Friday, August 29, 2008

Out to Dinner

Last night I went out on a date to an Italian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island on Federal Hill called Constantino's. Not only was it an aesthetic atmosphere with an open outdoor patio alongside the room we were seated in, and live music outside, but the restaurant was able to accommodate my food allergies without any problems. Since I didn't know the restaurant, I called the day before to make sure they would accommodate my allergies. I didn't want to arrive at the restaurant, and find out they wouldn't serve me. This is why calling ahead is always a good idea! That way, if they won't accommodate allergies, I can make different arrangements ahead of time, and not go through the process of being turned down. They assured me over the phone that I would definitely be able to eat, and told me to make sure I told my server about my allergies (of course).

Looking through the menu, it appeared there was a wide selection of dishes that were more than likely safe for me to eat. There was a note running across the bottom of the menu that said to tell the server if you have any food allergies, so that they can accommodate your needs. I appreciate when restaurants do this, because it shows they recognize food allergies, and have at least some knowledge about them. They will also more than likely be willing to help you find a dish that is allergen free.

I ended up deciding on a pasta primevera dish that was excellent, with homemade pasta, veggies, and a light wine cream sauce. When I told the server what I wanted, I said, "I am allergic to all tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and potatoes, and would like to order the pasta primevera. Here is a card with all my allergies on it to give to the chef." When the server came back a few minutes later to tell me that the dish would be fine, he said, "You don't know how much the chef and I really appreciate this card. We often have people come in, and they list off foods they can't eat, and it makes it much more difficult. It is so nice to have it all written down." This reinforces my point, that chef cards are not only easier on the allergic reactor, but also on the restaurant staff. It is also a more effective way to get the point across that food allergies are serious, and there is a meaning to what is said, not just to add more work to an already full plate for a server.

Going out to dinner in social situations can always be a challenge. Depending on the situation, there are a few different ways I handle it. If I know the restaurant I am going to does not accommodate allergies, or is at a high risk for cross contamination, I usually eat ahead of time, then sit and have a drink while everyone else is eating. For example, a few weeks ago I met some girl friends at a Mexican restaurant for dinner and drinks. I decided to eat ahead of time because I had been out to eat pretty often recently, and was a bit exhausted from dealing with my allergies. I thought it would be easiest on me to just eat ahead of time. I also could have called and asked before going there, but most Mexican restaurants use nuts, so I decided not to take the risk, and to eat ahead instead.

Coming up: more examples of eating out scenarios...

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Understanding is one of the main issues with food allergies. There have been many more times, where I have experienced people not understanding my food allergies, than truly "getting it." For someone who has grown up with allergies, it is hard for me to understand why it is so difficult to be understood. A typical response to someone who just doesn't get it, and needs it spelled out could be something like, "...this means that under absolutely no circumstances can I eat or be in contact with peanuts, tree nuts, fish, etc. I can not touch them. I can not eat them. No, it is not okay if you use the same utensils, and not even just a little bit of that, or I will have a reaction." Comprende? No, to so many, they don't comprehend it! I have some great examples of being completely misunderstood!

