Then the fish tacos arrived at my table — drizzled with a sour cream sauce.
And so it goes. I once disclosed my allergy in a restaurant only to be told I should avoid a certain dish because it contained mayonnaise — and therefore eggs. (It’s a surprisingly common mistake, but when this server pressed the case, I finally asked, “What part of a cow does an egg come from?”) At a trendy burger joint, I asked whether a boutique hot dog contained dairy. The server’s response: “It’s all natural.” At a seafood place, I was told the calamari is probably okay because “it’s only a little buttermilk in the brine before it’s fried.”
Like a tightrope walker with a sudden case of vertigo, a food writer with newly acquired allergies faces a struggle. The girl who wanted to eat it all cannot. No more Tete de Moine, served with its own little rotary slicer, pulling ruffles of perfectly creamy cheese onto the plate. No more Greek-style yogurt, homemade each week with milk from a local dairy where you can see the calves being born in the nursing barn. No more of their ice cream, which I used to say was to die for, but not anymore.
I’m one of the estimated 12 million people in the United States who have food allergies — that’s one in 25, a number that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is growing — and I can say from personal experience: We. Are. Misunderstood.
It’s not in my head. I’m not just a “picky eater.” I’m not lying about my allergy to disguise a simple dietary preference or, worse, an eating disorder. Everyone who has ever waited tables knows the diner who makes requests like, “Can you ask the chef to make this dish, but without onions?” “Can you tell the chef I want this, but prepared like that?” “Can you tell me which dish can be made gluten-free? My sister read an article once that said you could lose weight by eating gluten-free.”
I don’t want to draw attention to myself in a restaurant, but allergies are immune responses that I’m still learning to manage. And I am resolved: I will not let food become my enemy. I will not stop dining out.
I’m allergic to more than dairy, as it turns out. My most severe response — anaphylaxis, a life-threatening full-body reaction to an allergen — happens after I eat hazelnuts (formerly my favorite nut) but is prevented if I’m quick enough to inject myself with epinephrine. For me and others with allergies, dining out can obviously be fraught with anxiety. Will the kitchen really get my order straight? Will I have hives tonight? Eczema tomorrow? Or worse? Did I bring my EpiPen?