How my sense of smell keeps me safe

Those who are allergic to the nightshade family usually react to the whole family but Eve Menezes Cunningham only has problems with peppers. But those problems are serious ones – she can detect a pepper at thirty feet!


yellow pepper

Eating with other people can be pretty embarrassing for me. If there’s a buffet, I aim to be first before cross contamination rules out even things that don’t contain bell peppers. While keeping me safe, it does still make me feel Very Greedy.

Sometimes, even being first isn’t enough and I can tell several paces away that there is too high a risk because my nose doesn’t want to go any nearer.

While I can usually sit happily next to someone who’s eating peppers, on occasion, where they’ve been really fresh (and smell so strong I feel the early reaction of my head beginning to tighten), I’ve had to swap seats. My innate politeness and wish to please has to take second place to my desire to not get sick.

The most dramatic occasion wasn’t even a mealtime. I’d attended a networking event at someone’s home. As soon as our host opened the door and I stepped inside, my head began to feel tight and I smelled danger. “Have you been cooking peppers?” I asked, as politely as possible, while backing outside before my reaction became more pronounced.

They’d had roasted peppers for dinner. Feeling like a lunatic diva, I had to wait outside in the cold until all the windows had been opened for long enough for the smell to dissipate. Funnily enough, I didn’t make any positive contacts at that meeting.

I found out about my allergy when I shared a tiny student house with five other people. A couple seemed to live on peppers stuffed with rice. The smell was so strong, I couldn’t even sit in the living room (next to the kitchen) around mealtimes. The one time I got too close, I was instantly sick. Somehow, I’d never come into contact with peppers before but this strong reaction told me to avoid them and I later found out it was an allergy.

While I’ve carried an EpiPen for years now, I’m sure it’s my sense of smell that’s meant I’ve never had to be hospitalised. Anytime peppers have been on my plate or even on the menu, I’ve known to steer clear.

I’ve moved train carriages when someone’s pepper filled meal has felt too close. I also often miss out on lunch with friends in the canteen at a place we often attend as halfway down the stairs to the kitchen, it’ll become apparent that too many people are eating peppers. While it often feels annoying, mostly I’m grateful.

Like when a B&B owner in Scotland insisted we join his family for dinner then tried to feed me a nut roast with peppers inside. He lied repeatedly saying there were no peppers. Before the fork was halfway from my plate, I could smell them. The next morning he admitted he’d lied. Typing this, I wish my younger self had reported him. It was a remote Scottish island and, had I trusted him, I don’t know that medical help would have been available fast enough.

But I no longer feel embarrassed about my extremely sensitive nose. After all, it’s this strong sense of smell that’s kept me safe.

First published in August 2011

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