burger "salad style," (i.e., thrown on top of a bed of lettuce). I declined both times.

There are other chains that are making inroads as well. McDonald's allows customers to use a touchscreen to "Build Your Own Burger," including a lettuce wrap option, at many locations now (though admittedly, I have yet to try this for myself, because I would rather eat at good burger places). But many other burger or chicken places will have you back in salad land (never a bad thing at all; I'm not knocking it and should eat that way more myself), unless your idea of a meal is to get a mystery meat patty sitting by itself in a styrofoam container. Maybe with a slice of cheese.

Most of the major pizza chains offer a gluten-free crust option now, though the particularly sensitive might have some concern if the place is in the business of making their regular dough fresh in the restaurant and has wheat flour in the air constantly. (No place outside of a dedicated allergy free restaurant is ever going to be 100% contamination free, so you will just need to study the place and make that determination for yourself.)

As for the non-chains, this is where we enter the Wild West of the Food Allergy Sufferer. There is much more good to report in the past year or so, but finding allergy free options in local dining establishments is largely up to the whim of the individual owner and how much they may care about catering to all of their customer base, not just the ones that bring in the most cash. I have said before that I have been laughed away (quite literally) from some places (The Kroft at the Anaheim Packing House being the most recent example), and most Asian cuisine places are pretty hard to deal with owing to how many dishes use soy sauce (and relatively few offer a GF soy sauce option).

This is where I had to learn to make a big change in my comfort level when dealing with restaurants. I am the type of guy who, even when a place gets my order completely wrong, is reluctant to send it back to have it corrected. Part of it comes from the urban legend about chefs doing nasty things to dishes that have been returned for corrections, and part of it just comes from my natural reticence to cause a fuss in a public establishment. Start a food fight and be loud and boisterous? Sure! I'm known for that sort of behavior. I was once described as having the mutant power of being able to destroy the atmosphere of any fine dining establishment. (I dumped a shake over a girl's head once just because she pushed my buttons.) But, in general, I do not like upsetting the wait staff or hostess when food is on the line, and try to be as polite as possible to them. (After all, sometimes they can get you free goodies or refills if they like you.) So, it has usually been my nature when ordering to make a quick joke or two as part of the exchange, and then have my order ready for them to write down. Quick and easy.

With the rise of my wheat allergy, came the need to take the time to ask questions; with that need, rose the concurrent need to get comfortable with asking those questions. As my theatre friends are well aware, I will do the most embarrassing, improvised things to myself and to others at the drop of a hat, but if there is even a half second of preparation involved, I freeze up almost completely. That's why I could never actually become an actor (though I was totally at home behind the stage as a puppeteer) despite being around the theatre world for most of my life. I am completely open when talking to others, but ask me to give a presentation at a meeting and I will stutter and stammer and flounder my way through that presentation. But in learning to live with a chronic immune disease (eosinophilic esophagitis), I had no choice but to go wheat free, and getting the most accurate and detailed information that you can out of the wait staff or a chef became a necessity. I needed to get comfortable with perhaps slowing down the service for myself -- and for other tables around me -- in order to make sure that I was not going to get violently ill. There was a jump that I had to make. 

I had to learn to ignore the stares and rolled eyes that you sometimes could feel all about you from your fellow diners. I also had to ignore the slowing down of time around me. And I had to truly try hard to not even consider for a second the increasingly furious pulsing of the dimensional walls that keep us all in our desired forms and that those very walls were threatening to cave in all about me, the destruction of which would surely lead us all to naught but chaos and doom (!!!)... and learn to ask... the simplest of questions: "Does this have wheat flour in it?"

Some restaurants make this easy. More and more places ask early on in the ordering process if anyone at the table has an allergy or special diet. This allows the conversation to flow more naturally, and also shows you that the owner has some concern (at least in terms of liability) over the welfare of his patrons. In the past few years, Disneyland and all of its food service establishments openly offer gluten free and vegetarian options, and are careful to make sure their butts are covered when dealing with the food allergic that roam their parks in droves. (I was even told by one of their restaurant managers that if you give them more than 24 hours notice of your visit and your menu choices, they can prepare almost any item gluten free for you.) It is wonderful to know that I always have options in the Happiest Place on Earth, but it sure would be nice to have the same confidence when dealing with places outside that realm.

I have found that the more meat-oriented places are the ones where they seem to care less about these niceties, and if you want to read anything political into that assessment, go right ahead. It is simply an observance I have made after spending the last four years or so learning to live with this illness. Hardcore carnivores who get all weak-kneed when a green vegetable is set on their plate are usually the first ones to tell me that I just need to get tough and suck it up. 

I am not saying this as someone who eschews meat. Until just under a year ago, our household menu was probably about 85-90% vegetarian fare for close to a decade. I had meat in the house mainly for sandwiches and the occasional breakfast; my wife Jen is 100% vegetarian, where she doesn't even eat anything with gelatin or animal rennet. (However, she does partake of milk and other dairy products, so she has not crossed the vegan threshold... yet.) Now, we are in a situation where her brother and mother live with us, both dedicated meat-eaters. Her brother, in fact, is a barbecue enthusiast who has considerable skill in the kitchen, and even plans to start his own food truck in the future. Thus, my diet has switched to having meat more regularly; pretty much every day. 

So, while my heart tells me that I should really cut the meat out altogether (there are some days where I can't even look at it), I have no higher moral ground to stand on here. My remark about meat-centered menu restaurants being a little less concerned with food allergic customers is merely something which I am noting from personal experience in dealing with them. 

There are plenty of examples, though, where this is not the case. I have found that the more youthful, trendier places -- including some barbecue joints, so don't let's get started on it -- are the best bets in finding more food allergy options. Naturally, vegetarian and vegan-centric places such as Seabirds in Costa Mesa (who were featured on The Great Food Truck Race a few years ago) are wonderful in always having a few options that aren't deep-fried (though they have those too) or having a gluten free bread or flatbread available in place of the normal bread. Or in having corn tortillas as an option for flour ones. Whether or not businesses such as this are merely hipster oases is beside the point. If they can serve great food and in such a way that keeps me from projectile vomiting after eating it, then I will put up with all the weird beards and stupid tattoos and guys with ear gauges carrying manual typewriters. (Besides, I know deep in my heart that were I 25 years younger, I would probably be carrying one of those typewriters. I did actually still own one of those 25 years ago...)

Where I have really run into trouble is in the older, more traditional, family diner-style places. Most of the time, I am relegated to ordering bacon and eggs, and then finding out if they add flour to their hash browns or home fries. (Most of the time, they have to ask someone else, or several someones, to get an answer, by which time I have decided to go without already.) In some places, the waitress will look at you strangely if you ask to have a burger lettuce-wrapped, as if you had just landed in an interstellar trip from Betelgeuse and bore antennae on your head. It is for reasons like this that I have often avoided such establishments completely because I just don't want to deal with the hassle of questioning someone who is locked in an ancient mindset. More recently, though, I have been able to get past this blockade and simply do what I must: ask questions.

