When her family relocated from Newtown, Connecticut, to Maine last summer, Sarah Walker Caron noticed that her children’s new elementary school in Bangor had relatively few food restrictions based on allergies. Their new Bangor school isn’t even nut-free. What a change from the Purell-pumping, asthma-plagued New York City suburbs and exurbs, where moms who championed beneficial bacteria were the outliers.

“My friends there were shocked we don’t use hand sanitizer at all. We want to be exposed to germs,” Caron, a prolific food blogger and the new features editor of the Bangor Daily News, told me recently after we appeared together on a food-writing panel at Maine Fare in Belfast.

Perhaps it’s Mainers’ proximity to farms, we concurred. A growing body of immunobiological research shows that children reared in rural homesteads, tending free-range livestock and drinking microbial-rich raw milk, for example in Amish communities, have much lower rates of allergies, hay fever and asthma than other children do.

Such studies support Caron’s and my faith in the “hygiene hypothesis,” the idea that food allergies are more ubiquitous these days because our immune systems overreact to formerly benign proteins, say in peanuts or wheat, that assault our overly sanitized, modern guts. The over-prescription of antibiotics, by doctors and those routinely – and excessively – fed to animals on the factory farms that yield 99 percent of our meat, wreak havoc on our digestive microbiome.

Then there’s our nation’s high Caesarean-section rate, compounded by the use of antibiotics during infancy: Both appear to affect a child’s long-term immunity, causing problems such as allergic inflammation of the esophagus, according to a Johns Hopkins and Harvard Medical School study. About 5 percent of American babies arrived via C-section in 1970; the rate had risen steadily by the time of my Cesarean birth in 1979; now, it’s almost a third of births. (Some advocate rubbing C-sectioned newborns with a gauze pad of good bacteria harvested from the lactobacillus-rich vagina, the acid-producing microbes in yogurt which symbiotically help a baby digest breast milk.)

Hopefully, my probiotics-rich diet imbued my son Theo with healthy gut flora when he traveled through my birth canal during his natural delivery four years ago. For years, I’ve readily consumed live fermented foods – lately, golden Guernsey yogurt from Wholesome Holmstead in Winthrop and the funky Son-Mat kimchi made at Anju Noodle Bar in Kittery. Theo himself has a taste for Urban Farm Fermentory’s kombucha and wild-fermented kosher dills. His digestive system works like a charm.

FIRST ATTACK

Breastfeeding until he was 16 months old also bolstered Theo’s immune system. He didn’t have any apparent allergic reactions when I introduced solid foods when he was 6 months. Once exposed to day care’s winter germs, Theo did wheeze with baby asthma that he outgrew, knock wood, before his third birthday. During an outbreak, temporarily going off dairy helped curb his congestion.

Otherwise, I gloated over his lack of food sensitivities until one fateful day in March 2014. After a music class in Wiscasset, he’d enjoyed a fruit smoothie and those tangy Covered Bridge Dill Pickle potato chips at a local bakery. But when I refused him gummy bears from a strategically placed, storefront glass jar on the way out, Theo threw a tantrum. On our ride home, Theo cried and rubbed his eyes with vinegary chip residue-coated hands. Then I looked back, and to my horror saw his reddened face and arms swelling up with scary hives.

We drove straight to the pediatrician, who swiftly directed us to the emergency room. There the doctor gave him an antihistamine and steroid, and – after the full-body hives ebbed – sent us home with an Epi-Pen prescription. By the next morning, Theo was back to normal, albeit covered in scabs from his violent itching. But he had several more hives outbreaks before we deduced a culprit.

Urticaria in a 2-year-old? Respected Portland allergist Dr. Ivan Cardona shrugged his shoulders with uncertainty when I brought Theo in for an appointment after his first outbreak, clutching (what I thought was) the offending bag of chips. A temper tantrum alone can apparently trigger such a histamine release in a reactive, highly stressed kid. Dr. Cardona didn’t think one incident warranted further testing, especially since Theo’s breathing wasn’t compromised, as in true anaphylactic shock. We’d wait and see.

Finally, our pediatrician ordered basic blood testing after Theo binged on fruit salad (was it the cantaloupe? grapes? blueberries?), triggering a third reaction. We narrowed in on raw strawberries, a known histamine-releasing food. But the blood test didn’t detect a strawberry allergy, and I lost faith in expensive allergy blood tests that often seem to yield ambiguous results. Especially when Theo had his fifth and final big hives attack a year ago after strawberry picking at Sheepscot General in Whitefield (and their strawberries are the rare organic ones, so we couldn’t blame pesticides).

That was all the proof we needed. We swore Theo off all fresh strawberries and taught him to police himself. We were awed by our 3-year-old’s burst of self-discipline: He refused strawberries whenever offered, even on an overnight at my parent’s house, when Gima forgot about his allergy. “No! I can’t have strawberries,” Theo admonished. “They make me itchy.”

A CAUTIOUS REINTRODUCTION

Theo learned to fear strawberries and forgot about the pure pleasure of their taste. He could still tolerate strawberries cooked down into jam. And eventually, by this spring, his pediatrician, Dr. Andrea Tracy, said we might tentatively retest a bite, armed with Benadryl and Claritin and while hanging around the hospital parking lot in case of a reaction. I knew that with peanut allergies, early doctor-supervised immunotherapy, which doses allergics with increasing amounts of peanut powder to desensitize their immune system, has had promising results.

We waited until this year’s peak strawberry season to take the plunge. First, we rubbed fresh strawberry juice on Theo’s skin, feeling safe to proceed when it caused no rash. Then he took a first tentative bite with the season’s best specimen a friend had picked at Pineland’s Gillespie Farm in New Gloucester. His eyes grew wide with delight. “I like strawberries!” he exclaimed. “Dr. Tracy said it’s OK?”

Now, he’s had up to five in a setting, after I scored a discounted rainy-day flat from Fairwinds Farm at our Brunswick Farmers’ Market. I have to stop him from going overboard – dose can still matter. We’ll keep introducing a few each day (while his pregnant mother indulges by the pintful), until strawberry season gives way to Theo’s favorite, non-triggering raspberries.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.

ROASTED STRAWBERRY MILKSHAKE

Until recently, my preschooler Theo had a mercurial allergy to raw strawberries, which could cause him to break out in anaphylactic hives. Fortunately, eating cooked strawberries, say in jam, didn’t trigger his allergies. Too hot or tired to make jam? Roast strawberries instead – it’s a swift way to deal with a freshly picked yet spoiling flat. This recipe is from Food52, which adapted it from the blog NotWithoutSalt.com

Serves 2 to 4

ROASTED STRAWBERRIES:

1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and halved

3 to 4 tablespoons turbinado sugar, depending on sweetness of berries

Pinch salt

4 to 5 thin lemon slices, optional

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and toss the berries with the sugar right on the baking sheet. Sprinkle them with the salt, and lay the lemon slices evenly over the top.

Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the fruit is soft, has released its juice, and the juice has started to thicken just slightly. Remove the lemon slices and let cool completely. These can be made a day ahead and stored in a jar in the fridge, the halved berries submerged in their syrup.

MILKSHAKE:

I used plain yogurt in place of the buttermilk. And you could use Thai basil for the mint.

1 pint vanilla ice cream

¼ cup good-quality buttermilk

Leaves from 3 healthy mint sprigs

Roasted strawberries, to taste

Pile everything in a blender and blend. Add more buttermilk if you like a thinner consistency. Pour into glasses and serve.


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