Chapter 37: When Fries Attack – Around the World with a Garlic Allergy

Seasoned fries were the culprit.

Would you like stomach cramps with that?

I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and at 130 pounds soaking wet, wasn’t exactly counting calories. So when I ate lunch at J.J. Muggs, a burger place conveniently located across the street from the design firm where I worked, I always ordered crispy, golden, fried potatoes with my meal, because, well, who wouldn’t?

But minutes after returning back to the office, I would break out in a sweat, turn pale, experience stabbing abdominal cramps, then run like hell to the bathroom. That was when I learned that the term “explosive diarrhea” was a thing.

After a few doctor visits and some cuisine-based detective work, I discovered that the fries at J.J. Muggs were in fact “seasoned” fries, sprinkled liberally with garlic powder and garlic salt and bits of chopped garlic and probably fried in pans made of garlic bulbs.

And I discovered that I was allergic to garlic.

Technically, according to my doctor, I didn’t have a garlic “allergy.” I had a garlic “intolerance,” meaning I didn’t have an immune system response but experienced, in his words, “unpleasant symptoms.” I felt the aforementioned “explosive diarrhea” fell into this category fairly well.

bulbs of horror

I wasn’t devastated at the thought of never eating garlic again. Growing up, garlic was not a staple of my Midwestern diet of hearty casseroles, pork chops, potatoes, fried chicken, and sweet corn. Oh, and Maid-Rites! This is a loose meat sandwich type of thing, and it is heaven on a bun. Seriously, I would choose this as my last meal if I ever was going before a firing squad. And Maid-Rites definitely do not include garlic.

Also, the smell of garlic is horrifying to me, especially when it emanates from someone’s mouth or pores the day after they ate it. Some mornings I get on the bus to go to school, and the entire interior reeks because someone ate garlic shrimp the night before. Might as well drape the rotting carcass of a dead cat around your neck or bathe in spoiled milk mixed with rotten eggs, because it’s all just horribly stinky to me.

And is it really worth it to smell like the kitchen vent of an Italian restaurant just so you can eat one stupid herb? The Gardening Channel lists 94 other herbs one can cook with. Why use garlic when you can use herbs with names such as Dittany of Crete, epazote, horehound, or Johnny Jump Up? Those would make you a much more interesting person in the long run, and infinitely less smelly.

To me, garlic is aggressive and negatively overwhelms anything it comes in contact with, sort of like the Donald Trump of cuisine. I bet you could coat a kitchen sponge with tomato sauce and garlic and tell someone it was lasagna, and they wouldn’t even notice the difference. Some chefs say garlic desensitizes your tongue to more delicate flavors. Probably true, because I’ve notice that it’s used heavily in low calorie dishes because all the actual good tasting stuff (e.g. butter) is absent and garlic masks the blandness. It’s also used a lot in vegetarian dishes because, well, a carrot or quinoa is never going to knock your socks off on its own.

When I tell someone of my garlic intolerance, inevitably I get the reaction, “Oh, I love garlic!” Well that makes me feel just dandy. It’s like if someone tells you they’re blind, and you respond, “Oh, I love seeing!”

Breaking news: I don’t actually care at all that you enjoy eating the bulb that causes my colon

Thar she blows!

to explode like Mount Vesuvius. Wouldn’t it be super if, after I explain my predicament to someone, they simply gave me an understanding nod and realized that their herbal preference turns my insides into a war zone? I mean, if someone tells me they go into anaphylactic shock when they eat nuts I just say, “I’m sorry” and don’t share that I love peanut butter so much that I want to rub it all over my face.

Sometimes people will react with, “But garlic is good for you! They sell garlic tablets at the health food store!” Aside from the fact that it’s not certain whether garlic is effective in treating any medical condition, and the medicinal use of garlic has not been approved by the FDA, just remember that health food stores also sell $9 bottles of Coconut Charcoal SuperAde juice. Yep, that’s right, a juice full of black, activated charcoal. It’s good for you, really. No matter how black your teeth turn.

A cauldron of Uzbek food, and not a clove of garlic in sight.

On the down side, a garlic intolerance can make the whole restaurant experience a tad frustrating. First I scan the menu to make my first choice, but I also have four to six other options on standby in case garlic is used in anything. Then I carefully explain to the server my situation. Because I’ve traveled around the world and lived on five continents, I’ve learned to recite “I’m allergic to garlic” in many languages, including last year when I learned to say it in Uzbek for our trip to Uzbekistan (“Men sarimsoqqa allergiyam!”).

