It's a wonderful thing when your teenagers finally accept you are not going to get any cooler. pic.twitter.com/jl9HAzqPlp
— Bob Schooley (@Rschooley) November 25, 2015
When we go to our favorite Chinese restaurant, I usually order their Singapore style rice stick with no shrimp. Sometimes the waiter points out that the eggrolls my husband just ordered contain shrimp, and I’ll assure him that I’m not allergic — I just don’t like the taste of shrimp (so I don’t eat the eggrolls). But I never realized how complicated providing “allergy free” dishes from a restaurant kitchen could be until I read Neil Swidey’s Boston Globe article, “Why food allergy fakers need to stop“:
BEFORE WE GET INTO IT, let me make one thing clear. This intervention is not aimed at those with life-threatening food allergies or similarly grave medical conditions. I would never question people whose faces will balloon if they ingest trace amounts of shellfish. Or people who risk going into anaphylactic shock with a whiff of peanut dust. Or people whose ingestion of a smidge of gluten will send their bodies on an autoimmune witch hunt that over time will eat away at the lining of their small intestines and potentially lead to everything from infertility to cancer. Those problems are very real, and everyone who is afflicted with one or more of them has my sympathy.
I’m talking about the rest of you. Those of you who don’t eat garlic because you detest its smell or avoid cauliflower because it makes you fart or have gone gluten-free because you heard it worked wonders for Jennifer Aniston or Lady Gaga or Dave, your toned instructor from spin class.
When you settle into your seat at a restaurant, don’t be shy about telling your server your food preferences. By all means, ask if your dish can be prepared garlic-free or cauliflower-free or gluten-free. You’re paying good money, so you should get the meal that you want, not one that leaves you riding home in a foul mood and a plume of fetid air. The days of the imperious no-substitutions chef, telling you to take it or leave it, now seem as dated as a rerun of that Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” episode from 20 years ago.
But for the love of Julia Child and the sake of every other soul in the restaurant, particularly the underpaid line cooks sweating their way through another Saturday night shift, please, please stop describing your food preferences as an allergy. That is a very specific medical term, and invoking it triggers an elaborate, time-consuming protocol in any self-respecting kitchen. It shouldn’t be tossed around as liberally as the sea salt on the house-made (gluten-free) breadsticks…
This isn’t just my opinion. The physician-researcher who put gluten on the map in America and the parent-activist who led the crusade that transformed how seriously this country takes food allergies both admitted to me that they can’t believe how much things have gotten out of hand.
When Dr. Alessio Fasano came to the United States from his native Italy in the 1990s, the prevailing view in medicine was that celiac disease — the autoimmune disorder triggered by eating the gluten protein composite in wheat, barley, and rye — effectively didn’t exist here. It was a problem only for European kids. Through a meticulous years-long study, Fasano demonstrated that, in fact, 1 percent of Americans have the disease, cutting across all ages and races.
Yet Fasano, who founded the Center for Celiac Research now at Massachusetts General Hospital, never could have predicted the market-fueled tsunami of me-too-ism that his findings would release. “We were so good,” he says, “that we lost control.”…
… In 2009, Massachusetts led the nation as the first state to require restaurants to undergo allergy training, followed by Rhode Island.
A year later, Paul Antico, a former Fidelity portfolio manager from Cohasset, started AllergyEats, a Yelp-type website, and now also an app, where customers rate restaurants based on how seriously they take allergies. As the father of five, three with food allergies, Antico wanted to give families the freedom to eat out without paralyzing fear. The site now has tens of thousands of user reviews of restaurants from around the country.
Allergy advocacy culminated with the 2013 law signed by President Obama — whose older daughter has a peanut allergy — pushing schools to stockpile anaphylaxis-combating auto-injecting epinephrine EpiPens…
Every time the cooks see the word “allergy,” they have to assume the customer’s condition is life-threatening. The big danger is cross contamination, where an allergen is inadvertently transferred from one dish to another, often through a shared cutting board or utensil, or through the oil in the fryer or even food dust in the air.
That means with every allergy, the action must stop in this kitchen jammed with cooks and dishwashers. The cooks consult a printed breakdown of ingredients in each dish to make sure the allergen isn’t hiding out in a component. They either grab new cutting boards, knives, and tongs or put theirs through the sanitizing dishwasher. And when the plate is done, they use disposable wipes to hold it by the edge.
Imagine doing that repeatedly across a breathless night, disrupting the choreography of the kitchen each time. I asked numerous chefs how many tables have a diner asking for these special accommodations on a typical night, and I heard estimates ranging from 10 percent to a jaw-dropping 60 percent.
Now imagine that a diner whose “serious dairy allergy” required you to take all those time-consuming steps decides to finish her meal by ordering ice cream, telling her server that it’s OK if she “cheats a little.” This, Leviton says, happens all the time.
He has no problem if a customer says, “I’m not eating gluten” or “I’m avoiding dairy.” The kitchen will make sure those ingredients aren’t in the dish. But they won’t be wasting time taking unnecessary steps. “We’re jumping through a different level of hoop,” he says…
What’s the big deal if gluten-tolerant people go gluten-free, especially since they’ll be eating fewer Pop-Tarts?
The problem is the more these bandwagon-jumpers demand special attention, the more likely that restaurants and wider society will come to see all gluten-free people as phonies.
And by the time the fad-followers move on to another fad diet, they have cheapened the label for all those people who can’t move on…
Harron shows me around the open kitchen of the first Burtons Grill, in Hingham. Pan handles, cutting boards, and tongs are color-coded, like a Boston subway map. Red for meat dishes, yellow for poultry, blue for seafood, and a purple cutting board for gluten-free meals. Final dishes prepared free of gluten or a particular allergen are served on a square plate rather than a round one. If they’re takeout meals, a big “allergy” sticker is affixed to the container.
Harron, who is 61, was diagnosed 45 years ago with celiac, though back then it was known as “sprue” and an almost entirely overlooked condition.
He’s not particularly concerned about diners mislabeling their preferences as allergies, since his business is built to accommodate these requests. Still, he can understand why other restaurant owners have begun pushing back in frustration. “In this area, you’ve got to be either all in, or out,” Harron says. “There’s little margin of error.”…
… AllergyEats founder Paul Antico says the allergy community has to get less defensive. If restaurants can do a better job of distinguishing real from exaggerated, they’ll be more likely to continue making accommodations for the people who really need them.
And maybe if more people with preferences begin to appreciate the trouble they’re causing with their use of the A-word, they’ll correct their ways. That begins with awareness…
Lots more details, including video, at the link.
Never forget. pic.twitter.com/nJqYjtVhOW
— Bob Schooley (@Rschooley) November 25, 2015