The main point of all of this is, if you care about your health, and if your food allergy is dominant enough in your life where you need to be absolutely sure of everything going into your system, ask questions. Ask the right questions. If you are concerned about something on the menu, find out how they prepare it and what goes in it. If you want french fries, find out if they have dedicated fryers for separate menu items. If those fries are dunked in a fryer that also holds onion rings or other breaded items, you probably want to skip the fries. Sometimes all of the breads -- regular and gluten free -- are toasted in the same device or on the same grill. This can be a problem for the more sensitive among us. Ask questions about it, and if there are options to get around how they normally make the menu item, ask them to prepare it that way instead.

Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Here's the thing... if the owner of a restaurant scoffs at your food "allergy" (and says it that way, practically in quotation marks, which I have encountered more than once), keep in mind that if that owner gets enough requests for something he is reluctant to serve from enough customers, and he suddenly has a "light bulb" moment and realizes that he is turning away easy profit, there is a greater chance he is going to update that menu. But he has to know the audience is out there. Simply looking at a menu and saying, "There's nothing I can have here!" and walking out with a belligerent scowl and a snuffly nose is not going to advance your cause. You need to ask questions. 

Let them know that we are out there. And, man, are we ever hungry...

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Road Less Swallowed: My Allergy Discovery Journey [Pt. III]

[This is the third and final part of this article. If you have not read Part I, click here. For Part II, click here.]


At the end of Part II:

And thus, I had officially entered the world of learning to deal with a food allergy. I was judged to have a need to be wheat free, and I had to figure out a lifestyle built around that fact. But, like many who enter into this, depriving oneself of favorite meals in the style to which one has become accustomed is not an easy thing. I would slip up many times before I finally settled into full conformity with this lifestyle. I still had many lessons ahead of me, and it would take another full course of doctor's visits before I would learn to behave.

I slid into my new wheat-free world determined to make a go of it. A final follow-up with my GP (general practitioner) after the results of my tests and elimination diet had been determined allowed me to set my mind to righting the ship. My cough had not come back during the last few weeks where I went through the other allergen food groups to find that wheat was the only one that set me off my symptoms. (Again, I will remind you that I skipped the fish and shellfish groups because I had not eaten from either group in so long I had decided on my own that they weren't a factor.) I was already starting to feel much better. I was able to focus more on work at a very crucial time in our corporate calendar (preparing for the giant soccer convention that we hosted annually then). My general attitude lightened to its normal, playful, pun-spewing level, and I was feeling more hopeful heading into the new year.

For the first couple of months, having to be wheat free and learning how to find my way -- really our way, since Jen was deeply invested in the matter on my part -- was kind of thrilling and I naturally approached it as a game or a puzzle that needed to be solved. (That's how I approached it; I can't speak for Jen on this.) Learning where the "gluten free" sections of different supermarket chains were (sometimes broken up into several areas in one store, then completely different in the next) was the first "game" that I had to be conquer. I had to learn to get used to the unreliability of brands or products being in stock from trip to trip when I needed them, or even a brand that I found one time being available at all in the same store the next time. We read the labels of every single item that went into our cart extremely carefully, for both myself and Jen, who is very strictly vegetarian (which, of course, meant that I tended to eat that way at home about 85% of the time).

Finding the best restaurants to cater to my new need was the next game. Every single menu was a brand new labyrinth that needed to be negotiated. We found out quickly which restaurants were more open to catering to all customers, no matter their concerns, and which ones were just outright bastards who didn't really care at all about their customers. In these scenarios, even just having one or two gluten-free options on your menu or the willingness to lettuce-wrap a damn burger would mean the difference between collecting my money as a happy visitor to their establishment on a regular basis, or our boycotting the place altogether, with my bad mouthing their business to everyone that would listen online and in person as a side dish. And believe me, I have been laughed out the entrance of more than one place when I have asked about allergy free options. (This can generally be attributed to the widespread belief that such diets, of any stripe, are nothing more than trendiness, so why should they cater to people who are just acting out on a whim?)

As I said, for those first couple of months, it seemed like a big puzzle, and I was deeply committed to figure every angle out for myself. However, it didn't take long to discover that if I wanted to eat like I used to in public places, "Frustration" was the true name of the game. I could handle things at home just fine, since Jen and I are always open to trying different products and recipes to find common ground for ourselves in the dining arena. (Jen is to be admired for how willing she has been, without my even asking, to partake of gluten-free pastas and the like in converting our standard menu at home.) 

Out of this frustration, I had started to have cravings, and the tension was building with each day. I wanted to be able to walk into a pie joint and just grab a big, greasy, cheesy slice of pepperoni pizza -- with real dough! --  made fresh and much larger than the standard slice on a gluten free crust. I wanted to be able to walk into a burger place and get a double cheeseburger with everything on it... including a sesame seed bun that was as soft and pliable as real bread. I really, really missed having a breakfast burrito, with the eggs and meat and salsa and cheese all rolled up in a giant flour tortilla. And, most of all, I was drawn ever more to devouring a submarine sandwich, a relentless craving which I attribute to my deep, abiding love for French bread. I wanted all of these foods, they were all around me in every direction, and I could not have them.

But, the truth is that I did have them. Each and every one of those foods -- with the normal amount of wheat flour that regular people ingested during the course of their meal -- several times each over the next few months. The reasons were two-fold. The first was because I was having doubts. Yes, they found that I had eosinophilic esophagitis, and that the most likely cause was a food allergy, which I had discovered was most likely due to wheat. But was it really wheat? They didn't do any skin allergy tests on me, so how could they really know? The second reason, which built off the first, and because I can never leave well enough alone, was that I had decided to test myself over and over to see if there were limits to my "supposed" allergy. And so I did something that I never should have done: because I can never leave well enough alone, I allowed myself cheat days.

It was once a week at first. I would pick someplace for lunch where none of my co-workers were going to be or a place where the staff of the restaurant weren't aware that I was supposed to be wheat free, and I would eat something that I was seriously craving. Sometimes it was just a crappy burger or a breakfast burrito from a fast food joint; sometimes it was a banh mi sandwich from my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. There were a couple of times where I would sneak a piece of cold pizza from the company fridge early in the morning when I was the only one there, even though I had left myself purposefully out of the free pizza party the day before. 

And because I wanted that submarine sandwich with the French bread, I went an extra step in hiding my activity. The mom-and-pop sandwich shop across the street already knew about my allergy, and the owner was very helpful in alerting me to any amounts of wheat in their various soups and other specialties. Not only would they happily lettuce-wrap any sandwiches or burgers for me, but even allowed me to bring in my own GF bread on a few occasions, which they would keep for me for my next visit. So I couldn't get a regular sandwich there. But the Subway chain around the corner and down the street a bit didn't know me at all, and I would only go there at times when I knew most of my co-workers that frequented it would not have lunch breaks. I almost got caught twice by friends from the office, but both times I was able to tell them that Subway was willing to lettuce-wrap a sandwich for me. (They weren't; at least, not at the time. I don't know about now.)

