Celery is Everywhere and I’m Hiding in Fear

by Marina Chotzinoff

Celery has nothing to be proud of. It’s mostly flavorless and it’s only real redeeming quality—the crunch—is often ruined by the fibrous strings that come loose sticking in between your teeth and dangling from your lower lip like curled party ribbons. How festive. Don’t agree with me? Try googling “Ode to Celery” or “Celery How I Love Thee” and you will find the following:

Celery is a vile, inedible weed.

Celery is a method for getting peanut butter into my mouth without having to dip my finger into the jar.

i’d rather eat a diaper

I can’t believe I finally found other people who hate celery as much as I do!
Celery smells and tastes like despair!

To list a few.

Now, I was not ever a celery fan, but I did not have this sort of hatred of it either until several years ago. I had eaten a few stalks with hummus about a half hour before running because if I exercise crazy hungry I may as well just skip it and vomit instead. I was running with my dad’s dog and it was hot and I was starting to sweat. It appears I am sensitive to my own sweat (and the ocean!) because I turn all sorts of red and get itchy and miserable until I rinse with fresh water. About 20 minutes into my run my palms and feet started itching like crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy. I assumed it was an extreme reaction to being hot and sweaty and started to run home fast. My poor dad’s dog was being practically dragged behind me as I became more and more desperate to rinse my skin.

When I got home, I stripped out of my clothes in the yard and jumped in the pool. Not helping. I ran inside to the shower, but on the way saw my reflection in passing. Not pretty. My whole face was swelling up, widening my nose, puffing my cheeks and making my pores look huge. I called my sister Robin, whose husband was a fireman with paramedic training, but he was not home. She said if my tongue or throat was swelling I had to call 911 right away.

I went upstairs to tell my dad I was having an allergic reaction and he staggered to his wobbly feet offering to drive me. Ha! Thanking him, but no thanking him, I ran to the other room, called 911 and went downstairs to wait. My dad wobbled after me, a look of poorly suppressed, should I say, glee in his eyes that the impending drama and hospital visit would NOT be happening to him for once. Shortly after, our living room filled with what I can only describe as a heard of fine looking fire fighters. This is not at all my style, but sitting there with my face looking weirder and weirder amongst so many tall, tanned, handsome fellas in their uniforms made an impression.

Long story short (since I still need room for my recent story AND a recipe for the potentially fatal vegetable) I got carried out of the house, shot up with epinephrine and benedryl in the ambulance and spent a day and a half in the ER. My poor husband got a call at work from my dad saying I was in the hospital but he didn’t know why. His boss asked if he could just finish working his shift, but in true, heroic, husband fashion he said EF THAT! and came to sit by his alarming looking wife’s side.

In the years since this incident I have surely ingested all varieties of celery (except raw which I pick out or move over) without incident. It is in so many many things making it really hard to avoid. I have even purposefully cooked pureed celery root and eaten it without issue. But this time, it got me. And here is how I might repeat the situation if I ever wanted to:

1. Get a pot of lentils started by cooking onion and carrot until starting to brown. Add garlic. Stir in 1 c. lentils, 1/2 c. red wine and simmer until evaporated. Add bay leaf and 2 c. vegetable broth. (note: if this is not meatless march, first render bacon, cook veg in bacon fat and use chicken broth). Simmer until water is absorbed and lentils are desired consistency. I like them with just a touch of bite.

2. Bring equal amounts of peeled, cubed celery root (celeriac) and yellow creamy potatoes to a simmer in a pot of 2/3 milk, 1/3 water. Cook gently until very tender. Mash or use ricer with 2 T. butter, s&p, and enough cooking liquid to make a creamy (deadly) puree.

3. Toss small, halved radishes in walnut oil and salt and cook at 450° until brown and tender. Brown a sliced shallot in olive oil, throw in chopped kale, stir until wilted, add radishes, drizzle with a fine balsamic vinegar (we’ve been using one from Orchard Valley Farms in Paonia which is luscious), stir.