It definitely sounds the best in French: Je suis allergique à l’ail (juh-swee al-ur-zheek uh-LIE). It’s almost like I’m reciting a poem or saying the name of a new Givenchy perfume. Sometimes I just go to a French restaurant so I can say that over and over.

And now we live in China where 80% of the world’s garlic is produced (I know, I know, the irony of it all). “I am allergic to garlic” in Chinese looks like this: 我对大蒜过敏. Disturbingly enough, that middle character looks a little like me in the bathroom after eating garlic.

Pronouncing that Chinese phrase sounds something like this: whoa dway dhas-sue-on gwoe-mean, except no matter how many times I try to say it JUST like the woman’s voice on Google translate, the servers just stare at me blankly. I’m sure I don’t say the tones correctly, which can completely alter the meaning. Maybe I’ve turned a simple dietary restriction statement into an insult about their hair style or mother or something. That’s why I have it written in Chinese in my phone, and I just show them after a few speaking attempts.

After I explain to the server my garlic predicament—in whatever language–I usually encounter one of four responses:

(1) “Is that a real thing? I’ve never even heard of that.” I want to reply that there are probably many things they’ve never heard of, such as how the size of their tip is diminishing with each stupid thing they say. To get them to understand the significance of this, I always describe my affliction as an “allergy” since that sounds more serious. I also tell them that I will die if I eat it, right after my head explodes. That usually gets them to take me more seriously as well.

(2) “Can you have just a little bit of garlic?”  To which I want to answer, “Sure, then I’ll only have a little bit of explosive diarrhea in your bathroom later.” Seriously, it’s like asking me, “Can you drink just a little bit of antifreeze?” or “Is swallowing just half a razorblade okay?” An expat server in Shanghai explained that it’s possible there could be just a bit of garlic in the pan from a previous entrée. Did I really have to explain that dish washing detergents had been invented in Germany during WWI?

(3) “Well, you can always order off of the dessert menu, that’s safe! Ha ha!” And if this was true, maybe I would eat only desserts for the rest of my life and turn into Jabba the Hutt’s twin with scurvy. Unfortunately, some evil wizards devised a way to incorporate garlic into desserts too! Introducing Black Garlic Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Sauce with 3 teaspoons (15 mL) of black garlic. Or Roasted Garlic Ice Cream with 1 entire head of garlic. Or Garlic Brittle Cookies with eight to ten garlic cloves. The introduction to that recipe says, “Garlic is a mysterious flavor, and its sweet bite is a perfect complement to chocolate.  We bet no one will be able to guess the secret flavor in these cookies!” Garlic is mysterious? You can’t be mysterious when your odor can be detected from deep space. It’s like pouring gas or Chanel No. 5 into a Fiji water bottle and betting no one will detect the “secret” flavor.

 (4) “Why would you come to a __________ (Italian, Middle Eastern, Korean, etc.) restaurant? There’s garlic in everything.” First, it’s always delightful to have a server question your dining choices—it really sets the mood for the night. Second, with few exceptions I don’t have a problem finding something safe on the menu at any restaurant, from Chicago to Shanghai. Of course this didn’t hold true at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant I visited last summer, where the manager informed me that literally EVERYTHING on their menu had garlic in it, including the burgers, wraps, and the damn salads!

Garlic hatred aside, I am not eating at a restaurant where some numbskull chef doesn’t have enough culinary creativity to come up with at least two herb options. Geez, go back to 7th grade home economics class. To accommodate me, they pan fried a plain chicken breast and plopped it on a bun with a single lettuce leaf and a not-so-ripe tomato slice. Corrugated cardboard never tasted so good.

I’ll have the pasta. Hold the bad breath.
Image: Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

Fortunately, most restaurants aren’t so garlic forward, even Italian restaurants. Contrary to popular belief, garlic is not a staple of every single Italian region, as a server in Florida once tried to tell me. I’m sure the closest he had been to Italy was the Italian Pavilion at EPCOT Center.

For the uninformed, garlic is a staple in the SOUTH of Italy (Google it). Many classic Italian dishes like fettuccine Alfredo, invented in 1892 by Alfredo di Lelio in Rome, never included garlic. Did you hear that, Olive Garden? Just because you chuck a clove or three into your fettuccine Alfredo (and every other defrosted dish you serve) doesn’t make it right. In fact, many northern Italians (like our Italian exchange student many years ago) view those who eat and smell of garlic as second class or unsophisticated.

