The Life Allergic: the Dangerous World of Dining Out and Memoirs of a Foodie

November 11, 2011

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?

It sucks.

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?" 

All that being said, there's a really fantastic article in this week's Washington Post on the topic of dining out with food allergies, the trials and tribulations of special diets.

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Lee Carter's picture

My roommate developed several allergies after a bad asthma attack that landed her in hospital. She is allergic to citric acid (both as a preservative and as fruit) and all peppers except black pepper. It was interesting when we went to Disneyland and ate at the Blue Bayou. The chef came out to talk with her about her allergies. First time, a chef came out.. whoa... It was the same all over the park. She was amazed.

spandex table covers with logo's picture

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spandex table covers with logo's picture

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