The results of all this cheating on my science-determined diet and on all of my friends, co-workers, and my significant other? Well, it varied. When it was once a week, I had very little immediate reaction, if any. Some light coughing usually, and some minor facial numbness or a small headache. By that evening or the next morning, sticking to my usual restrictions, I was fine. It was when it went from once a week to a more frequent pace that I really started having problems and discovering my limits. Once, on the third straight day of a food cheating lunch week, I had a truly tasty chicken burrito after I got off work, and half an hour later had another of my projectile vomiting episodes on a sidewalk (and very nearly on the bus on my way to that sidewalk). Discovering that single episodes of diet cheating had little or no effect, but continuing it from meal to meal or even day to day made me feel worse, and at the top level, started that insane cough up again. So, I was careful. Prolonged bouts of coughing always made Jen and my team at work wonder if I had gone off my diet, and so I had to avoid it at all costs if I still wanted to occasionally enjoy things the way that I had for my entire life. I would also have several weeks in a row where I didn't cheat on my diet at all, and then would have renewed confidence that I can handle things fine as long as I kept everything "low and slow," as Mel Brooks put it. This, too, is an attitude that is a big mistake.

The act of cheating on my wheat free diet was like any other addiction. To do so would be deleterious to my health, but I just couldn't help meeting those impulses with immediate action. The problem, as I assessed it then, was that while keeping to my diet made me feel so much better mentally and physically, I chose to see the only "reward" as getting to eat food ingredients, no matter how well prepared, that didn't taste nearly as good as the ones that were taken away from me. And that was no reward at all in a mind that was blinded by bread madness. It was the ol' "angel and devil on the shoulder" stock scenario from movies and cartoons, and for at least one day a week, and eventually more, I chose the shoulder on which the devil was perched (even if I don't believe in devils).

It was around the first year of all this that I hit the skids mentally, owing to my lifelong depression building to a dangerous level, to factors outside of the diet concerns. A big part of how I handle depression is in stress eating, and with the stress eating came more examples of my sneaking wheat-embedded foods whenever I could, just because it was easier and I didn't have to think about it when I ordered. I didn't want the added pressure of having to negotiate a menu, and so I went for it. The food cheating went to three, sometimes four times a week. I never did do a full week of it, as I can recall, and sometimes I would be calm enough to order things in the way that I should. But mostly I just started pounding wheat-laced food whenever and wherever without any thought of the consequences.

The real culprit here is me. I was just plain weak-willed. I was weak-willed in many other aspects of my life, but especially in regards to maintaining my wheat free existence. I had started to see a therapist about a year after the depression kicked in full force in nearly life extinguishing ways. While we very rarely discussed my allergies (he knew none of what I am spilling out on this page), he was exceedingly helpful in getting my head on straight again and slowly building my self-confidence. It allowed me to get things off my chest when I needed to remove them, not waiting months and years to do so. It was wonderfully enlightening, and while the course came with antidepressants that altered my mood for about a year and a half, I was able to get some of my focus back. Within this period, I finally did away with my need for cheat days, and started to settle into my wheat free diet for good... mostly.

I say "mostly," because I still cheated on occasion. This time, it was more like a once a month thing, when the time was right, and I just needed a break from all of the damn restrictions on my life! I had determined, with near certainty, that the cough and the other hardcore effects of ingesting wheat flour was based on their building up in my system. The more frequently I went back, the worse I would feel. But giving myself that release once a month really didn't bring anything up other than a few coughs or the other smaller symptoms. I justified it by thinking that if I was good for the next month, I could then have another single cheat day, with a wide enough break that there would be no real build-up. And so it went, month to month. Eventually, I forgot about having cheat days at all. I slowly worked them out of my system, hopefully for good.

Then, a little less than a year ago, I lost my job. And then, two months later, we moved from Anaheim to a new home in Riverside County. While I was out of work, I still managed to not allow the stress to get to me in such a way that it reignited my need to destroy either myself, or, on a secondary level of concern, my diet. There was just one major problem: something was causing me to have another severe coughing bout. Many, many coughing bouts, actually, but all connected together where for several weeks and then on to well over a month, I could not stop coughing and hacking. This eventually led to my having attacks of full-on vomiting or long sessions of dry heaving. On top of this, it was taking more and more effort for me just to get up the stairs or even walk a short distance. Yes, I had been putting on more weight, so that could explain most things. But the endless coughing? I was sticking absolutely rigidly to my wheat free diet by then. What gives?

Well, what gave was that we had just moved from out of the city and into the suburbs, And those suburbs were right next to two things that may have been causing my system to go haywire. One: huge, grassy pastures full of cows, which I could pass just walking a quarter mile down the street, and which caused us to coin the adjective "cowy" to describe the air's suitability when opening the windows of our house on any given evening. "Too cowy" or "not too cowy" have became the language we speak daily now. Two: large amounts of construction work going on quite near us (more suburbs being attached at a crazy rate to the suburbs we are already in) and not much further from us (giant mall areas and roads being developed in a couple directions from us). Caught in former farm country undergoing constant development, it was possible that the dust and the grass and the air were riling up further allergies that I had not yet discovered.

And so I went back to my doctor, mostly so Jen would be able to finally get some sleep. I had been so good with my diet that it couldn't have been a factor this time. The doc decided to treat me for exercise-induced asthma, and then had me go and see an allergist. The allergist treated me even more for asthma, and then had me jump to yet another clinic to not only take a series of breathing tests with an extremely annoying (though dedicated) technician/cheerleader, but also meet with another allergist who had me undergo skin tests. 

Stabbing my back with 45 different pinpricks (actually, the process was very gentle; "stabbing" is quite out of bounds), they discovered that not only was I allergic to wheat, but there also to a great many other things as well. I am allergic to rye, which is connected to wheat in a true gluten-free diet, but I was not allergic to barley, which is the last member of that trio. Fish and shellfish? I told you they would show up again, and yes, I probably made a mistake in not trying them out in my elimination diet, because if I had eaten them in the next couple of years leading to this point, I may have had problems with them as well. Allergic to both, though the fish is actually "codfish," which they told me could also include salmon, so I am happily away from that underwhelming dish for the rest of my life. In total, of the 45 items they tested on me, I showed some form of allergic reaction to just over 20 of them, quite nearly half. Apart from the four food groups, the rest are mostly trees, grasses, and shrubs, and one of them is a form of mold. 

Any or all of these could have been a factor in this latest assault on my body. After adding a HEPA filter machine to the bedroom, treating my asthma properly, getting on allergy medication, I was already much better after a couple of weeks. The coughing and hacking subsided totally. The best part was the confirmation of wheat (and now rye as well) as being one of my allergies, which finally allowed me to let go of the "what if?" scenario that had been running through my head for a couple of years. Keeping such a scenario in mind was what led me into maintaining those old allergy cheat days, but now I knew for certain that I could no longer afford to have days like that. It did make me wonder why my doctors didn't have skin tests done right after I had completed the elimination diet, just to confirm what I may have found. I didn't know enough back then to ask the right questions, and so they sent me out the door to my fate.

