I suffer from eczema and have done so from birth. It has never been that bad except as a baby, and from youth to the late 40s has been a patchy condition that affects different parts of me seemingly at random. I have never been able to identify the cause, and as a result have been on various, increasingly potent steroidal creams for as long as I can remember.
Despite the misery eczema causes, I always thought myself lucky. Schoolfriend Simon Longprice, with whom I fondly remember playing rudimentary board wargames such as Tri-tactics and Dover Patrol, was covered in eczema, and his daily life must have been dire. Unfortunately, as a child who moved around depending on my father’s job, I lost contact with Simon long ago; I sincerely hope he has done better than me in coping with this skin condition.
The root of my eczema has to be an allergy, and I’ve spent a good many years trying to identify potential sources. In the process I’ve discovered an intolerance of dairy produce, and a switch to a largely non-dairy diet has helped in some ways – but not with the eczema. I love cheese, but cutting it out and switching to soya milk has stopped then outbreak of spots that continued well past adolescence, and the unwelcome farting that I always associated with Indian food and lentils, but seems more linked to yoghurt as a cooking sauce. Funnily enough, I can eat cheese as long as it is cooked in a fondue; somehow heat and wine must break down whatever it is in cheese that makes it indigestible. Unfortunately, drinking wine and eating uncooked cheese does not work.
The IW Festival this year put me on another trail for food allergies. My hands actually got better after the festival and during the following week. Looking back at what I ate, I realized the one vegetable I didn’t eat in anything like my usual quantities was tomato – there must have been one slice in one of the burgers, and that’s it. I’d also avoided orange juice, because I’d been on more exotic smoothies instead for the weekend’s healthy fruit intake.
I had a word with my mum. I talk pretty well every week to keep in touch, making up for years of not being in touch other than to say I was coming home from digs with my laundry. I asked if she’d had any cravings while pregnant, and the answer was sort of what I’d expected: tomatoes and oranges. A doctor friend with a nut allergy had a mother who ate nuts excessively during pregnancy, and it made me wonder whether there is any connection with allergies and pre-natal diet. No doubt some scientific study has already looked into this.
So since the festival I’ve been avoiding tomatoes and oranges. There has been an improvement, and the eczema is becoming manageable with just emollients. This isn’t proof, as I may have overlooked something else that changed, but what I have to do is work out whether any other member of the family Solanaceae – which includes the potato, capsicums and the aubergine – is also responsible. So far the potato seems innocent as this year’s crop of new potatoes in the garden has as usual proved delicious and seems to have had no ill effects.
My long-suffering friends, however, will probably despair of me. My favourite salad – tomato and mozzarella – is doubly out of my diet. And it looks bleak for spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and pizza. Though I have been experimenting with pizza substitutes using a thin covering of pesto as a base sauce with some success.
The thought of linking pre-natal diet with childhood dietary problems comes during the same week that scientists have discovered, in a study on rats, that mothers who eat junk food pass on a preference for junk food and a tendency to obesity in their young. They naturally pointed to the need to eat fruit and vegetables to counter this tendency: what they should have advised was to eat a balanced diet to avoid an imbalance of any one foodstuff – not necessarily junk food – affecting the next generation.