No nibbling while the cook is cooking, if you don't mind

People who stick their bare hands into food I'm busy preparing are invincible, and for them, no bee viewing or mortadella slice is too scary to conquer.

I made shawarma sandwiches recently for a dinner party I was giving. I marinated a hefty, organically raised shoulder of lamb in garlic, onion, citrus juices and herbs, then braised it low and slow until it fell from the bone in tender shreds. The meat was piled high on toasted, homemade Arabic bread slathered with a spicy, paprika-flecked garlic mayonnaise, hearts of romaine lettuce, sprigs of coriander and parsley and rings of grilled onion, elevated to glorious heights by a gorgeous mess of tangy pickles.

As I stood in the kitchen constructing the last of the sandwiches for the serving platters, an acquaintance sidled up to the counter near me, struck up a conversation, and to my abject horror, reached for the remaining lamb shoulder and used her fingers to pull away pieces of the meat and drag them through the surrounding gravy. Again, and again.

Luckily, the meal was well-advanced and all the lamb I was planning to serve that night had already been carved from the roast, but my peckish guest didn't know that. She noshed blithely, and, tongue-tied, I felt powerless to stop her. Greasy fingers travelled back and forth from roast to lips, where she'd lick away stray morsels before reaching for another taste.

I sent her home with the leftovers because I had no intention of eating them. Yet half of me admired her abandon and utter absence of self-awareness.

A few days ago, when reports of an earthquake along America's eastern seaboard began to spread, followed by warnings about the rapidly approaching Hurricane Irene, panic ensued. With my travel flights to the north-east cancelled, I was invited to witness the harvesting of some raspberry honey from my friend's beehives. The hive was located on the roof of her studio, overlooking her berry thickets. But because I'm allergic to bee stings, I really only "witnessed" it from afar, with my epi pen safe in my pocket.

There are certain things for which we are compelled to step out of our comfort zones. Similarly, there are other activities that I believe are best practised in the sanctity of one's home. Dining out solo is a luxury some of us genuinely enjoy, but the consumption decisions I make in private are anything but luxurious. I can only speak for myself, but I'm pretty interested in rectifying the disparity between who I'd optimistically like to think I am and who I really and truly am. It's hard to extract the emotional charge from our most profound food-related attachments and prejudices, but it doesn't have to mean they enslave us.

As a child, I'd beg my mother to buy a few slices of smooth Pepto Bismol-pink mortadella at the Co-op. I wanted to eat it the way my classmates did: rolled up in large lavash breads with or without labneh. My mother refused to buy it, convinced it was full of nitrites (she was probably right), and I vowed that the moment I was old enough to shop for my own groceries, I'd put deli mortadella on my shopping list. I have yet to do so, though.

So often, the foods we develop allergies and sensitivities to are ones to which we are most exposed, and the conditions tend to worsen over time. Why some people develop sensitivities and others don't remains a mystery. Allergies aren't too mutable and mysterious to be hard-wired into our biology; they appear throughout our lifetimes when the setting calls for it. It's a reaction that extends far beyond the world of food and can be a helpful metaphor for addressing the perennial question of why some people develop prejudices, quirks and cancers while others do not.

Common sensitivities that can take years to manifest and even longer to diagnose can involve dairy, wheat gluten and soy, among a host of other possibilities. With increased exposure, our immune systems react with greater intensity in an attempt to isolate and expel the allergen, and the localised allergic reaction often involves compromised function of the participating organ systems. With a food allergy, this can trigger a response as innocuous as indigestion, but it's symptomatic of our body's response to a problematic stimulus.

Being a sensitive being in the world is a gift and a liability. We're conditioned to value toughness but with a side of tenderness - it's how we like our politicians, our blockbuster heroines and our motor vehicles. My fantasy adult version of myself has a firm but gentle way of asking people to stop sticking their bare hands into food I'm busy preparing, but people like that are invincible, and for them, no bee viewing or mortadella slice is too scary to conquer.

Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM

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