My family loves to eat so much that its members think of food allergies as gentle reminders instead of ultimatums. No wonder, when everyone learned about my shellfish allergy when I was 5, they told me not to worry because I would eventually “develop immunity” by still eating a little bit of all the food the doctor had told me to avoid.
I was an obedient child, and I didn’t know any better, so I just did as I was told. Besides, it seemed like the most logical thing to do. Back then, I was still living in my grandparents’ Baclaran home, where food was always abundant and almost everyone knew how to prepare elaborate meals.
On Sundays, for instance, my grandfather, who used to work as a head cook for a high-end Korean restaurant in Makati, would prepare dishes that usually included shellfish. He would buy fresh crabs and prawns from the nearby wet and dry market and come up with tasty dishes like ginataang alimasag na may labong and garlic butter shrimp.
Judging simply from how my family members’ eyes would light up soon as they smelled the scent wafting from our kitchen, I could already tell it would be such a shame to pass up on Lolo’s cooking. And so, at lunchtime, I’d eat to my heart’s content.
Normally, I would start feeling itchiness on my lips shortly after a meal. There were even times when some bumps and rashes would appear on my skin, particularly on the folds behind my elbows and knees. Whenever something like this would take place, I’d simply apply some Chinese ointment to the affected areas and, before I knew it, the itching would stop then my skin would be smooth again.
I continued consuming shellfish in the years that came. In fact, my list of favorite food included a lot of dishes that had crustaceans in them: my uncle Leo’s prawn tempura, my aunt Irma’s binagoongang baboy, and my grandmother’s sinigang na hipon. Of course, I still loved my grandfather’s ginataang alimasag and garlic butter shrimp.
Even when I began living in my mother’s home, where food was always scarce, my love for shellfish didn’t die. Whenever we could afford it, we would cook binagoongang baboy and make it so salty so we could stretch it for days. We also added alamang to almost every ginataan dish that mainly involved vegetables, ranging from langka to puso ng saging.
I got even bolder when I was in college. It was as if my shellfish allergy did not exist at all. When a close friend invited me to her birthday celebration in a private resort in Bay, Laguna, I simply indulged and had as many grilled crabs as I wanted. When I look back to that weekend now, all I can think of is how I laboriously took the grilled crabs apart and scraped off all the meat I could get from every crab I could get my hands on.
Back then, I was already aware of how fatal allergic reactions could be. But for some reason, I just went on and indulged in crab meat. I didn’t stop, even when I started feeling itchiness around my lips and on the folds of my skin. To be fair, things had not gotten any worse than that, which somehow assured me things would always be fine.
I did something similar when I traveled to Bacolod for work in 2015. One night, my colleague and I had a late meal at Diotay’s Eatery, which had been recommended to us by a cab driver. Instead of playing things safe and thinking about how difficult it would be to access health services in an unfamiliar place in the event of an emergency, I gave in to my desire and wolfed down half a kilo of garlic butter shrimp.
My brevity didn’t last that long, however. Several months later, my body finally decided to betray me. After downing a serving of binagoongang baboy from one of the eateries near the condo I was living in, bumps began appearing on my skin.
At first, there were only a few of them, and they were all so tiny and thin. But eventually, larger and thicker ones appeared until they all covered my entire body. They were all so itchy, too, which kept me from sleeping that night.
I went to see a doctor the following day, and one of the first things she told me was, “You’re lucky, you can still breathe properly.”
I suddenly had a flashback of those countless characters I’d seen in TV shows and movies die after accidentally ingesting some pastry or cookie that had nuts in them. It was then that I finally accepted that the whole immunity thing was a lie. I’d just been lucky all along, and I didn’t know when my luck would finally run dry.
“Should I take more risks?” I quietly asked myself while waiting for the doctor to hand me the prescription.
I didn’t even have to think about it; I already knew my answer.