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Dining Strategies for the Eating Impaired

I’ve had known food allergies since about 2001 when I finally figured out through trial and error that onions make me sick. It was a mish-mash version of the elimination strategy:  I’d eat something with onions and I’d have a reaction; I’d eat something without and be fine. It didn’t take long for the pattern to emerge. After paying attention to my symptoms, I then looked it up and sure enough, there were others with the same reactions to onions out there.

The seafood, shellfish really, allergy was easier to figure out. I had a lobster roll summer of 2002 and within ten minutes I was the Michelin man. It took a trip to the ER to get the swelling under control. I’ve avoided anything food that comes from the water since, fresh water and sea alike.

I’m well adjusted to cooking with these food allergies at home. It’s pretty easy to avoid the fish (don’t buy it!) and I’ve read enough labels to know at a glance what’s safe on the shelves of the store and what’s not as far as onion.

Dining out, well, that’s always been tricky.

For a long time, I didn’t bother with trying to order entrees that were safe because it was such a hassle. I’d suffer silently with the symptoms to minimize the inconvenience I thought I was causing to my dining companions and wait staff. After a while, though, enough was enough. Coming home from a restaurant with a swollen throat and a tummy ache, at best, was getting old. I began speaking up and discussing my culinary needs with my friends and family and asked for them to help me out when dining at a restaurant, and I learned how to navigate the waters of dining out and getting food I can eat.

Some strategies I have been using that have helped in the past (mostly) are creating dining cards for the wait staff and chef, befriending the restaurant, calling ahead and asking about specific entrees, and developing a list of restaurants and entrees that are safe after seeing how successful the strategies are with certain places.

Dining Cards

I keep them simple. Mine say:  “Caution:  I have food allergies. The onion-family (onions, scallions, chives, leeks, and shallots) and seafood make me very sick. Can you help me have an enjoyable meal that’s safe? Thank you!” It helps cut down on the confusion, most of the time, and is especially useful when the place is loud or when the wait staff speak English as their second language. Now I have to edit it and add gluten.

Make Friends with the Waitstaff/Restaurant

When I was in graduate school in Maine, every Tuesday night a group of us would go to Woodman’s Bar and Grill in Orono. We did this every Tuesday night for about a year. After two or three visits, the waitress that usually waited on us started teasing me saying, “And you want that burger with onion rings, right?” When another person waited on our table, she was good about checking on and catching my plate that wasn’t made right before it came to the table. Becoming a regular and getting to know the staff and chef at a place really helps!

Food allergies are annoying because when things go well, the dining experience is great! You can enjoy the conversation and eat and have a fantastic time. When the food isn’t prepared properly, or when there are limited options, it’s terrible. I once went through five plates at a restaurant because they didn’t get the order right. It was at The Tavern at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem and I ordered a mushroom swiss burger.

I gave the waitress my spiel about the allergies, gave her the card, and suggested she check how the mushrooms are cooked, if there is anything added to the meat for flavor, and to check to see if the roll is plain or flavored. I’ve learned. Well, the first plate came out with onion rings when I ordered sweet potato fries. The next came out with a big ol’ red onion sitting on top of the burger. The third came out on an onion roll. The fourth was on the same plate as the third (I recognized the big chip on the plate). And the fifth was undercooked. I was ready to cry I was so hungry and frustrated. By the time, I’d been through the five plates, Gabe had already finished off his huge plate of fish and salad and we’d been there for close to two hours.  (The waitress did not charge me.)

From the Tavern, we went to the all-night diner in town and I had a fruit waffle. Now that I know about the gluten, I can’t do that anymore, though.  After scarfing down the waffle, I thought my tummy was upset because of the earlier stress of going through five rejected burgers.  Little did I know it was because I had just dropped a big ol’ tile of wheat gluten on my gut!

Call Ahead

I call ahead as often as I can to check on entrees I’m interested in after looking up the menu online. It gives me an opportunity to talk with the owner or chef and ask about modifications or alternatives to what I’m interested in. Most of the time, again, this works, but I still get surprised by what some places consider a reasonable accommodation.

Last Christmas, Gabe and I went on a weekend trip to Newport, RI. We began planning for the trip in October. This gave me plenty of time to research restaurants in the area, look at their menus, call and ask about the ingredients and accommodations, and plan out where we’d eat meals. Gabe also called ahead and notified the hotel (the Viking) we stayed at about my food allergies so they could make the necessary accommodations for the pri fixe Christmas eve menu.

