Serious Reads »

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, by Sandra Beasley

20110916-book-big.jpgOf the things I am thankful for in life, one is that I have no allergies—no tree pollen, peanuts, shellfish, or dairy products can get me down. But over 60 million Americans are affected by one or more severe allergies, and it seems fair to say that few are affected as much as Sandra Beasley. Beasley has lived her life with over a dozen sensitivities, and accompanying hardships at social occasions, in school, while traveling, and in basically every facet of her daily life. She tells her stories of growing up and living with multiple allergies in her light-hearted memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.

Beasley's list of allergens include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, mustard, mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool. You might be grasping to think of what could possibly be leftover to eat—and how you could even leave the house—if you were so afflicted. Certainly I was overwhelmed when I first read the list, preparing myself for a rather depressing tale of an unfulfilled life. But Beasley provides the opposite: a story of coping mechanisms, becoming a strong individual, and advocating for herself.

Beasley's life included, as one could imagine, a huge amount of care when it came to accepting and sampling foods. Her allergies were heavy-hitters—without immediate medicinal treatment, the wrong bite could send her into anaphylactic shock. As a child, she developed a roster of "safe" foods: peanut butter, specific brands of bread, bacon, pasta. She wasn't the thinnest or healthiest child as a result of these choices, but soon found her way to green vegetables, tomatoes, fruits, and grains. Attending dinner parties was a nightmare; she shares multiple stories of being taken away in an ambulance from an otherwise celebratory occasion. And never mind going to restaurants; waiters usually had little patience for her laundry list of restrictions.

A significant portion of the book is dedicated to discussing allergy research and treatments. Having gone through a barrage of tests during her young adulthood, Beasley is an expert on the subject. She is interested in figuring out how to best serve children and their families who may not be able to afford treatment, or to participate in fully-funded studies. She attends conferences and asks researchers probing questions about the efficacy of their proposed treatments. Their answers are sometimes adequate, and sometimes a launching point for a frustrated complaint against traditional medicine.

This book was a quick, fun read, providing illuminating details into a life plagued by difficulties I will never experience firsthand. Beasley is certainly inspiring to anyone who's suffered from allergies or other medical conditions that make you feel like you're on the outside looking in. But her memories of a supportive family who stuck with her through hard times, friends and lovers who accommodated her needs, and her narrative of independence and self-sufficiency will strike a chord with any reader—even those whose gustatory options are endless.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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