It is now about six months later. I have kept to my wheat free diet in that time and have had no problems at all. In relation to my previous symptoms, that is. I have been wrestling with my weight problem, and back in September, when my GP raised the issue after I hit an all-time high of 276 pounds, I decided to tackle that issue next. A lifelong Dr. Pepper fanatic, I finally had to get it out of my life on a regular basis. After six days of not drinking soda and having severe headaches, I broke through my nasty addiction to caffeine. For the next two and a half weeks, I stopped drinking all soda and fruit juices cold turkey. I only drank Trader Joe's Lime Sparkling Water (with zero sugar) and regular bottled water. I also cut out salty snacks of any kind, including my beloved potato chips. Keeping to the 1800 calorie a day limit my doctor imposed on me, I lost twelve pounds in the first week. (I was having about a half dozen sodas a day at that point. That is 900 calories right there by itself, before we even get to food.) Building in the ability to not totally deprive myself of fun, having learned from my wheat free experience, I allowed myself Dr. Pepper when we went out to eat for lunch or dinner. I found out almost immediately that after not having it for about three weeks, it was entirely too sweet for me anymore, to the point where I couldn't even finish a single glass. No worries about refills! I also allowed myself a small Icee at the movies, but usually just got a bottle of water. When we went to Disneyland on a couple of days in this span, I stuck to water instead of sharing a Coke with Jen, our usual pattern.

I got my weight down pretty quickly to 250, but then the holidays hit, and you know how things go there. Allowing myself sodas in the house and having the usual type of fattening holiday fare, my weight went straight up to the 270s again. Seeing my doctor a few weeks ago, after finding from my test results that I do not have diabetes ("Yet..." she sternly reminded me, my father having the disease) and am doing pretty well otherwise (even having my lowest cholesterol, in the safe zone, in my life), she said that we really need to tackle the weight issue. A call for increased exercise activity was in order, in addition to maintaining my calorie limits and my wheat free diet. She also placed me on a low level appetite suppressant, which has actually worked rather well. She told me that it might cause some anxiety, and I said, "Me? Do I need more anxiety?!" But in fact, it has allowed me to focus more on the work at hand, and much less on food. I don't feel hunger pangs at all anymore, and sometimes have to remind myself to eat before the end of the day.

If there is an upside to the other illnesses and problems that I have run into over the past year, it is that I really don't make too much fuss about dealing with living wheat free anymore. I have become practiced in dealing with restaurants, especially when the owners or staff are asses about my "trendy" diet, and have learned to ask the right questions to get the best information possible. I am also now able to cut through the B.S. of most product packaging in finding gluten or wheat free foods where such designations are actually a necessity and not just a marketing term. 

Despite the increasing prevalence of allergy free foods in our supermarkets and restaurants -- and yes, it is one of the positives in the perceived trendiness of food allergies -- it is still pretty much the Wild West out there in terms of quality. Finding a gluten free loaf of bread actually worthy of the term "bread" isn't easy, and I have a great many loaves to go before I can close the door on the subject (though I have finally found a brand that I can say that I truly love). The same goes for the different varieties of bread or crusts. And then getting restaurants to break through the allergy barrier and start catering to customers of all types equally is another fight that needs detailing.

And that is the purpose of this new blog, Intelli-Allergentsia. I will be concentrating mainly on the needs brought about by my own food allergies, and through those needs, post reviews of the latest gluten-free food products. I will also include reviews of restaurants approached from the viewpoint of one who cannot partake of most of the items on their menus, and how each one handles dealing with someone with dietary limitations. In time, I hope to include interviews with other allergy sufferers, restaurant owners, and food companies, focused on the topic of food allergies and meeting the needs of the consumers that are afflicted by them. I am also toying with the idea of having my friends with similar concerns put together their own allergy stories for this website or to allow them to rant at length about issues in the allergy free food world they would like to have addressed. 

I am still working out the particulars of the extent of Intelli-Allergentsia, but the main thing is that I have committed my story to be seen online. I have confessed my sins, and I feel cleaner for it, though I am sure the missus is going to give me hell when she reads this third and final part. I am also very open to discussion on this topic, and if you have made it to the end of this piece and would like to comment sincerely or ask questions, please feel free to do so. You may also suggest reviews of products or restaurants that you would like to see, and I will see about adding them to my list. In all, I would hope to start some serious discussion about food allergy issues, and I hope that you will join me in the future on this website. You can also follow me on Twitter @TheCinema4Pylon for updates on new articles or to talk to me by message.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Road Less Swallowed: My Allergy Discovery Journey [Pt. II]

[This is the second part of this article. If you have not read Part I, click here.]

Part II

At the end of Part I:
For those two weeks of preparation for my elimination diet, I pretty much ate chicken, rice, and vegetables. I brought carrot and celery sticks to work for lunch -- in fact, walked around the office munching whole carrots with greens in the Bugs Bunny way that I enjoy, and even talking like him most of the day. I would get the occasional rice bowl if I went with my team for lunch, but basically had what I was eating at home: chicken, rice, and vegetables. Without at least bread and cheese being involved, it was a pretty dull time, but I did lose a bit of weight eating that way. The main positive side effect: my cough totally stopped. 

And then came the time to start adding the major food allergen groups back into my diet, one by one. But where to start? As I had mentioned before, these were the groups that I had been avoiding during the prep period: eggs, milk (dairy), peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, shellfish, fish, and soybeans. Any one (or even several) of these could be the main culprit in triggering the eosinophilic esophagitis that had invaded my system. 

I have already written of the extreme and constant coughing fits that had basically overtaken my entire waking life (not to mention some of the sleeping parts too), as well as the frequent vomiting that I thought was a direct result of my gag reflex due to how much of a strain the hardcore coughing was having upon me. But there were other symptoms that sprang to the fore nearly every time the cough occurred. 

The creepiest was facial numbness, usually beginning around my mouth and nostrils, and most often concentrated in my upper lip. While there was no outward appearance of the lip having puffed up, that is exactly what it would feel like to me, and there was also the sensation of it growing rigid and immobile. My throat would seize up slightly, as it felt like something was always caught in it that could not be retrieved. And then there were the instant headaches that came not long after one of the other symptoms would arrive. Thankfully, there were no external manifestations such as hives or rash, though I suppose if there had been something easily recognizable in a physical sense to those would lived and worked around me, this whole thing might have gotten figured out much quicker than it did.

But the cough was the bugger. It was the Big Kahuna. At the point where the prep period of the elimination diet, I had been living with that cough for over two months. With this particular cough, that is. You see, there was precedent in my life, and fairly recent precedent at that. 

Looking back, the signs that something had changed for me internally went into the past at least three or four years. In that span, I had been to the doctor at least three times to have them aid me in ridding myself of what I thought was just a nasty and persistent cough due to the belief that I had a cold that simply refused to leave my system. And yet, while the doctors would eventually prescribe a strong cough medicine to me, every single time there would be no sign of any fluid in my lungs. I would get treated for bronchitis over and over in this brief span, and I know that my constant bouts of coughing were driving Jen crazy at home, let alone my office mates. 

Add to this the mental stress that had also come into my life within this same period due to my ongoing depression and eventual thoughts of suicide [which you can read about in Why I Write: The Blur of the Past Two Years on my main blog site], and I can see that maybe I should have been more proactive in trying to identify the factors that were severely altering my personal happiness and comfort. But, no... I just kind of moved on from one brief period of feeling crappy to another, determined to simply move forward and worry about the next problem when I got to it.

