Staying Allergy-Safe in My Fishy City of San Francisco

in Fish & Shellfish, Managing Allergies
Published: July 22, 2017

Mireille Schwartz in San Francisco. Photo: Aaron Kohr
We are deeply saddened to share with readers that one of Allergic Living’s contributing writers, Mireille Schwartz, passed away in June 2017 at the age of 47, due to a sudden health event (unrelated to food allergies).

As many of you know, Mireille was a tireless champion of the food allergy cause. In 2007, she founded the Bay Area Allergy Advisory Board (BAAAB), a San Francisco-area online support organization that promoted food allergy awareness and affordable medical resources. A former magazine editor, Mireille also authored two food allergy books, and she contributed work to Food Allergy Research & Education (and its legacy organization FAAN).

Mireille was one of a kind: smart, charming, and possessed of a great sense of both humor and style. Like her French first name, Mireille embodied the sense of joie de vivre. As a mom, she was fiercely proud of her daughter, Charlotte Jude Schwartz, who’s a high school student and talented young musician. Like her mother, Charlotte, 17, has food allergies, and like her mom, she is dedicated to spreading food allergy awareness and living life to the fullest, despite her allergies. Charlotte hopes to relaunch BAAAB online, and we’ll let you know when she does.

In Mireille’s honor, Allergic Living shares online one of the first articles she wrote for Allergic Living magazine. It was originally published in 2011. –Gwen Smith


By Mireille Schwartz

MY brother’s allergies to shellfish and finned fish are so severe that he doesn’t even like to walk past the seafood counter in a grocery market. I, too, was born severely allergic to all seafood. In past, I have unfortunately made allergy-related trips to the hospital.

We anaphylactic siblings have plenty of company – according to a study conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and FAAN (now known as FARE), 2.8 percent of adult Americans are allergic to shellfish and fish.

But here’s my catch: l’m a seafood-allergic woman living in a fishy town. Aside from our stunning Fog City backdrop to the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is best known for its local cuisine. When moving to the Bay Area a decade ago, I hadn’t taken into account the presence of seafood. It seemed to be everywhere at once: from the fragrant sautés of salmon wafting from the cafes to the cioppinos and chowders (eek!) along Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. It has proven challenging to stay out of the danger zone.

The worst part about seafood allergy is this: you can have a severe allergic reaction even if you don’t consume fish, if you manage to inhale enough of the aerosolized proteins in cooking vapors. In San Francisco, this can get tricky, but here’s how I manage. First, I steer clear of steam tables or stovetops when seafood is cooking. Plus, I avoid sushi or seafood restaurants entirely; simply too high-risk.

Dining with Seafood Allergy

We people with fish or shellfish allergies must be particularly alert to cross-contamination. Over years I’ve developed a “safe” list of restaurants where the chefs are adept at expertly making the accommodation and, hurrah: I’ve even found several lovely completely fish-free restaurants in and around San Francisco.

Mireille and her daughter Charlotte Schwartz
Communication is vital. So think ahead and ask menu questions. Even a harmless-sounding salad might have fish lurking; consider for instance, the likelihood of anchovy in a Caesar salad. Anchovy can also pop up in a burger or steak – in the form of Worcestershire sauce. I also always check with the chef to ensure that seafood is not cooked in the same skillet, or in the same oil, as other foods.

Be alert as well to the cross-contamination potential. One savvy chef taught me to inform the kitchen: “I am also severely allergic to utensils which have touched fish.”

Everyday Triumphs

Often a severe seafood allergy is diagnosed in adulthood, and in such instances it may feel like life has dramatically changed and become irrevocably restricted. But I promise you that, with a positive attitude and by learning to ask about what you eat, day-to-day life can be completely enjoyable. You do adjust to the dining strategies that I’ve mentioned.

Just as the allergic individual needs to be well-educated to stay out of harm’s way, so does the society which includes the affected person. That’s why, with my circle of family, good friends and chefs on my safe restaurants list, I’m able to not just survive, but in fact thrive in my beautiful city.