Check, Please: When the menu is a minefield

Food allergies
(Monika Melnychuk for The Washington Post)
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By Paula Whyman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One in an occasional series of rants about dining out.

Got PB&J? Check.

Twizzlers? Check.

It might sound like I'm heading out on a picnic with the kids, but no. I'm heading to Citronelle for dinner.

A year ago, I had to give up all dairy products, along with some other foods, to keep from getting sick. Now, I approach dining out like I'm about to be dropped by helicopter into a desolate wilderness and forced to survive on my own wits. And Twizzlers.

Instead of Man vs. Wild, it's Man (er, Woman) vs. Menu.

Every day, more adults learn they have food sensitivities that, while not necessarily life-threatening, can have debilitating consequences. It's hard to alter lifelong eating habits. Before, I rarely gave a thought to the laundry list of possible ingredients in restaurant food. I found picky eaters annoying. Now, I'm one of them. A killjoy.

My goal seems humble: to dine out without relying on the squished sandwich hidden in my coat pocket. If I can do it, there's hope for the many sandwich smugglers among us.

The best servers pretend to be patient with my 20 questions, while my dining companions take on that long-suffering look. After much trial and error, I've learned that I can reduce the risk, and place fewer special orders, if I limit myself to the three S's: steak, salad, sushi. How doggedly I pursue a greater variety of options depends on how tired I am of eating mesclun. And let me be clear: I am tired of eating mesclun.

I try not to ask the kitchen to make a dish that should be dairy into something that isn't. I imagine my waiter dodging a flying whisk hurled by an angry chef. "Leave the butter out of my bearnaise? Is she mad? I will personally feed her a stick of butter to see her writhe in agony."

Granted, that's an extreme example. But should a diner avoid ordering something that needs to be modified? Chef Nicholas Sharpe of Sonoma is understanding. "What if that's what you really want?" he says. While such requests are "not awesome," they're also "not necessarily a bad thing," Sharpe says, and in his kitchen, he tries hard to please everyone.

But requests can be taken too far. Don't ask for bearnaise made without butter, and don't try to pass off what Sharpe calls "food aversions" as food allergies. If you don't like beets, don't order the beet salad.

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