There had even been many small bouts of coughing and the other symptoms I mentioned that didn't explode into large enough problems where they caused me to seek medical attention. I just never really identified that all of them occurred not long or even immediately after I had eaten food of some type. But the facial numbness was definitely not new to me, as it had happened to me many times before; once, years earlier when I still lived in Alaska and near the beginning of my relationship with Jen, it became a large enough worry that I stopped eating hazelnuts, thinking that I was allergic to them. In retrospect, I realize now that my "scientific" deduction behind my banning of hazelnuts was severely flawed, and that this actually may have been the earliest trace of the discovery of my actual food allergies to come.

And just two weeks before the Disney World trip that September where my internal workings went completely haywire, I had what I thought was also a battle with food poisoning. We had visited the Lazy Dog Cafe in Orange (California, near where we used to live), and not long after devouring what was a fairly delicious plate of penne tossed liberally with chicken and mushrooms, I began to feel "not so well". I then missed the next two days of work in what can now be seen as a mere warmup to my Disney World misadventure. The thought at the time was that either the chicken or the mushrooms was the villain of the day, and it was indeed the last time that I ate at the Lazy Dog Cafe. Hard to go back to places which you feel may have made you deathly ill, even if you quite like them overall and really don't hold a grudge. For the same reason, while I love visiting and dining in Epcot, that Canadian steakhouse is now completely off-limits to me. (I am still unsure whether the Lazy Dog incident was actually food poisoning, though I am completely sure the Epcot case was because of the inclusion of a second party - Jen's mom Sande -- who also got seriously ill from the same shared dish.)

All of these thoughts where I slowly connected the dots of the past few years began to percolate in my brain as I approached the moment where I would start adding the major food allergen groups back into my diet. Of course, the main purpose was to identify the cause of my illness, so I could hopefully reduce or eliminate those nasty eosinophils in my esophagus (when you look at a picture of my esophagus, they appear as these pernicious red dots clustered all over it) and upper gastrointestinal tract so that I could start to feel much better. But, while preparing to launch into this detective work, on a superficial level, I was more concerned about getting back to eating those things I missed the most.

In looking at those eight major allergen categories -- once again, 
eggs, milk (dairy), peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, shellfish, fish, and soybeans -- two of them could be discounted right away. I am the rare Alaskan who does not like to eat fish. Especially salmon... I do not like salmon. Ate way too much of it as a kid. I will eat fish, though, on occasion. I am partial to the rare dish of blackened redfish or some deep fried catfish. And I love halibut, unreservedly. Halibut is my "go to" fish. But at the time of this drastic change in my behavior, it had been over a year since I had eaten any fish. The only possible contact would have been through the use of fish sauce in many of the Thai and Vietnamese dishes that I enjoy frequently. The same goes for shellfish. I don't find the eating of crab or lobster either enjoyable or aesthetically pleasing (can't get past the "giant bug" factor, though I do enjoy their company on a personal level). And while I hated, hated, hated eating shrimp since I was a kid, in the decade before this, I had finally come to terms and learned to enjoy them as food on occasion. But once again, it had been well over a year since I had eaten any shrimp (I never went out of my way to seek them out), so they were a decided non-factor in my case.

That left me with six groups, and there was a clear winner amongst them which I desired to eat the most: wheat. I missed bread from the second that I stopped eating it two weeks earlier. Most of all, I missed French bread. The wait seemed like an eternity, so programmed I was into having toast every morning, and having at least one sandwich a day. Plus, the use of common flour (derived from wheat) in nearly every one of my favorite dishes in some aspect or another made it the obvious choice to work back into my diet. And so, the day before the grand reintroduction, there was a quick trip to the grocery store refill our coffers with several items; specifically, bread (whole wheat and a loaf of French bread), pasta (we chose a whole wheat brand), and flour tortillas, with which I was planning to make a chicken burrito (sans cheese, of course, since it wouldn't be worked back in yet).

It was Friday morning, the first of the wheat test, and I started the party off, naturally, with some simple wheat toast. No butter and no peanut butter, like I would normally include, since they were still off limits. As I ate it, I had no problems. But later, on the way to work, I began to cough again for a short while. Still, it could have been the fact that I was walking very fast on my then usual 3.5 mile trek to the office, and may have been winded or caught my breath in a strange way. For lunch, I went to the Jack in the Box across the street from the office and had them make me a plain grilled chicken sandwich, with just tomatoes and lettuce and no cheese or other condiments. (I added ketchup however.) Again, there were no problems as I ate, but a little later when I was back at the office, a small cough started up and I was slightly agitated in my throat. By the time I got home, I had a bad headache that caused me to lie down for a couple of hours.

We decided to go for broke with dinner. Jen made a whole wheat penne which we paired with a marinara sauce that we knew was clear of the other food groups. She brought the bowl out to the couch to me, where I was still feeling poor from the headache. I took one bite of the pasta, and sat back holding the bowl to my chest, happy to get to taste it again. I took another bite... and then I started to feel my upper lip and nose go numb in the way I had encountered sporadically over the past couple of years. I twitched my nose and only had the faintest sensation in it, and at the same time, my lip felt increasingly rigid. And then the cough started, a series of horrid, hacking rattles that kept getting deeper and more pronounced. After a couple of minutes of this, I started getting the dry heaves, gasping for air somewhere in between the coughing and the retching noises. I became flushed and I felt a coldness rush through my forehead briefly before I started to feel an agitation throughout my system.

Jen had already decided shortly in to my latest attack that I was to not take another bite of my dinner. She grabbed the bowl of whole wheat penne and my fork from me and moved them into the kitchen. I continued to cough and gasp for air for a short while more before I started to settle down. Then the cough came back, and I had to run to the bathroom where I vomited slightly. After that, all was quiet, as I settled back down onto the couch with an icepack for my still throbbing headache.

Through that weekend, I actually stayed mostly away from wheat products of any sort, including the ones we had purchased specifically for testing, already mostly convinced that we had found the culprit behind my illness. I say "mostly," because I did eat a hunk of the French bread, and there were no effects when I did. On Monday, I felt confident enough that I decided to try just a couple more things before I called it for good. I skipped breakfast, but I tried a burger for lunch, and again, the results were that I didn't feel any disturbance until a short while later when I began coughing for a short period. Because of that, for dinner at home, I continued to eschew any of the allergen groups and stuck to simple rice and veggies. 

I didn't try again until Wednesday, where I again had plain wheat toast for breakfast, with only minor results (throat agitation and a slight cough). Lunch for me happened at the end of my work day, because I worked straight through eight hours so I could leave the office early to run a couple of errands. Hitting a local taqueria, I devoured a steak burrito, once again sans cheese. I was so happy to taste a flour tortilla I didn't really think about the consequences. After cramming down the delicious burrito, I took care of my errands at the bank and a nearby store and made my way down the sidewalk towards the bus stop. Then the cough came back, and the numbness came back, and then there was a great hurling of partially digested consumables in a four foot span on the sidewalk in front of me. I made it to the bus stop and grabbed the sign for support, still coughing and still bringing up everything that I had just eaten a short while earlier. The cough rattled on through the bus ride that took me within a little less of a mile from our apartment, and I kept having to stop on the walk home to spit and cough several times before making it through the door.

That was it. I was done. No more wheat that week.

