Diana Staresinic-Deane of Unearthing Stories on the Prairie digs into the fears that come along with having food allergies.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were eating at one of our favorite local spots. After consulting with the server, who also happened to be a friend as well as the owner of the establishment, we ordered breakfast. I cut into my French toast made from made-from-scratch bread and batter and took a big bite.
The taste was familiar, but it took me a moment to place it. As I rolled the sugary yumminess around in my mouth, I realized what it was.
“Oh, God,” I said. “This has almond in it.”
My husband flagged down the bakery owner. “No,” she reassured me. “There should be no almond. I’ll double-check, but we never add almond.”
She checked with the cook. He insisted there was no almond. Then she checked with the person who made the batter. Puzzled at her concern, he admitted to adding some almond extract to the batter to give it a little something extra for Sunday Brunch.
Welcome to one of my biggest fears: death by food.
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After her own near death experience, Snow White never again felt safe eating an apple she didn’t pick herself. (Photo by Bschwhen)
I came into my food allergies fairly late in life. In my early thirties, I was suddenly diagnosed with asthma and severe food allergies. I have no idea what made my immune system go so wrong, but I can still hear the doctor looking at the 87 allergen needle pokes in my back and marveling over how some of them were so big they were immeasurable. Normally, those allergy tests are scaled from 0 to 5 with five being highly allergic; several of mine cleared 30. As someone who previously had had no real health problems, I was now dependent on inhalers and had to watch out for three of the big seven food allergens.
In some ways, if I had to develop these allergies, I’m glad it happened when I was already old enough to fend for myself. Better yet, it happened at a time when I had the power of the Internet at my fingertips. Wonderful blogs like Allergic Girl’s Please Don’t Pass the Nuts have helped empower me to make safe choices and have positive discussions with restaurant managers to determine what is and is not safe for me to eat.
However, it can still be scary and discouraging. Even though many restaurants now post information about the top seven allergens and gluten sensitivities on their websites, the food is only as safe as it is handled. Many restaurants still don’t train their staff in the basics of food allergies, and their employees have incorrect assumptions about food allergies. It only takes one filet of fish accidentally tossed into the dedicated French fry fryer to make the oil unsafe for someone with fish allergies.
In addition, while some restaurants are trying very hard to accommodate the needs of their allergic patrons, others have decided those same customers are a lawsuit waiting to happen and discourage their presence. A particular popular drive-in restaurant in our town includes signage that says if you’re allergic to pretty much anything–including foods they don’t even serve–you probably should eat somewhere else.
I blog about exploring Kansas, and prior to my immune system meltdown, my husband and I used to love to pick a town on the map and just show up and eat at the local mom-and-pop shop. Today I have to call ahead and get a feel for how likely it is that I’ll be able to eat safely. We try to go outside of rush times (when it’s harder for restaurant staff to keep track of special needs), and when we find places that are safe, we thank them with good tips and repeat patronage.
Still, even the best restaurant staff members are human beings, and mistakes can and will happen. I always carry two EpiPens, and when we go to a new place, I always go with someone who gets that I might have an emergency. Because, as a recent story about a poor allergic girl in California reminds us, people really do die from severe food allergies, and asthmatics with peanut or tree nut allergies run the greatest risk of anaphylaxis.
And that’s why eating anything–and I mean ANYTHING–that someone else prepares for you can be scary and take a leap of faith. Because when you have food allergies you are, truly, putting your life in that person’s hands. And even though I always ask about ingredients, and even though the restaurant might be owned by a friend, and even though that restaurant makes almost everything from scratch and their staff will gladly check ingredients for any pre-made products, accidents still happen.
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The presence of tree nuts in the French toast confirmed, I took deep, calming breaths through my already itchy mouth as we left. I used my EpiPen in the truck on the way to the emergency room, where I was monitored for several hours to ensure I wouldn’t have a more severe reaction than the itching mouth, tight throat, and trouble swallowing.
Physically, I recovered quickly. But emotionally, that fear and helplessness still lurks in the back of my mind. Some of it is healthy; it keeps me vigilant, and being vigilant is key to eating safely. However, it would be so easy to let that fear take over and prevent me from eating in a social setting ever again, especially when I’m alone or in an unfamiliar place.
My friend had a long conversation with her restaurant staff. She, too, is a food allergy sufferer, and she is working to retrain her staff to better provide an allergy-safe environment for their customers. Some day, I’ll muster the courage to go back, but it might be a while. When your life might be at stake, it takes guts to let someone else feed you.
Diana Staresinic-Deane is a Kansan-gone-Californian-gone-Kansan, former part-time library assistant, writer, history junkie, cemetery photographer, and guinea pig enthusiast. She blogs about Kansas history and Kansas places at Diana Staresinic-Deane: Unearthing Stories on the Prairie, and she is the author of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder.