For as long as I can remember (and presumably even before then), I've been allergic to shrimp. When I was eighteen months, my father held out for my hungry, puckered lips a small spoonful of peanut butter ice cream: little did he know that I was allergic to both peanuts and milk. I slurped a sample and swallowed and my lips puffed up then burst, bleeding; hives broke out over my body and face; and my eyes swelled shut. Luckily my parents got me to a hospital before I died, and the doctors pumped my little freaked-out body full of epinephrine, the only truly soothing salve for the allergically-afflicted. With my body's defenses now operating at warp speed, pumping the errant histamines back to their respective cells, my body cooled and settled down until finally I was a wholly restored little bumpkin once again. What a relief the sight of a healthy child must have been to my parents, who in their negligence had already allowed the blinding of another of their children five years earlier. One can only imagine the little speeches they must have been rehearsing to themselves, wary of some inevitable consultation with Social Services - "Yes, of course we kept track of his diet! Yes, of course we understand you're not supposed to give small children peanuts. What's that? Why did we? Well, I suppose we thought that peanut butter ice cream was more cream and butter than peanut. Plus, he looked hungry. Come again? You're asking me why my daughter has a small, blackened eye? Umm, well, she was born that way. Genetic thing. I'm sorry? Oh, you're wondering why my son just claimed that it was actually he who stabbed his sister in the eye? Well, you know kids - they'll say anything for a laugh. What's that you say? Just who exactly is in charge of this house? Well, Jesus is. He watches over us, and we look to Him for guidance. Oh God, oh Jesus! Not my kids... please, oh please, don't take my kids! I meant Jesus metaphorically! I SWEAR TO YOU WE AREN'T CRAZY NEGLIGENT PARENTS!"
Once my body had finally settled down, they ordered tests on me, drilling little holes into my back and dropping allergens into them, waiting for a reaction. When the results became apparent, it confirmed the prudent suspicions of the doctors: dairy products and eggs would cause my skin to erupt in hives and eczema, while peanuts, fish, and shellfish would cause immediate and perhaps lethal anaphylactic shock, a process that involves my mast cells exploding with histamines - little buggers who race through my bloodstream with baseball bats and a coke habit, a million little Johnny Depps let loose in the huge hotel of my body. It's not a fun party, though, and when it ends, there are no fireworks or nude twister or Kate Moss. Just a throat swelling shut and a body in shock, powering down the remaining operable organs and telling everyone to just go home, there's nothing to see here.
So it came as quite the surprise to me when, just over a week ago, my new allergist tested a blood sample and informed me that I am not, in fact, allergic to shrimp. At all. That I am, strangely enough, more allergic to potatos than shrimp. More allergic to tomatos and honeydew and kiwi and, by assocation (oh, fear of all fears), latex. In fact, I am, one could say, as allergic to shrimp as I am confident of pleasing a woman sexually. Which is to say not at all.
The first thought that crossed my mind was that my doctor was an idiot and a charlatan. Everyone knows that I'm allergic to shrimp. It's one of my many badges of conflicted, wounded honor, ranking just behind the notion that I had true love and lost it. Being deathly allergic to shrimp was the first salvo in a barrage of charming self-pity that I had been peddling for years. Do you know how poor my eyesight is? Are you aware that I occasionally break out in hives when the weather is too warm? Can you belive that I have overcome so much, with so little, to become the monster of a man I am today? No, honey, me neither. I simply can't believe it. Now, let's take this back to my place, where I will lay you down upon my allergen-free, plastic-sheeted bed. I will offer you a glass of wine - white wine of course, for red wine contains too many sulfites, which make my skin tingly and sort of itchy. Yes, wonderful. Are you feeling comfortable? Come now, rest your head upon my shoulder - ow! No, no, it's not your fault. I just bruise easily. My skin is tender, but no more tender than my heart.
And now this new doctor tells me that my entire sham is a sham. Well, I wasn't convinced. Sure, he had fancy technology and centrifuges and microscopes and trained professionals on his side, but I had something, too. It's called gumption. And I did what any person in my situation with a little gumption would do: I performed a medical procedure on myself without telling my doctor. Now, some of you may claim that running a clinical trial on oneself, with absolutely no medical training whatsoever, is the height of folly. You'd be wrong.
You see, because I have been going to allergists my entire life, I have a pretty good idea of how to perform a simple skin test. In fact, it's dangerously easy and fun. All one needs are four things: a sharp object to puncture the skin (in this case, a safety pin); juices or extracts from the possible allergen (today's samples would be shrimp juice, peanut butter, and avocado); an Epipen for immediate relief if the trial goes awry; and a sober and competent friend in charge of emergency hospital-driving or 911-calling duties. After dabbing a bit of extract on the end of the safety pin, merely prick ther skin and embed the allergen just underneath, cleaning the lancet after each puncture and repeating the process. Fortunately, the last two safety precautions proved unnecessary, as the skin test was executed with clinical precision: no reaction in the area where I pricked the skin with filtered water (control), no reaction for shrimp (meaning that I truly am not allergic to it after all), no reaction for peanut butter (interesting...), and a huge reaction for avocado (the food to which I am the most allergic...ladies??).
The stage was now set for a momentous moment of momentous importance: the eating and ingestion of shrimp. Lady Spoonbender prepared a sizzling pan of shrimp a la Spanish spices and saffron, and we sat around the table staring at the little critters, waiting for a move on my part. I showed Lord Spoonbender the proper technique one employs when using an Epipen and then I ate a little shrimp and then I waited. I say "little" because they were perhaps the smallest sized shrimp you can purchase, which I later realized was the perfect way to be introduced to them. The flavor of the spicy saffron sauce overwhelmed the shrimpy smell of the seafoody shrimps. I consumed perhaps four of these shrimpy shrimps and, truth be told, was slightly underwhelmed. The flesh of the shrimp was denser than I had imagined, less flavorful, and dry and gritty. But still, I had conquered the mountain. I had eaten shrimp. I had not died. I had not even developed a small headache or a slight irration of the skin. As a hero of mine is wont to say, FTBSITTTD. And boy did I FTBS and boy did I then TTBSD.
But still I felt unsatisfied. I had, in my own estimation, "pussied out". I had only eaten a few very small shrimp, I hadn't prepared it myself, and in my concern and worry of eating something that I had always thought would either kill me or make me violently ill, had failed to savor the flavor of the little scrumptious crustaceans. So I resolved to make my own batch of shrimp, big shrimp this time, the kind of shrimp that look like that thing that popped out of that guy's stomach in Spaceballs. Jumbo shrimp.
I went to the store and purchased a pound of the stuff and asked my sis-n-law for a good recipe and then found myself, last night at seven in the evening, in the curious position of standing above a sautee pan covered in hot olive oil and roasted garlic with a bag of smelly, fishy shrimp. Bombs away, and I dumped the bag. Lord, what a smell. For twenty five years, the programming has been set, reinforced, and hammered into every fibre and wire of my body - upon the immediate smell of seafood, a hurried and frantic, "Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!" And here I was not only not fleeing the scene and searching for my Epipen, but actively preparing the dish myself. I felt like a hemophiliac preparing my wrist for a ritualistic blood-brothering. But still I persevered, because I am strong and I will not allow my will to be conquered (Oh, AM, how do you go on in the face of such strife? I don't know, love. I wish I knew - wish I could bottle it and give to you, but I can't and I won't.)
I finished the preparation and then continued, carrying out each step with less and less conviction. By the time the meal was ready and I had scooped five or six huge shrimp on my plate, pink and white and covered in parsley and salt, I had nearly already made up my mind: I will not eat this. They were too imposing, the jumbo shrimp. Too...shrimpy. Imagine if someone told you today, "You know, eating your own shit won't make you sick. In fact, it's quite tasty, and very good for you." Would you do it? I don't think you would. The mental hurdle is too great. If it were decimated and pureed and hidden in something else, like maybe a chocolate and shit shake, then maybe you'd be able to do it. But imagine a huge, solid turd on your plate next a sprig of parsley and a bowl of fruit. I really doubt you'd have the resolve to take a bite. So get off my back and stop judging me already.
I should mention that I did eventually manage to eat one whole shrimp, cautiously and sheepishly and by way of three nervous nibbles, while enduring my roommate's cavalier assertions that, "Man, shrimp sure is great!" as he polished off the rest of my plate. Unfortunately, one shrimp is not a victory. It's a concession. It's a slapping of the mat, a cry of "Uncle!", a white flag. Shrimp: 1, American Mastodon: 0.
So there you have it. The punchline-less and not greatly dramatic story of how I came to eat shrimp, for the first time, at the ripe age of twenty-five. But surely, this story is not yet finished. For though you may have bested me this time, shrimp, this is hardly the last you'll see of me. I will build my tolerance to your gross fish-odor, your fleshy little fingerish shape, your flaming pink gayness, and your way over-priced cost. I will suffer in my hunger to develop a...uh, hunger for you. I will one day enter a Red Lobster and order you, as they say, in the "Scampi" way, and I will dip you in sauce and I will enjoy your flesh on my tongue and I will laugh. I will laugh and laugh and laugh and keep laughing for as long as I want, because no harm will come to me or my throat. I know that now. You can't take that away from me - that knowledge. Sure, you may think you own me now, but today is already turning into yesterday and next week is just around the corner and pretty soon it'll be next year and the year after that and I will be eating you for every meal, every day, all the time, for no good reason other than to shame you in the same way you've shamed me all these years.
I will OWN YOU.