With Friday came the next group on the list that was most important to me: milk (dairy). I don't drink milk normally, and I didn't that week either, but I did partake of many varieties of cheese, none of which caused any problem with me at all (unless you count artery hardening). And so it went through the rest of the list: I made soybeans third, because Jen and I include tofu and edamame in a lot of our dishes at home, since Jen is a hardcore vegetarian and uses soy as a prime protein source. No problem. Eggs, nuts, and tree nuts all went off without a hitch, though it only took a couple of attempts with each to determine that there were no undesired effects from their use. And I felt no need at all to even try fish and shellfish during this course because I never craved the second one and only had the first on rare occasions. [This perhaps was a mistake for completion's sake, for reasons I will explain in the third part of this article.]

When it came time to report my findings from the elimination diet to my doctors, after hearing that wheat seemed to have been the cause of my long stretch of discomfort, they suggested that I switch from that moment on to a diet that was free of wheat altogether. Which I pledged that I would. When we got home, we went through our cupboards and removed any food items that were used primarily by me that contained any amount of wheat at all. It was also the moment that I realized that I would be reading the label of every single food product that we purchased for the rest of my life (not a bad practice to get into anyway in general, allergy ridden or not). 

Then the research began. I discovered quickly that the best way for me to deal with a wheat allergy was to go gluten-free, a slightly wider avenue that also includes rye and barley. I was, however, not considered to be a celiac. And I didn't have to be gluten-free necessarily. I had no stomach discomfort at all when I ingested wheat. My symptoms were only based from my esophagus upward. But gluten-free is easier to explain in stores and restaurants, because there is already a culture and consumer base built around it, and trends built off of that culture (for better or worse), and as a result, there is also considerable cultural bias against those who practice the lifestyle, whether out of a health necessity or trend-based. (And the most vocal naysayers make little distinction between the differing types. They prefer to remain cynical and insult everyone that chooses to be gluten-free in a trolling version of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks. That's fine, as long as it is gluten-free spaghetti. Thanks.)

And thus, I had officially entered the world of learning to deal with a food allergy. I was judged to have a need to be wheat free, and I had to figure out a lifestyle built around that fact. But, like many who enter into this, depriving oneself of favorite meals in the style to which one has become accustomed is not an easy thing. I would slip up many times before I finally settled into full conformity with this lifestyle. I still had many lessons ahead of me, and it would take another full course of doctor's visits before I would learn to behave.

[To be concluded in Pt. III. Read it by clicking here.]

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Road Less Swallowed: My Allergy Discovery Journey [Pt. I]

Here is how I first discovered that I had a food allergy.

About three years ago, I had a traumatic experience with food poisoning while at Walt Disney World that left me sick for most of a week (and missing much of our vacation). It was our fourth trip to the resort in about seven years, and while all three of our previous trips were great successes (except for the small part on the last trip where I briefly came down with the flu), this time we were staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. If you have not stayed there, I can tell you that it is a magnificent place and should not be missed, at least for a visit to the lobby interior and to visit one of the restaurants. 

I was truly fired up for this trip for a couple of reasons. There was a new Italian place in Epcot where I was going to get pizza (my favorite food... period) and we would be celebrating my birthday at that dinner as well. The best part is that I would have the opportunity to take as many pictures of African animals as I liked since the grounds of Animal Kingdom Lodge are surrounded by giraffes, zebras, warty pigs, antelopes of many varying species, and best of all, okapis. I was uber-excited to hang out all day with lovely okapis, my very favorite mammal.

For the first half of the trip, everything was beautiful. We hit all the Disney parks, we rode rides (because that's what you do with them), and we ate like kings. Or rather, ate like a king and three queens. Or just ate like people who really appreciate good food. We dined at many of the nicer restaurants in the hotels and in Downtown Disney, but we enjoyed our share of junk food too. The new Epcot pizza place turned out to be much louder than I wished, but the pizza was fine, and my birthday was swell. All was great... until the night after my birthday.

The most likely suspects were some bad mushrooms at the Canadian steakhouse in Epcot, where again, the food was just fine (though the service was a tad lacking). All seemed to be copacetic as we were preparing to leave dinner to return to our hotel room so we could get some sleep and power up for a full day inside the Magic Kingdom tomorrow. But, I was having some problems as I sat for the last half of my meal. My breathing became a bit labored for a couple of minutes, but then the problem died down as suddenly as it came. I finished my meal, but my throat was tensing up on me even though it felt like there was nothing blocking it. I was just thinking maybe I had eaten too fast. I had a brief bout of dizziness as we were getting up to leave, and I excused myself to go outside and get some fresh air, thinking that maybe it was all I needed since I quite regularly get a little claustrophobic inside rooms where there are a lot of people talking non-stop and I can't readily escape.

Even after getting some air, my throat was still tensing up. My significant other (then, and wife now, somehow) Jen retrieved me and we started to make our way to the Epcot exits. Standing in the middle of the crowd, I suddenly felt a great disturbance in the Force as if everything that I had ever eaten in my entire life cried out and wished to be voided from my body. I made my way to the edge of the crowd... and horror ensued. Everything from dinner met the air, and I am still greatly surprised that the license plate from the stomach of Jaws didn't show up as well, so disgusting was the scene. The torrent continued, but after a quick cleanup in the men's room of the Coca-Cola Club Cool building (so sorry about the rug I hit on the way inside), I managed to calm down enough to catch the shuttle back to the hotel.

By the time we made it back to our beautiful suite in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, I was still extremely nauseous and dizzy. I spent that entire evening in our massive bathroom doing what I still refer to as a "Randy Marsh". (If you don't know South Park, look it up.) I was up almost every twenty minutes through the night and therefore got very little sleep. The next morning, I felt like hell and my throat was raw from its setting getting switched to "reverse," but I still tried to see if something would settle my stomach. Water and toast for breakfast. Then a Sprite to see if the carbonation would help. I was also not the only one to have difficulties with dinner the previous night. Jen's mom, Sande, also ate the mushrooms -- it was the one item at dinner that we shared -- and had similar results. She certainly didn't have the spectacular theme park display that I did, but she was sick all the same.

After a late morning nap, mostly out of sheer exhaustion, our quartet (which also included Jen's aunt, Sue) endeavored to still carve out some hours at the Magic Kingdom. I made it almost two hours (but not quite) before I had to catch a monorail to a depot to then catch a shuttle back to Animal Kingdom Lodge to put myself to bed for the remainder of the day. And by "bed," I mean, living in the bathroom for most of the time, continuing to Randy Marsh like nobody's business. Here, I will spare you the more grisly details of my existence over the remainder of our vacation. Any strength I had left was spent taking pictures of okapis and other animals from the second floor balcony of our room (I took over 1400 photos that trip because of this), and physically, I was just miserable constantly.

And this cannot be stressed enough, because it will later be one of those "Aha!" moments for the reader, because it was for me as well... For the remainder of the trip, all I ate was crackers and wheat toast. A little bit of peanut butter on the toast at one point for some flavor, and sometimes the wheat toast would be a toasted bagel instead, but otherwise, I was just pounding crackers and bread for the last few days. Somewhere in there, I started to develop a small cough. I thought it was from the relentless vomiting, because my throat was scratchy and sore all the time. The small cough would turn into a long series of coughs, and then progressed into a awful rattle that would cause me to wretch even more.

