PERSONAL ESSAY, NONFICTION
A Corn Allergy? In This Economy?
You try growing up in Michigan and not eating corn.
Issue 5, Winter 2022
The early incidents seemed random.
Hi-C Boppin’ Berry juice boxes would send me spewing all over the elementary school cafeteria bathroom stalls, if I was lucky enough to make it in time. At grandpa’s country house, my mother identified Frank’s blueberry-flavored miniature pies as the common denominator of my periodic retching. I assumed that meant I was allergic to blueberry-flavored foods and avoided blueberries like the plague, though there aren’t actually blueberries in most blueberry-flavored things.
Freshman year of college, I started breaking out in hives. They would come in the dark of night, a tingling sensation along a nerve that would transmute into an itch, and then the undeniable craving to scratch. They could start from something as innocent as an absentminded scratch around a rough tag in my shirt, and soon my skin would be raised and red, the itch spreading to nearby skin, histamines pooling around every scratch, attacking something that wasn’t actually a threat. Or was it?
I spent two weeks or so experimenting with OTC allergy medicine, waiting for the onset of nightly agony and trying anything from icing my skin to meditatively willing the histamines to stand down before resorting to medication. Cetirizine helped, Benadryl made it worse.
They would come in the dark of night, a tingling sensation along a nerve that would transmute into an itch, and then the undeniable craving to scratch.
I set off in search of answers from an allergist at the University health center. The discovery process for allergies involves a “scratch test,” where short needles containing microdoses of allergens are poked one by one into the top layers of skin. My mother had always been against scratch tests because of the way my older cousins had reacted to them: tears, screaming, everything one does when they believe themselves to be undergoing a form of torture. But I was 18, much older than they were when their discovery processes started. I had just gotten a tattoo and didn’t mind it; I even enjoyed it a little. I was old enough to make my own medical decisions, so I went in for the scratch test.
One hundred pricks and five subdermal injections later, I had my culprit: I was allergic to corn.
“Are you sure?” I asked skeptically. This was the midwest — Michigan. I had been eating corn all my life, in all forms. I had spent my youth among corn fields. Corn was more than just a food for us, it was a measure of time. “Knee high by the 4th of July,” my grandpa would say when driving through the countryside during the summer, and what was summer without corn on the cob boiled to perfection? I can’t count how many corn cobs I peeled in my youth, the perfect task for kids too little to be trusted with a knife, otherwise useless in the kitchen.
“You can see it for yourself right there on your arm,” the doctor said. It was true; the other bumps were already subsiding, while the “corn” patch remained a raised, red welt.
“So what am I supposed to do?” I asked him.
“Don’t eat corn,” he said, straightfaced.
This is America. There’s corn in everything, and especially everything in a college cafeteria. All the most widely available sodas, “fruit” juices, and candies — even most kinds of chocolate — are made up mostly of corn syrup; corn starch is a common thickening agent used in soups, batters, and bases for more complex dishes; and corn meal is in many kinds of bread and baked goods. At the height of my corn-elimination diet, I searched a gas station for a single snack that didn’t contain corn and came out with only a bottle of water and a pack of wilted baby carrots.
Being part Native American, it seemed exceptionally strange to acquire this particular allergy. Wasn’t corn the food of my people? Shouldn’t I have been born ready to pack away corn during all seasons?
Maybe the problem started because that’s exactly what I did. When I was seven years old, my mom bought me a popcorn machine. Not some Easy Bake Oven-style play toy, but a real, miniature version of the ones at the movie theaters. She told me it was time I learned the value of the dollar and sent me out to work on the street corner during football games, where I sold bags for 25 cents and ate the inventory when business was slow. Sometimes I’d make as much as $15 a game from customers who were either feeling charitable or didn’t have the patience to wait for me to conjure the right change out of my fanny pack. “Put this toward your college education,” they’d say with a wink. And then I’d ride my bike to the nearest drug store and buy as much candy as I could afford. Corn on top of corn on top of corn.
That was my Midwest diet until the hives forced me to wise up. At times I wondered if my Native American DNA was protesting what ruthless corporations and decades of genetic engineering had done to the corn my ancestors knew — maybe my body knew something important. But even the most diligent elimination diet is no match for the American food industry’s corn dependency. I continued to inadvertently eat corn for years, only realizing after the fact from the splotches of puffy, red skin and madness-inducing itch. Eventually, I gave up and became a regular Cetirizine user. I don’t know if I’ll never know what it feels like to not take allergy medicine.
When I asked the doctor why my body was reacting this way to corn, of all things, he offered this: “Your immune system is probably just bored,” he said. “Thousands of years ago, our bodies had to fight off all kinds of things in our lifetimes. Nowadays, we have vaccines that do the work for us. So maybe in the old days, you would have survived something that killed the rest of your village.”
Maybe he knew what he was talking about. Or maybe I would have died from scratching myself to death as a teenager. We’ll never know. But I’ll still take a handful of movie popcorn where I can get one.
Arikia Millikan is a Berlin-based writer and editor. She mainly writes about science and technology and loves a good narrative arc. Her works have appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Wired, Vice, and Psychology Today.