Last fall I was living out in Western Massachusetts, where no one was nice, understanding, or helpful about food allergies. I was turned down from more restaurants than I have ever been in my life. People just wouldn't accommodate or serve me. One night my friend and I went to a restaurant that we had been going to for years. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, and handed over my chef card so that the server could double check my allergies. She came back a few minutes later and said, "I'm sorry but we can't serve you here. We use a nut oil." I said, "Okay, well I guess that has changed. Is there anything else I could order that would be okay? Maybe a salad? Would you mind asking the chef?" She said, "No, I'm sorry, but they don't want to serve you anything here." That was that. My friend's food had already gone through, we each had a drink in front of us, and I wasn't allowed to eat! We had been busy all day, so we were both starving. My friend suggested that I go across the street and get a slice of pizza and bring it back. I told him that I thought they may not let me in with it, but at that point I was so hungry, I decided to go anyway. I walked across the street, bought a few slices, had them put in a small box, then walked back across the street to the restaurant. I walked in and the hostess said, "you can't walk in with that." I said to her, "My friend is sitting over there. I was here, but no one will serve me with my allergies, so I am just going back to join my friend while he eats." I started to walk over to my friend, and she came over to me and said in an angry, confrontational tone, "No! You can't bring that in here. You have to leave my manager said!" I said, "Fine. Thanks for your help," in a very sarcastic tone. "Where is your manager," I asked. "He went upstairs," she said. Fuming, I said to my friend, "I'm not allowed in here. I will just go sit outside and eat. Sorry!" I went and sat outside on the curb of the street in front of the restaurant and ate my pizza. After a few minutes, my friend came out with his food wrapped up, and we both sat there and ate. We never even had time to drink the drinks we had ordered, and he had even paid for them! I was so angry with how this was handled, that when I finished eating, I went inside. I asked for the manager. He came over. I explained to him what had happened, and that I wasn't sure if it was him or not that wouldn't let me back in to the restaurant, but that I wanted to explain. He said, "Well, we can't have food from another restaurant in here." I said, "I completely understand that, but I was trying to be as discrete as possible. I was told I couldn't eat anything here, etc." Then the manager said, "Wait. So, like, you can eat the pizza over there, but you can't eat our food here? Oh, so you mean, the pizza doesn't have oil you are allergic to, but we do? Why is that?" Oooh, I was so frustrated! Steam should have been coming out of my ears at that point! There was really nothing else to explain to this completely clueless man. I tried to explain, that I hoped they would handle something like this differently in the future, and talked about food allergies and how they were not a choice. I tried to get through to him, so that if someone else came into the restaurant with allergies, they would understand and be more accommodating, but when I left, I still knew he didn't understand. That is just one, of so many examples of being completely misunderstood.

My ex-boyfriend and his family are another perfect example. For years his mom thought that I just didn't want to eat the food she made. She did not understand that it was not a choice, it was a do or die situation! She was clueless about cross-contamination. She tried to understand. She asked me to write out a list of my allergies, but more often than not, I was petrified to eat anything there! I decided that this lack of understanding was familial, because my ex-boyfriend, had an extremely tough time understanding about my allergies as well. For the first year at least that we were together, I had to remind him not to kiss me after eating something with nuts, or to wash his hands after touching the fish he had for dinner. I know they wanted to understand, but for some reason they just couldn't. His mom would also get frustrated if I asked what she put in the salad dressing. I am always very careful though, and I don't care how many times I have to ask. I need a straight answer of what is in it, or I won't eat it. No food, no matter how good looking or smelling, is worth the risk of a reaction! She would say to me, "It is the same dressing as last night." So then I would list the ingredients, and ask if that was it. It was the same with dinners too. I would always try to be as involved as possible with the meal making process in their house, so I could see what was going in the foods. It was exhausting!

I have tried to put myself in the position of someone who can eat anything. What would that be like? To be able to walk into a bakery and pick out any eye tantalizing, tasty looking dessert, and not have to ask any questions, or assume there is no way I can eat it. On the opposite end, what is it like to have to question everything you put in your mouth, no matter how simple it may seem? That is my life, and the way I have always known food. So, I suppose like many things in life, it is the way you have grown up that affects much of your understanding. This makes me wonder though, if children are now becoming more educated about food allergies, will the future be more allergy aware, and accommodating to people like me, who question every food they eat?

Here are two different scenarios to try to help with understanding:

Imagine walking into the grocery store. You just need a few quick items that you ran out of for the week. You walk onto the cereal aisle to get your favorite cereal. Before throwing the box into the cart, you read the label, "Manufactured in a facility that also processes foods with tree nuts." You put the box back on the shelf with a feeling of disappointment and frustration, then you move on to look for another cereal instead. You pick up a few more boxes and find a similar warning. You decide that really you just want cereal bars instead. There is only one kind of cereal bar that you know you can eat. You pick up the box, read the label, and nope, not anymore. There it goes, back on the shelf.

That is just a glimpse into what it can be like to go grocery shopping. What it feels like to have a favorite food that you have been able to eat for years, changed. With a law that was passed on January 1, 2006, foods must have labels that use plain language and labeling on ingredient lists. Before that, I would sometimes get a reaction to something that had no allergens in the ingredient list.