What a disappointment the hotel was. They gave us the most verbose assurance of dining enjoyment only to let me down. When we got there and settled in for our black-tie meal, the host had not been notified of my allergy as we were told he would be. The staff went scurrying back to the kitchen to talk with the chef. The main item, a steak, was off limits because every steak they had was marinated in an oniony concoction. The other plate was off limits because it was shellfish. The soup wasn’t safe:  onions. The ended up serving me egg noodles with boiled root veggies and butter. For $50 pri fixe. I was angry. If we hadn’t prepaid and if there were other options available that late on Christmas Day, we would have gone somewhere else. The hotel restaurant got quite the letter from me.

The local restaurants were better, though. One little Italian hole-in-the-wall not only listened to me on the phone and guided me through their menu, but the chef read up on the allergy and noted the time and date that I discussed with the owner. He had made an individual batch of the special sauce for the ravioli dish I was interested in and brought it out to me himself that night. Such a difference!

Know When to Throw ‘Em and When to Hold ‘Em

One of the newest strategies for dining out I’ve learned is setting expectations and handling upsets. I carefully consider what the intention of the gathering is and whether making a fuss over food is worth it.

For instance, a few weeks back I met up with a friend of mine from Maine while she was touring graduate programs in the Boston area. We agreed to meet up at the Boston Public Library’s café. Knowing that it was unlikely there would be much available to me, I ate a little something at home before leaving, and set my intention to focus on the conversation and having a pleasant visit instead of on eating. That way, when I got there and the only onion, seafood, gluten-free option was an apple, I wasn’t crestfallen. I’d prepared and set my expectations.

When I dine out and make the effort to call ahead, and then give the wait staff my spiel, if at that point the food options are not as advertised or plates are not made correctly, that’s when I make a fuss.

It was much, much easier when it was just onions and seafood, though. Now that it’s gluten, too, it’s imperative that I utilize these dining strategies, especially calling ahead and making friends with the wait staff by becoming a regular at places that treat me well.

* * *

One strategy that I’m going to try now that I have the gluten-intolerance identified is bring my own gluten-free pasta or bread to restaurants that may not already be equipped with the supplies to handle my gluten-intolerance, and to bring my own salad dressing (onion). Have you done this? Has it worked? The big problem with dining now that I have all these identified food allergies is that it can’t be spontaneous and unprepared!

How do you handle disappointments when eating out? Do you have food issues? How do you meet your needs in public or on the go? How do you handle the social factor?

Oh, yeah! Happy Valentine’s day!

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6 responses to “Dining Strategies for the Eating Impaired

  1. Alex February 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Jen! Most places in boston know how to deal with gluten intolerance (and other food allergies) these days. So many people have realized their allergies and so restaurants are able to cater to that. I would call ahead to ask, but I wouldn’t bring your own to the restaurant! How would they figure out how to price your meal? I think it would be more hassle to them than it seems you want to put on them. When my brother was in town (who has a gluten AND dairy intolerance (WTF!) I took him out to eat at 3 places and he didn’t have any issues ordering. He just said, I have a gluten/dairy/meat/ intolerance and they basically prepare him a vegan meal. I am sure you’ve already found this, but I found the glutenfreegoddess.com last week when I was looking for recipes to make my bro a birthday dinner for this weekend. Every recipe I tried was amazing!

    Good luck!

    Alex

  2. Jen February 14, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Alex, I’m so glad your bro had such a good experience eating out! I wish that were the case for me. Luckily for him, he has three allergies/intolerances that are well known. That makes life so much easier! Very few people or restaurants know about the onion allergy and that’s a bit more challenging to navigate (it’s in salad dressing, marinades, on knives and cutting boards, on pizza cutters, grills, in oil fryers, common ingredient on sandwich bars and often dropped on accident in other bins, etc.) when dining out. I’ve known about the onion allergy for 10+ years and I have the hardest time eating out with that one, seafood, *and* now gluten. Eep!

    I understand what you are saying about bringing food to a restaurant, but I’ve found it to work out fairly well the two times I’ve done it. I called ahead first, asked them about the menu, and after a long conversation, asked if I could bring something in to help make the dining experience better. It’s been for restaurants that are not as prepared to handle a gluten allergy, as well as onion and seafood. It’s made life easier the two times I’ve done it so far!

  3. Lindy February 14, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Hey Jen, FYI: Elephant Walk (two locations – one in Cambridge) has a huge gluten-free selection. Vegan too, so you’ll be sure to avoid any sort of fish sauce issues. It’s French/Cambodian fusion. You should totally check it out, we LOVE their food. YUMMA!

    • Jen February 14, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Good to know! I’ve seen Elephant Walk a few times in our adventures out and about but we’ve yet to stop in. I’ll be sure to do so. Thanks, Lindy!

  4. Andrea February 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Happy Valentine’s Day to you!

  5. LittleWit February 16, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Those are some pretty neat techniques. I like the idea of the card spelling at your allergies for easier communication. It’s always nice to go to restaurants that really make an effort to ensure everyone’s dining experience is a good one. 🙂

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