So there you have it. I may not be able to dive into a bowl of roasted garlic soup with garlic croutons served in tiny hollowed out garlic bulbs. But I’ll never be mistaken as second class or unsophisticated. Not even at the Olive Garden.

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Chapter 36: Back on the Chain Gang – Tide Powder, Cincinnati, & Uzbek Line Cutters

Once at the Milan airport, a group of armed soldiers waved Jamey and me over as we were about to exit the immigration area. They spent a minute rifling through our bags until one of them pulled a Ziploc full of white powder from my roller bag and held it high, maybe like Tony Montana did in Scarface.

“It’s Tide-Plus-A-Touch-of-Downy-Powder-Laundry-Detergent!” I blurted out.

But they didn’t speak English, so I resorted to using my extensive mime skills–pouring imaginary detergent into a washer, turning the dial, mimicking an agitator, reenacting the spin cycle, and so on.

By then the soldier had opened the Ziploc and smelled the distinctive April fresh scent.

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I don’t think Tony Montana is surrounded by Tide laundry detergent. Image: Still from movie “Scarface”

Since no one had yet invented cocaine laced with the smell of springtime, I’m guessing he realized I was simply a traveler with good hygiene practices, and he sent us on our way. But I’ve used Tide liquid ever since.

Encountering authorities is bad enough in my own home country, but it’s super scary having to deal with this in another country with another language and often some wonky laws (or absence thereof). I’m no dummy—I watch “Locked Up Abroad” on the National Geographic Channel, and know for certain I don’t ever want to be in a Pakistani prison. That’s why I don’t even jaywalk or litter or sneeze without covering my mouth when I’m in foreign locales. But I have had my moments…

One afternoon when I was a high school exchange student in Peru, I set off my own to do a little souvenir shopping at the central market. This was one of those noisy, colorful, odiferous, maze-like markets full of exotic produce and dried beans and unrefrigerated meat and live guinea pigs (don’t ask) and clothes and knickknacks galore. I bought a few things, including a bouquet of flowers to take back to my host mother.

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In Peru, when I finally learned to avoid crowds.

On my walk back home I cut through the main plaza which seemed unusually busy with crowds of people. “Another festival?” I wondered to myself. They held a lot of festivals in this country. But unless there was a festival that involved protesting students throwing stones through the windows of the university, and military helicopters hovering overhead, and swarms of soldiers surrounding the plaza (all which happened within seconds of my arrival), I was most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the soldiers eyed me suspiciously as I made my way out of the main square, but I think in his estimation, a skinny, 16-year-old gringo holding a spray of powder pink carnations and lemon yellow Gerbera daisies didn’t pose much of a threat to the safety and security of Trujillo, Peru. He let me pass and I sprinted all the way home, thrilled that I wasn’t put in the clinker with the stone throwers.

Another time, during a backpacking trip through Europe in college, my friends and I arrived in the Athens airport and saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Egypt. We didn’t hesitate a minute, immediately dashing over to the EgyptAir ticket counter. Three hours later we were landing at the Cairo airport, where I envisioned us deplaning and seeing the pyramids in the distance and camels carrying turbaned riders and a King Tut impersonator (I had an active imagination).

pyramid

I owe my presence here to Cincinnati.

Instead, we walked down the plane stairs into a Soul Train-style line of soldiers holding rifles with very long bayonets attached. Next, we were herded into the immigration room to show our Egyptian visas which, oops, we forgot to get before we left Greece. So we were hauled off to a room where an official looking immigration guy with a distractingly large mustache eyed our passports, page by page, without saying a word.

After a few moments, he looked up and said, “Do you know Cincinnati?” Now this was probably the last sentence in the world I expected an immigration official to mutter at this point. I was expecting more like, “Do you mind trying on this prison uniform to check your size?” or “Have you ever heard of waterboarding?” So the Cincinnati question was good.

“Yes, of course!” we answered enthusiastically. “Great city!”

“My brother lives there,” he explained proudly. Fortunately I had been to Cincinnati on a quick weekend trip a year before to see a Reds game, so I tried to recall everything possible about this city. I told him that it was the chili capital of the world, but their chili was weird because it was poured over spaghetti. I think he actually smiled for the first time (I think, because his massive moustache hid the lower portion of his face), so I kept the Cincinnati trivia flowing (e.g. Doris Day was born there, it was called the Paris of America in the 1800s, etc.).

It seemed to do the trick because he began to joke with us, waived the mandatory rule about changing $150 into Egyptian pounds, and gave us a visa stamp on the spot. Whew! Now on to find that Tut impersonator!