On the other side of things, Jen's mom was still not feeling well either, but was not coughing and carrying on as long as I was. Sande was not coughing at all, in fact. On the morning that Jen and I flew back to Southern California, I was unsure as to whether I would break my string of never stepping into a bathroom on an airplane (I have gone for many years without having to do so), and I was taking copious amounts of Imodium A-D before we left for the airport. Luckily, while my stomach continued to turn loops on me, I contained things well enough that I didn't break my streak. I was even able to eat (and keep down) a breakfast sandwich at the airport to try and get a little protein in me, since I had eaten very little outside of crackers and bread the past few days. But that mysterious cough continued unabated. I coughed through the whole flight, definitely annoying the hell out of everyone onboard. I must say that when you feel as sick as I did at that moment, you really don't give a crack about anyone else around you.

When I returned home to Anaheim, I immediately went to my doctor, who treated me for food poisoning. Some antibiotics and I rebounded from that quite quickly. The cough was another matter. Chest x-rays showed my lungs were clear, but they treated me for bronchitis anyway and prescribed to me a codeine-laced cough syrup. I returned to work and drove my office mates crazy for the next month, continuing to cough endlessly to the point where I started working from home as much as possible (luckily, I was then in a situation where I could do that on certain days). There was another problem related to the coughing that cropped up. The cough would sometimes get so tense that I would eventually throw up whatever I had eaten most recently.

After a month, I had enough and went back to my doctor. She decided to send me to a specialist, who then scheduled me for an endoscopy. They discovered that I had developed eosinophilic esophagitis. My esophagus and upper intestine were covered in tiny red blotches called eosinophils, and it was quite likely that their rather rude and unsolicited appearance there was due to a food allergy. But first... a colonoscopy! Mostly to make sure that the little buggers hadn't infiltrated my lower GI area, but I think the doctors just wanted to have fun with my back end. The weirdest part is that I woke up from the anesthesia halfway through the colonoscopy, and made small talk and jokes with the doctors (one male and one female) the rest of the way. (I do remember asking the docs if they had seen my keys back there, because I thought that I had lost them.)

I was given the "all clear" on the colonoscopy, which allowed my doctors to focus in on the upper GI. I was told that the next step would be to determine if one of the major food allergen groups was the cause of my distress. I was put on an elimination diet, where I first had to cut out all foods in my diet from these eight groups: eggs, milk (dairy), peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, shellfish, fish, and soybeans. For a two-week period, I was to not eat anything from these groups, and then after the period was over, each week I was supposed to add one of the groups back into my diet to see what effect they had on me.

It's not as easy as it sounds at first, because some dishes have a little bit of everything or many things in them. Most of my favorite foods had to be dead for me for a fortnight. I couldn't have a cheeseburger for lunch because of the bread and the cheese. I couldn't have burritos because of the flour tortilla and the cheese. Pad Thai was out because of the eggs, peanuts, and fish sauce. In fact, most Asian was out anyway because of soy sauce. Pizza? Fuhgeddabouit. And fast food overall was pretty much a goner.

Looking back now, after a few years of learning about food alternatives and which restaurants and grocery stores cater more readily to such choices, it is easy to forget just how daunting it was to ask me to cut all of this out of his diet at once. My doctors had it all over the Brave Little Tailor. Forget seven in one blow; the sawbones had amped that killer blow up to eight. (Though really, shellfish and fish were rarely a thing with me anyway. Not foods I sought out, then or now. Especially now, but more on that at a later date... foreshadowing!)

For those two weeks of preparation for my elimination diet, I pretty much ate chicken, rice, and vegetables. I brought carrot and celery sticks to work for lunch -- in fact, walked around the office munching whole carrots with greens in the Bugs Bunny way that I enjoy, and even talking like him most of the day. I would get the occasional rice bowl if I went with my team for lunch, but basically had what I was eating at home: chicken, rice, and vegetables. Without at least bread and cheese being involved, it was a pretty dull time, but I did lose a bit of weight eating that way. The most positive side effect: my cough totally stopped.

And then came time to start adding the major food allergen groups back into my diet, one by one...

[To be continued in Part II. Read it by clicking here.]

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Ghosts of Peppers Past [Re-Post]

[This piece was originally posted on The Cinema 4 Pylon on October 11, 2015. It is included here for the sake of completion.]

The news is full of stories about the annual obsession with pumpkin spice enemas and whatnot, and it is fully understandable given the season. The stores have gone crazy with pumpkin-flavored everything, and I would be wrong were I to tell you I did not approve on some level. My favorite pie is pumpkin, I love to chew on pumpkin seeds, and I will drink a pumpkin shake on the rare occasion I deign to down a milk-based product through a straw.

Speaking of things gastronomic, I grew ever more excited about Halloween this year once I heard that ghost pepper items were beginning to hit stores and menus around America. I fell in love with the evil little things while still slaving at my old gig, where the very nice lady who served as the director of our one truly noble program -- providing soccer-playing opportunities for the handicapped -- would bring my office partner and I a steady supply of her home-grown ghost peppers and red scorpion peppers. 

I learned quickly when cooking with these peppers that it was best to wear rubber gloves when cutting into them, and if you are not wise enough to cover your eyes with safety goggles, at least cut the peppers with your arms extended from your body and face as far as you can. And I am not one of these YouTube attention hounds that will just eat the entire pepper on a dare. I preferred to figure out what amount for each pepper would give me that desirable spice burn, but not flame my tongue (and subsequently my internal organs) out forever.

While watching a show on the Food Network last Sunday (starring that douchebag chef I don't really like, though I do enjoy his competitive cooking show he hosts), one of the ingredients that absolutely had to be used by the contestant chefs was a bag of ghost pepper-flavored tortilla chips. While the cooking was going on for that round, the judges tore into a bag and test-tasted the chips themselves, behaving as if the bombing of Hiroshima was being reenacted live on television. Of course, I was assuming the judges and host were playing it up a bit, and when a couple of the four dishes set before them turned out to be not quite as spicy as they would have preferred (a couple of chefs were too successfully -- and thus, failures -- in "turning down the heat"), I figured that the chips were probably pretty spicy, but not unmanageably so.

Jump to the next day when Jen is out shopping with her mom, and she texts me from Trader Joe's that she found a treat for me. I flashed back to the experience on TV the night before, and asked "Is it spicy?" and she responded "Could be..." Since Trader Joe's mostly carries items with their own branding, I figured chances were slim that they were the chips I saw on the cooking competition show. And when she arrived home, sure enough, they were Trader Joe's Ghost Pepper Potato Chips instead. Still, I erupted with joy at the thought of tasting anything with ghost peppers added to it! Best of all, they were gluten-free, which for me is not a trendy tag or a mere option; it is the allergy-tested and doctor-ordered manner in which I have to live in order to breath comfortably day to day.

The "ghostly" poem on the back of
Trader Joe's Ghost Pepper Potato Chips.
There is no grace period between my taste buds and a spicy snack. There is no downtime where I study the chip, consider its texture and shape, and muse on the expanse of flavors that could be discovered. And my apologies to Master Yoda, there is no "DO NOT"... there is only "TRY the chip" and "DO deal with the consequences". And I tried. And I did. The dealing would come later (I assumed). I tore that bag open the second it was in my hands, and popped a rather large potato chip into my mouth.