Now imagine you are back at the grocery store for those items you are out of. You go down the cereal aisle. You see a few you have never tried, and decide to throw them in the cart with out a second glance. You then whiz over to the next aisle. You see some crackers on sale, so those go in the cart too. You remember you need some bread. You go down the aisle, and grab one that looks good. Then you're done with the items you need, and as you are waiting in line, you see your favorite candy bar and add that in, without a second thought.

That is what I imagine it being like with no allergies. Just being able to grab whatever it is that looks good, or is on sale, and buy it. To be able to see your favorite food and not even glance at the ingredients. That must be awesome! So, for those of you reading this without allergies, is that what it's like? I'm curious to know...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Complicated Meetings, Chef Cards, and Restaurant Exhaustion!

When you have food allergies, just starting to get to know someone can be much more complicated. Our lives are organized around food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner- the structured meals of our day. This does not account for the snacks between meals, the coffee dates, and the times to meet friends for drinks after work. When you just start to get to know someone, it is often a meal that you meet for. With food allergies, eating is the most complicated part of your day. Eating out can be intricate and exhausting, as my mom reminded me this morning when I mentioned a dinner date I had the following night. "Make sure you bring your card," she said. "It's a lot easier when you have that with you." This is certainly something I know, and always have with me. The card she was referring to has a note to the chef, with a list of all of my food allergies, very clearly written. On the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), they call it a Chef Card. There is even a template to follow. The card is definitely one of the best accommodations I have made for myself when it comes to eating out. No longer do I sit there uncomfortably in my chair, and explain to the server who is barely listening in the first place, because she probably has ten other tables to also take care of, that I need her to make sure there are no peanuts, tree nuts, fish, etc. in the food I want to order. Then, to further tell her that the chef needs to be careful of cross- contamination, can often put someone over the edge. No knives or other utensils can be used on my dish in case they were used in something I am allergic too, etc. It is a long, tedious explanation, and usually at the end of it, I don't even care about the food, because I am so sick of explaining, that it would have been two hundred times easier to just not have gone out! When I started traveling internationally, I made up these cards with my food allergies in different languages. This way, when I went to Italy, I could show the card, and there would be no confusion or language barriers. I realized it was a hundred times easier to just hand over the card, then to try to explain everything. Now when I go out to eat here in America, I give a short explanation of my allergies, what I would like to order, then hand over the card and ask the server to show the chef. I go out rather frequently, so this has made the process much more enjoyable all around. Having food allergies can also be uncomfortable when you are in unfamiliar company.

Last month I was in New York City. I was sitting at a table, enjoying the beautiful weather in Bryant Park. I decided to contact a guy I was friends with and used to date my freshman year of college, to see if he wanted to meet for a drink and catch up. He works on Wall Street, like many other male friends I have from high school and college. Instead of drinks, he asked if I would accompany him to dinner with a client and his client's girlfriend. He said they were our age, and it would be fun. With my curiosity alone, never mind a hopefully free meal, I decided I might as well go, and with no other scheduled dinner plans, I went. I met him and his Parisian client at the restaurant. I was in a skirt and cute shirt, and still felt under-dressed! The restaurant atmosphere was upscale business clientèle it seemed. Almost everyone there had on a suit. As we walked to the table, I saw along one side of the bar was a substantial display of fish. In my mind I was thinking, "Oh great, please have there be something I can eat here!" I was hoping because the restaurant was nice, it would also be accommodating. It had been a while, but I was hoping my friend would remember about my allergies, and I was right, he did. When everyone ordered I told the server about my allergies, handed him the card, and had him go ask the chef about the only two dishes on the menu that didn't involve nuts or fish. He came back and told me that the chicken would be fine, and that I was all set. "Phewww....," I thought. Of course after all the ordering took place, then came the question and answer session. "Have you always had those allergies?" "Yes," I said. "How did you find out you were allergic?" I said, "When I was a year and a half my mom gave me a piece of bread with peanut butter, and just from holding it, I broke into hives." etc. Of course, they were all very nice, but not only did I feel completely out of my element in a nice New York City restaurant with Wall Street all around, but I also had to answer questions from two strangers with strong accents! The rest of the table ordered appetizers with fish and nuts. I sat and watched and talked as they ate, but did not feel uncomfortable. I know my limits and my comfort zone, and if I were to feel uncomfortable, I would certainly speak up. I often ask for the manager when I go out to eat as well, just to make sure my allergies are being taken seriously. When our meals arrived, I double checked with the server about everything before trying the chicken. There were spices on the outside of it, and I just wanted to make sure they were all okay for me. I touched a piece to my lip, then waited a few minutes to make sure I didn't get any hive or reaction, then tried a small piece. I waited again a few minutes, then with no reaction, decided it was okay to eat. It ended up being an enjoyable meal. The server, chef, and manager at the restaurant were fabulous about my allergies. As long as I advocate for myself, I can usually have a safe and pleasant meal out.

