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, well, that 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 a 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 floral shirt, and still felt under-dressed! The restaurant atmosphere was upscale business clientèle it seemed. Almost everyone there had on a suit. As we were ushered to our table, I noted a substantial display of seafood and fish running parallel between the bar and seating area. In my mind I was thinking, “Oh great, please have there be something I can eat here!” I was hoping because the restaurant was quite classy, 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?” the couple asked. “First it was a cookie with almond oil when I was ten months, and then 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,” I explained briefly. Of course they were all very nice but not only did I feel completely out of my element in a fancy New York City restaurant with Wall Street all around, but I also had to answer questions from two well-to-do strangers with strong French accents! The rest of the table ordered appetizers with fish and nuts. I sat and watched and talked as they ate, and felt completely comfortable with that. 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. After work I went home to shower and dress up before meeting 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 and they need to make a joke about it to make themselves feel better. I would prefer if the jokers were not my servers though! The meal ended up working out perfectly! The food was wonderful and they were able to accommodate my allergies.