On another occasion, we were at the airport departing Dakar, Senegal in West Africa after an adventurous trip to the nearby Cape Verde islands. My three travel mates, including Jamey, zipped through the immigration line ahead of me and were out of my sight. I slipped my passport into the opening of the glass window of the immigration officer. He tried scanning my passport numerous times and, for whatever reason, the chip was not scanning.

I could tell he was growing frustrated with each swipe. Now, instead of swiping

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Feeling great in Senegal (before the airport incident).

continuously with the same negative results, he could have simply typed in the nine digits and been done with it. But no, this very high strung, on edge immigration officer in army fatigues kept swiping, over and over, his blood pressure rising by the second.

“YOU NO GO! YOU NO GO!” he screamed at me with eyes bulging, as everyone around took a step back from me.

Of course my travel companions were probably already at the gate, and everyone around me now was Senegalese and thinking I was a member of a drug cartel. My minimal French was not going to get me out of this one.

So, as I learned years earlier, when facing a crime, use theatrical mime. So I pointed to

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The master of mime (Marcel Marceau, not me). Image: Creative Commons

his computer, then my passport, then mimicked someone typing. However, this seemed to enrage him even more, although I wasn’t sure if it was because (1) he understood my professional level performance and didn’t like people telling him what to do, or (2) he just didn’t understand it and was angry at himself for not taking that mime class at school, or (3) he just wasn’t a mime fan (many people aren’t, I hear).

Finally, the immigration officer in the next booth intervened, took my passport, and scanned it at his window—where it worked just fine. As I hightailed it out of there, angry officer was still seething and saying many loud things in French that I know weren’t happy thoughts.

More recently, we traveled to Uzbekistan to journey along the old Silk Road route. On one in-country flight we were dropped off by a driver at the local airport at 4:30 AM. First, we waited in a slow moving line outside of the airport where the police checked our passports. Then we trudged through a parking lot to the front of the airport where another line slowly snaked inside where they were screening bags just inside the door. As we waited, groups of locals kept butting in front of us, so the line barely budged.

Once inside, we waited in another “line” (it was actually what we commonly refer to in America as a “mob”) to get our tickets. Again, many local folks were weaving in front of us, so I finally waded through the crowd and got to the counter where I secured our tickets. I was a little sweaty at this point, and nervous that we would miss our flight.

Lo and behold there was yet another “line” to get into the security area. There were no officials herding this crowd, no rope barriers, no stanchions—just a mass of people trying to enter a single door. As Westerners commonly do, we went to the end of the mob and patiently waited while local after local cut to the front and elbowed their way into the door. We were going nowhere fast, and our flight time was getting closer.

I felt my anger growing, much like that Senegalese immigration officer (he would have handled this crowd, I’m sure, but his head would have probably exploded). So I took action. I formed a human barrier using my body and roller bag, and a German guy joined in. This temporarily stooped the line cutters, though they were none too happy. They stood three inches from my face, staring right at me, then began laughing and saying (most likely) nasty things about me in Uzbek (it’s not the most attractive-sounding language anyway, and it sounded worse coming from these bullies.

We finally made it through the door. As we were waiting in line for the single x-ray screening machine to scan our bags, I told my friend to pose while I took her photo with my iPhone, carefully making sure I got the line cutters in the background so I had visuals for what I knew would make a good travel story. But they caught me red-handed, and knew they had been in the shot. And they started yelling.

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Uzbekistan, without a line cutter in sight.

We hurried through the scanning area and just as I was looking for a spot to hide, an airport official (also with a huge mustache) grabbed my shoulder. The line cutters were screaming and yelling at him while pointing at me, and he looked none too thrilled. I checked his hands to see if he had a taser or billy club, but so far, so good.

He explained in broken English that the line cutters were upset I took their picture. I tried to explain I was just taking a picture of my friend, but he wasn’t buying it. He asked me to show the pictures on my phone, and then said sternly, “DELETE THEM.” He made me delete them as he watched, and I tried to do so very cooly so he wouldn’t notice my hands shaking.

After that, the line cutters were smirking and laughing as we walked away to our gate.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons, Book illustration of prison life. Griffiths, Arthur. “Secrets of the Prison-House” subtitled “Gaol Studies and Sketches”. Chapman & Hall, 1894.

So maybe I pressed “restore deleted photos” a short time after that. But for sure I didn’t have to join a Uzbek chain gang.