Picture, if you will, a restaurant. It’s a normal day – diners are dining, waiting staff are waiting, and everyone’s having a grand old time.
Then a young woman with pink hair enters. The nearest waiter approaches her, and she asks them for a table.
“Sure thing! Any allergies?”
“Actually, yes,” she responds.
The waiter’s face drains of colour. In their head, blue lights and sirens begin to flash and scream. Their eyes go distant, and a look of horror passes across their face. Just for a second, before they remember they’re at work, and they’re supposed to remain professional. They swallow, and put the smile back on.
“Okay! What allergies do you have?”
And so it begins…
Okay, so that might be a slight exaggeration. But only slight. That
look of terror on a server’s face is a
familiar one to me now. Not because I’m an axe-wielding maniac holding them hostage until they part with the sweet potato fries, but because they have a problem on their hands now. I am here to eat. Except… certain foods could kill me. They now have a responsibility to keep me alive, at least until I leave their restaurant.
And God, does it scare them.
I understand. I do understand. That overwhelming responsibility of not accidentally killing me. Even through cross-contamination, which is a very real problem. If they were to get it wrong – serve me something that’s been in the same vicinity as a nut, or unwittingly give me something containing legume flour – things could get very dramatic, very quickly. Nobody wants their lasagne with a side of ambulance. It’s perfectly natural to be scared. This is someone’s life they’re dealing with here.
But – and forgive me, for I am about to have a tiny moan – it is really depressing from my side. Going out to eat now is always accompanied by anxiety and apprehension. Firstly: am I going to react to something and end up feeling sick/using an epi pen/needing an ambulance? And secondly: whose day am I about to make ten-thousand times harder when I turn up at their restaurant? Knowing that I am the cause of so much anxiety for various chefs, managers and servers, makes me quite sad.
My allergies are more complicated than some. When people think of allergies, they tend to immediately think of a nut allergy (which I do have), or people being dairy-free or gluten-free (which I’m not). However, I also have other allergies. I am allergic to sesame. And legumes – so things like chickpeas, lentils and peas. Yes, peas. Whoever heard of someone being allergic to peas? I know, it’s ridiculous. But it’s my reality, and it makes dining out even harder than it already is, because legumes are such an uncommon allergen. They’re not one of the 14 allergens listed on restaurants’ allergy menus, and thus it’s a case of either scouring every single ingredient in every element of a dish, or crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
Eating places are prepared for nut allergies. They’ve heard of gluten-free and dairy-free. But pea-free? Lentil-free? That’s a whole new ball game. Especially with the rise of veganism (which I am not moaning about, not in the least), because vegan food invariably contains something I’m allergic to. It’s impossible, nigh-on impossible, for restaurants to provide a Kathy-proof allergen-free environment. Even McDonalds’ new McPlant burger contains pea protein (again, who knew pea protein was a thing?). Some places, especially supermarkets, have fries that are dusted in pea flour to keep them from sticking to each other. I met a fishcake recently that contained gram flour (chickpea flour) to make it gluten-free. So it’s not just a simple game of avoid-the-allergen. They’re hidden, and some of them can be very sneaky. It’s more like a game of whack-a-mole: if I don’t find one, I will invariably find another.
Most restaurants can’t get me out quick enough. I normally take pity on them and leave as soon as possible so they can relax. I’ve been to restaurants that have treated me as less than human. I always state my allergies in advance – on the booking form if I can, or when I arrive if I can’t. I went to one restaurant earlier this year, who I’d told on the booking form, and they seemed totally fine with it. Nothing much was said. I ordered, and my food came out with a little piece of green plant on it as a garnish. My heart immediately sunk. I said to the waiter, “Is this a pea shoot?” He went into the kitchen to check, and confirmed it was a pea shoot. The plate had to be sent back and a new one brought out, minus the pea shoot. I then had a manager come out and very politely have a go at me for ‘not stating my allergies on arrival’. I’d thought that it being on the booking form was enough, but clearly not. I felt utterly humiliated.
Luckily, not all eating places are like that. I was in York a few months ago (the same trip as I talked about in this blog about mobility aids) and visited the famous Bettys Tea Rooms while I was there. The lovely girl who served us there was a sweetheart. She and her manager scoured through their allergen menu to find me some safe options. Then, as we were packing up ready to go, we ended up having a long conversation with her about how difficult it is to find places that are allergy-friendly, and how difficult life with allergies is in general. She seemed shocked to realise that that was how I lived my life every day, and asked a lot of questions. Never before, or since, have I found someone in the food industry who genuinely wants to learn about allergies. A----, on the off chance that you’re reading this, thank you!
So, the point of this blog? It’s to show you the reality of having food allergies. Some people think it’s just a convenient excuse to get out of eating foods you don’t like. (Which, I am ashamed to admit, I did use once upon a time. Before I even knew about my allergies, I used to tell the cooks at school that I was allergic to curry because I didn’t like it. Turns out I probably was allergic to it anyway!!) But as a whole, we allergy sufferers tend not to dwell on it for fear of seeming like we’re making a fuss. But this means people don’t understand, or get impatient. That’s why I’m writing this blog.
If you’re reading this and you work in the food industry, or have contact with people who have food allergies: please be patient, and nice to us. Don't make a massive deal about how scared you are - even if you are terrified! It's okay to be terrified, but please think of our feelings. It’s no more fun for us than it is for you.
And if you have food allergies, like me… well, big virtual hugs.