This experience in New York City, reminds me of a dinner I went to when I lived on Nantucket Island. I was on the island working for the summer. My old roommate came to stay with a friend of his and his family, who were renting a house on the island. I met my old roommate for lunch on a break from work. He was with his friend and his friend's family. After only briefly chatting, they invited me out to dinner with them that night at one of the top five restaurants on the island. I got dressed up and met them at the restaurant. I went a little early so that I could talk to the chef and server ahead of time. I figured if I explained, and gave them my card beforehand, there would be less questioning at dinner and awkwardness with people I barely knew! When they finally arrived and we all sat down in a private room upstairs in the restaurant, the server was not as quiet about my allergies as I thought he would be. He made a few jokes about not wanting to kill me, which made me feel sufficiently more awkward, because no one else besides my roommate knew what he was talking about. The family I was with was extremely nice and welcoming, so it turned out fine. Sometimes people just don't know how to react to life-threatening allergies though, and need to make a joke about it to make themselves feel better. The meal ended up working out perfectly! The food was wonderful, and they were able to accommodate my allergies.

I have countless stories and experiences to share, and will continue to write about the ways in which I have handled these often complicated situations.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Conversations and understanding...

I am going to try to start writing this consistently on a daily basis. There are numerous times a day where I encounter different scenarios that would be helpful to share, such as an experience I had a few nights ago.

Our conversation began with dogs. How he had a dog at his parents house. How my parents also had a dog. Then it came up, because my parents Tibetan terrier was supposedly allergen free, which was the only reason we had a smaller dog, instead of some big hairy dog that would be a lot more fun to play with. How even though my dream dog, a husky, was not a practical choice for a pet in my future, I still really wanted one. That is how it began- the giant list of all my many allergies.

This conversation took place when I was on a date the other night. Of course sooner or later the list comes out. I usually try to withhold for as long as possible, so as not to completely freak anyone out! But, eventually I must succumb to the monstrous list. This is just one of the many times I have repeated, now in a monotoned, overly-repeated voice, "peanuts, tree nuts, fish, potato, banana, and kiwi." There are a few others, but those are the big ones that would cause a serious or anaphylactic reaction. I don't usually list my environmental allergies. My food allergies are more significant.

The guy I was out with was fine about my allergies, which was a relief. He didn't seem freaked out and seemed to understand for the most part. Understanding is one of the biggest issues with allergies. If people don't know someone first hand who has them, it is often hard for them to understand the severity of food allergies. My friends who have grown up with me, always think it is crazy how people could not possibly understand my allergies. Just like anything though, if you don't know it, then you are either scared of it or don't understand it. There has really become a push to educate people about food allergies. It has become much more prevalent with the rise in children who now have allergies. When I was in school I didn't know anyone else with food allergies. Now there are allergy free tables in lunch rooms across the country. I will write more about my feeling on this at another time.

There are a few pretty standard reactions from people who are just learning the list. One reaction is to ask, "So what do you eat?" I suppose when you rap out a list that long, it may sound like there is nothing left on the planet to eat, but to me it seems a bit silly, because of course there are plenty of foods that are still safe. That is when I go through my second list- examples of foods I can eat. I would say I am pretty nonchalant most of the time about my allergies. I know they are severe, but I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable about them, and I think there is a line between telling people about my allergies, so that they are aware, and freaking people out so they never want to eat near me again. I have figured out where that line is drawn though, and I am extremely comfortable with how I handle these situations.

I have countless topics to discuss on this subject, so I will continue later...