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...

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