And... I was slightly disappointed. The chips were spicy, but lightly so, as if Trader Joe's (or whoever they had packaging their food) were truly afraid to offend anyone's sensibilities (or send someone to the hospital). So, lacking that barrage of heat after a single chip, I went for what you often have to do with spicy snacks: slowly build a fire and don't let it go out. I ate ten chips one after the other, and got a pretty decent buzz going (not a buzz like in pot, but spice hounds will understand) in the back of the tongue. That made me happier, but it died down quickly. Another ten chips reestablished the buzz, but not wanting to ruin dinner, I quit knowing it probably wouldn't get much hotter than it had. Visiting the bag later that evening and the next day confirmed my conclusions.

The chips are tasty and the packaging is attractive (I like the ghostly pepper next to the poem on the back of the bag) [see picture], but I was getting more out of the chips from the overall flavor than from any accumulation of ghost pepper powder. I would easily buy them again just as a very good potato chip, but for a regular spicy snack, I would much rather dip into another bag of Tim's JalapeƱo or Cajun Potato Chips (though, according to their own website, Tim's is no longer producing that second wonderful flavor). At least with those two styles, the heat stays with you for a while and allows you to build on it if desired.

These chips want to kill your mama...
But, what if you want heat that kicks your ass before you even bite the chip? I wouldn't think  it was really a desirable thing except for heat extremists, but I suppose they must be out there somewhere. Also out there somewhere were the chips I saw on the cooking show, and I wanted to find them. I can't let those weenie judges get to try the chips but not me! I checked for the brand on the internet -- Paqui Tortilla Chips. The store on their website has nothing for sale, and their lousy excuse is that they are too busy making more chips for everyone to enjoy! So, you can't hire someone to set up E-Commerce on your site to sell your product? At least give me some links to locations that sell your chips. Next up was Amazon, which had other ghost pepper related items, but no Paqui chips at all. Yes, I could get other chips to try, but I wanted to find these particular ones.

And so I decided to stake out the local supermarkets next and try to track them down. Vons was a no go... hardly a spicy chip at all outside of Doritos Habanero and Spicy Nacho. Been there, done that. The next day, I took advantage of a ride up to the other grocery store down the street -- Ralphs -- and was able to locate Paqui Tortilla Chips right away, albeit a little bit hidden on the shelf behind a floor display. Unfortunately, they only had their verde-flavored and habanero-flavored chips. Definitely wanted to try both, but I really wanted the ghost pepper ones. All appeared lost until I made the last minute decision to run down to the produce area to grab some tomatoes for tacos later that night. On the way back to the cart that Sande was pushing around the store, I ran into a floor display at the end of a random aisle (one that no food in it whatsoever) that was filled with Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper Tortilla Chips!! Victory at last!

Challenge accepted!!
I didn't hesitate to grab a bag and fought hard to not try one until we got back home. Luckily, we are only a mile away, so it didn't take long. Grocery bags out of the car and into the house. Chip bag out of the grocery bag. A mad dash to my office. Pictures taken of the bag, front and back. And then the tear. A barely perceptible atomic cloud could be seen rising from the slit at the top of the bag as it popped open, its small mushroom a warning against those who trespassed without the most diamond-hard of constitutions.

Let's flash back to that bit I said about heat kicking your ass before you even bite the chip. This is that chip. There is so much peppery dust on each chip in the bag that if you are not careful, and you bring in even the slightest bit as you prepare to bite into it, you will begin coughing without tasting the actual chip. And this is what happened. Since I have been going through a lot of allergy issues the last few years, and coughing has been the subject of much unendurable pain to me, this was not a happy thing to occur. I try so hard to not begin coughing at all, since it almost always leads to even more coughing, and sometimes it can go on for hours or days. I have it under control with asthma medications and some other major changes to my diet and exercise plan recently (yes, I actually do have a plan finally). So I didn't enjoy it when the first chip started me off on a fit right away.

I settled down and took a proper bite. It should have been a much smaller one. The chips are the usual large tortilla chip size, but every bit seems to be fully coated with the pepper mix, so you cannot avoid the heat at all. And it is pure, Hades-inspired heat. The first chip was so hot that I couldn't have another one for over ten minutes. Even with the cough warning, I was truly unprepared for it. I even nearly fell into the novice trap of reaching for a water, though I knew full well it would only worsen the problem. Because I am a pepper moron, I wouldn't try to drown it anyway even if I had something at hand that could do so, like milk (which I hate), and I let the forest fire in my mouth and throat gradually die down and mostly dissipate.

Then I did what only a true slave to the spice can do (I feel like I am in a twisted version of Dune): grab another chip and eat it. I was soon able to have a few in a row, with the burn down times a little less each time. As I write this (Saturday), it is now the exact amount of time that it took me finish off the bag of Trader Joe's chips, and I still have over a half bag of the Paqui left. In fact, after that initial burst of activity, I only had a few more later that night, and just three chips today. The problem for me is that the Paqui brand are tortilla chips, and not potato chips. If the more insane amount of pepper dust were on potato chips, I would still probably finish them a lot faster, because my true comfort snack love is potato chips. I prefer tortilla chips when they accompany other foods, like salsas and bean dips, or in nachos, or when I add them to tacos to make "Nacos" (as on Kim Possible). For me, having other tastes and textures with the chip itself helps to break up the overall blandness of the tortilla chip. I could see crumbling these chips into a taco salad to add a devilish burst of flavor and spiciness, and then again, it would be a case of combining a tortilla chip with other items. Overall, though the spice level is exactly what I was hoping for and more -- they are the hottest snacks I have every tasted -- there is not much taste-wise beyond the burn except for the taste of a pretty good tortilla chip.

Where the Paqui chips definitely prevail is in the packaging. While their website failed to help me at all except tell me about their flavors, the bag itself is delightful. As you can see from the picture above, the words "Homemade Horror" appear right on the front of the bag, and if there was ever a more appropriate connection between the text on a bag and the Satanic contents within, I haven't discovered it. Once again, there is also a ghostly looking pepper on the packaging, and definitely not as intentionally cute as the one of the Trader Joe's bag. Best of all is the text on the back, where a warning declares "The contents of this bag are extremely frightening. Paqui is not responsible for any injuries that may result from ingesting this delicious terror." The list of "Haunted Ghost" ingredients is prefaced with "MADE WITH HORROR AND", and then heads into the unimportant, real world stuff. Fun packaging that not only sells the product but gives you ample reasons to shy away if you are not built for this speed.

On the whole, I wish the heat from the Paqui chips were on the potato chips from Trader Joe's. I would buy the Trader Joe's chips as is for a regular, delicious potato snack in my home (if I weren't actively trying to excise salty snacks from my diet), but am disappointed in the heat profile. I think I might try the habanero tortilla chips from Paqui next for a comparison. And if I wanted to be evil at a party, I would definitely sneak some Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper tortilla chips into the bowl on the refreshment table. I would love to see the faces on the unsuspecting partygoers as their abilities to taste normal and to possibly maintain regularity get destroyed for the remainder of the evening.

You probably shouldn't even invite me in...