I have food allergies. I have also allergies to almost everything. When I was a kid, my allergist’s best advice to my family on what to do with a daughter who was allergic to nearly everything was to simply leave the state of Texas for drier climes. It’s easier basically to list what I am not allergic to than to list what I am but we’re here to talk about food allergies. As far as food allergies go here are mine: I’m allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. As far as other allergies: I’m allergic to most forms of pollen, animal dander, and molds. I’m highly sensitive to ant venom and I have a sensitivity to Aspirin, nickel and latex (let’s not ask about the latex allergy 🙂 ). These are personal, sort of, but that’s why I want to talk about food allergies and continuing to live a healthy, sheltered life.
I found out I was allergic to peanuts when I was 6. I took a bite of a peanut butter cookie and immediately had a reaction. This was back in the 90s so of course my parents were doting, supportive and caring to their daughter who would be removed from the world of peanut butter. Further testing found that I was also allergic to tree nuts, which is apparently rare to be allergic to both. Back then, food allergies were serious. They are serious. I got special lunches from school. I often ate in the kitchen in primary school and I made great friends with kitchen staff. It made birthday parties interesting: my parents had to always ask and peanut snacks and cakes were removed from the school to keep me alive. Having a food allergy was alienating but being special was always welcomed as a school kid.
Through my junior high and teen years having a food allergy was a quiet companion. I only had a few close scares but for the most part it was easy to cope with. I stopped carrying around an Epi-Pen because I am for the most part old enough to avoid my allergies but I do plan on carrying one around again in the near future (DON’T NORMALLY STOP CARRYING AN EPI-PEN) and if anything it was a punchline to me and my friends. I have my foods that I’m willing to ignore being allergic to still enjoy like Nutella. My favorite creamer is Hazelnut. (Fun fact: there’s an allergic scale and hazelnuts are very low on the scale so it’s not that bad and hazelnut flavoring is basically just double vanilla and some vague other flavors.) I accepted that there’s plenty of places to not eat: Thai is almost out of the question, of course, and plenty of other foods. I don’t miss peanut butter cups or anything like that. Peanut oils are used in a lot of Asian cooking: Goodbye, some Chinese restaurants. (This is actually because many Chinese restaurants fry in peanut oil but in most cases peanut oil has no allergens in it UNLESS you make it the way some older Chinese restaurants do by frying peanuts in vegetable oil which is FULL of allergens.) Cross-contamination is also a big deal which is why many places will flat out say “If you have a nut allergy, just don’t come here.”.
Let’s actually talk about that.
I was a P.F. Chang’s recently and one of the first questions asked was “Hi, do you have any food allergies or sensitivities?” before the waitress even told me her name. I said “Yes” and that I had a nut allergy and she circled a space on my ticket immediately. I felt a little alienated. I never gave my allergy much thought and I have had issues with P.F. Chang’s before because of their damn lettuce wraps (so delicious, so deadly). When my dish arrived it was on a special plate I was pretty surprised. I couldn’t imagine what that looks like to the kitchen. Does the chef has to leave the main kitchen? Go to a special sequestered space? Does he have to rinse off and then down with bleach and chemicals? Why do I need a special plate? I’m not a child. I’d like a normal plate, please. I am an adult. I pay bills. I want a non-special plate, dammit.
But what I hate especially is the judgement that comes to answering the question of “do you have any food sensitivity?” Because I have to answer the question “yes”. But that immediately lumps me in with a gaggle of people who simply like avoiding certain things because of their waistlines. And that doesn’t mean I don’t ‘believe’ in celiac disease or gluten sensitivity: I have friends that suffer from the condition and others like lactose intolerance. But what people don’t seem to understand is that for me eating peanuts or tree nuts is a matter of life or death not worrying over how I look in a bikini. I will die if I eat peanuts. Or at least have a quick and painful anaphylactic reaction. And for my friends that suffer from celiac or lactose intolerance it’s a matter of intense discomfort and not insecurity over a dress silhouette.
What’s even more interesting is that I think my friends are more worried about my allergies than I am. Many are more curious about what I can and can’t eat. Dinner plans have been changed and moved around. Entire cuisines have been axed because of my allergies. My friends will speak up for me when I order dessert and are appalled when I’ll taste something not sure if it’s Nutella or chocolate syrup. Or when I’ll take a bite out of a cookie not sure if the firm substance is a pecan or an odd chocolate chip. I actually wasn’t even sure I wanted to write about this topic but another friend encouraged me to. He was actually very supportive of P.F. Chang’s giving me a special plate and the forthcomingness asking about food allergies. And not just P.F. Chang’s.
Having food allergies makes you adapt. You learn to ask about menu items that are questionable or just play a very fun and possibly deadly game of “Guess what’s inside this dish?”. You learn to make subtractions and additions to recipes: you accept that macarons are never going to be a thing. You embrace that friends may not understand and you always have a dish you can bring to a party. You embrace having to go out to eat after dinner parties. You commiserate with other food allergic and food sensitive friends after you both eat something that was likely not the best choice. (Please feel free to ask about the time Amber and I both ate foods we regretted at a local Italian joint. So much cheese. So many hazelnuts. ) You learn to eat around what you’re allergic to. To avoid open candy dishes. Ask before digging into anything from office cake to office cookies and sharing food is an absolute no. You ask significant others if they have had your allergen before kissing them (because YES you can have a reaction from kissing or touching someone who was in contact with your allergen). You question why every restau
Plenty of places now are more aware of what it means to cross-contaminate or put people at risk but having an allergy for so long…I’ll admit I tend to ignore those. If that was the case and I listened to everything single allergy worry then that removes almost no processed foods, no mall food, no eating out really. If I had to exclude all of the items that had ‘traces’ or ‘came in contact with’ peanuts or tree nuts well then, I’d lose a lot of weight quick. But it’s been an interesting evolution to see food allergies go from an annoying inconvenience that made a kid that one child who ruined peanut butter cups and school parties to being a serious American problem that people are more conscious of it than they ever were when I was a kid. I remember vividly flat out being told to leave certain places because the risk of cross-contamination is too great. I’ve had places that just refused to serve me because they were afraid of my not always so calculated risk of how much I can play tree nut Russian roulette.
So this was a little ranty in places and I stand in solidarity for my fellow allergic brothers and sisters. From reading menus. To checking out if a place is safe. To calculated risk. To ignoring allergies for favorite foods. To avoiding entire styles of food. To being happy when you can go to a restaurant and order something allergen-free. To being surprised and scared when you encounter an allergen even AFTER asking about it (Looking at you, Cheddar’s. I almost died that night over a cookie. Thank you, though, to Benadryl: You’re the real MVP.). Stay strong, stay hungry and keep reading those menu keys.