4. Plate it, and sit to eat and enjoy reading the latest Edible Front Range

About an hour later my palms and feet started to itch. I had to take off my socks. I felt my face and tongue, but things seemed ok. Maybe it was just a mild case. So naturally I started googling celery allergies as I’m afflicted with “cyberchondria.” The results were not pretty. As the facts began mounting, I tried hard not to imagine feeling all the symptoms I was reading about. I mentioned casually to Ryan that I might be having an allergic reaction.

“Do you have your epi pen?”

“Pfff. That old thing? It was like a million years old and I don’t carry a purse and I had kept it in the car where I later read it could not go below 58° so I threw it out.”

Blink. Blink.

“I think I’ll go eat a benadryl just in case.”

Things soon got worse. Apparently celery root is, in fact, directly related to celery. This might seem obvious, but plenty of other obvious-seeming relations are not, indeed, related. The root contains more allergens than the stalk and the seeds contain the highest amount! (making mental note to not order bloody marys in public). Cooking does not kill the allergen as I once thought. What was I thinking? Also of note, people in central Europe (mainly France, Switzerland and Germany) are way more allergic to celery than people here. So much so that they have to label foods with celery the way do with peanuts (which are somehow related btw). It also points out that there is something called cross-reaction where plants or pollen during certain times of the year (ahem, March/April) will trigger the celery allergy as they have similar cell structures. This was akin to a theory my original allergist tried to explain where allergies also can stack up like building blocks. So if I already had a touch of cat/dog/dust, then ate celery, then ran through some Birch or Mugwort pollen, I’d essentially be stirring up a big histamine slurry of trouble. The “What Allergy?” website goes on to tell me that:

“It is one of the small number of foods, the biggest being peanut, that appear to provoke the most severe allergic reactions; for people with celery allergy, exposure can cause potentially fatal anaphylactic shock.”

Wonderful.

After confirming all the symptoms: stomach pain, itchiness, redness, rash, puffy tongue, itchy lips/mouth, I checked my look in the mirror and there was just a slight puffiness on my cheeks and my tongue looked plain weird. I told Ryan I was pretty sure I needed to go to the hospital. For a brief, seemingly idiotic moment, we decided he’d drive me and we ould take our so very passed out daughter with us. I went to pick her up and grab shoes and wallet only to get downstairs with a sense of panic and faster and faster heartbeat. I decided to call 911 instead. Ryan put our daughter back to bed while I calmly told the dispatcher my story and waited for the armada to arrive. Sirens blaring, the one way street blocked off, yet another circle of uniformed firemen (and my concerned and handsome husband) and I’m whisked off.
Please make note of the blurriness of this photo. Because, naturally, we are driving in an ambulance. Please also now imagine that at this very moment the EMT is putting an IV into my left arm. And so I got to the ER, was given epinephrine, some variety of steroid, yet another something or other to help with the histamines and more benadryl which pretty much zonked me out. Once again my husband arrived (thanks to my mom for coming over to stay with our daughter) and we both slept (he in a chair, poor guy) while waiting for the OK to go home around 2:30am.

So now that I’m ready to take this stupid, pain in the ass, allergy seriously I have some real pondering to do. While I have clearly been able to eat celery in small doses in sauces and soups, it seems wise to steer as clear as possible. It is WAY more pervasive that you might think. So much so that it is practically it’s own vegetable conspiracy theory. Celery is loaded with nitrates. And although the amount can vary, it can contain more nitrates than bacon. Flip over a package of “no nitrates added” bacon and you will see that it contains celery juice or powder. In other fact, manufacturers use the bejesus out of celery to boost flavor in all sorts of products. Now I am not prepared to argue one way or another on nitrates at this time, though I found this Michael Ruhlman blog and comments to be an interesting conversation starter.

So there you have it. My delicious but deadly post. For all you normal people out there, that purée is lovely with a grilled rib eye, truffle oil and crunchy broccoli.

    2 comments on “Celery is Everywhere and I’m Hiding in Fear

    1. Pingback: A Great Spring Platform | Savor This

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