Anyone with a food allergy, or a family member/close friend/significant other with a food allergy, knows that one of the most terrifying, anxiety inducing phrases masquerades as a seemingly innocuous invitation, "I'm starving, aren't you? Let's grab a bite to eat!" (followed closely by "Of course it's safe! Well, I mean, there's only a little bit of <gluten/dairy/eggs/nuts/soy/shellfish>, and that can't hurt, right?") We have aquired skills that allow us to escape these pitfalls and potentially life threatening situations like a ninja - slipping in and out of these invitations with nary a whisper of insincerity, ungratefulness or arrogance. We have learned that, while spontaneity can lead to fun, exciting and exhilirating adventures, it can turn dangerous -- even deadly -- in the blink of an eye.
I'm not saying that I live in fear, or that I don't dine out; but I take precautions that folks with food allergies wouldn't dream of -- calling restaurants well in advance; calmly, clearly and politely explaining my situation and asking what we can do to make dining there a pleasant experience for everyone; researching restaurant options (seriously, thank god for my iPhone and the Yelp! and UrbanSpoon apps -- user comments and reviews can be unbelievably helpful when dealing with food allergies!); planning as far ahead as possible and always having a back-up plan; and always, always bringing my best attitude -- I really think this may be the most important one of all.
Having food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances is extremely difficult -- it doesn't always feel that way, but when spur of the moment plans arise and you have little choice but to opt out or sit quietly while everyone else enjoys <the best fish and chips in the universe/the most amazing ice cream ever/ecstasy-inducing cheesecake/etc> and you know what?
Now get over it.
It has been 10 years - almost my entire adult life - since discovering that I have Celiac Disease (an auto-immune disease treated by eating a strictly gluten free diet) and it isn't really any easier. But having the right attitude and perspective is key: while food plays a significant cultural role in nearly every society, it isn't the end of the world. You are not going to starve to death by sitting this one out and eating later; everyone will not stare at you like a three-headed mutant because you chose a safe salad over a potentially hazardous burrito; and no one is going to join your pity party, either. I've been there, I know how it feels when you want to go so badly, but you know it won't end well. It hurts. It's like the charming, handsome football captain with a full-ride to Stanford just asked you to the prom and you can't go because your busted ankle could give out on the dance floor -- well, but maybe it would be okay, I mean, it's just one
bite dance right? How bad could it be?
(And that train of thought right there? Dangerous. Flashing red lights, "Do Not Enter!" signs, black and yellow chevrons, a blaring siren, the whole shebang -- basically, bad news bears. Stop, abandon the foodie-lust and remember that it's just not worth getting sick/ending up in the hospital/breaking out in hives/turning your digestive tract inside out on the porcelain throne.)
You have to keep everything in perspective: in six months/a year/five years am I going to remember/care about/ponder the potential of/lament over the bar/restaurant/party/barbecue I didn't go to or the waffle cone/creme brulee/prime rib/curry that I couldn't eat? Probably not. If you want to go, go -- just remember that you're there to have fun and be social with food, not the other way around. Always bring a back up snack or have a gameplan to grab takeout or stop at the grocery store on your way there or back -- just don't end up wallowing in the loneliness of being the only one who can't participate because you have a specific health condition or dietary restriction -- it's out of your control, so let it go.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that I'm immune to social pressures or that I don't mind sitting at a table watching everyone else eat/drink/be merry. I still feel left out when coworkers and friends want to go out for a drink and I can't enjoy the microbrewed ales or the best-ribs-this-side-of-the-Mississippi; but I don't let it stop me. I used to politely decline these invitations with an elegant excuse, if I gave one at all, justifying my abstinence by reasoning "it's easier for everyone if I just don't go," And sometimes it is -- the only thing worse than being the only person who can't enjoy the food/refreshments/mind-blowing-doughnuts is being the person who issued the invitation or suggested the outing -- how can you enjoy the world's most amazing pizza when your friend/guest/girlfriend/first date can only look on with envy? You can't.
And I know I don't need to go into how much more fun it can be when you decide to embrace spontaneity, throw caution to the wind -- and things go horribly wrong. Usually it's either: a) an unpleasant situation develops with the waitstaff/proprietor/management/server/barista and everyone has to pay for it or b) everything is going great until your waitress/server/chef/bartender comes
sprinting up to your table and says, "How is your <vegan/gluten free/dairy free/specially prepared> <food that was supposed to be free of something else>?" (you know which conversation I'm talking about - it goes like this: "How is your dairy free pasta?" "You mean, gluten free? Right?" <pause> "But you said dairy free, right?" or "That's what I meant!" <awkward laughter>) or, my personal favorite -- "wait, don't --! Oh. Well, a little bit isn't going to kill you, right?"