One in 13 Canadians has a food allergy and I am one of them. An incident at a local restaurant last month reminded me of the importance of communication when dining with food allergies.
Normally, I am very careful about what I eat as I have food allergies that are uncommon allergens, but common ingredients in a lot of meals. I rarely eat anything when not at home, it’s just not worth the risk. At pot-luck and celebrations, I do not eat anything I haven’t made. The fact that my allergens are such common ingredients as; spinach, mushrooms, squash of any kind, and even alcohol make it difficult to … for example, it is hard to tell which dip, bagel or granola bar has pumpkin seeds, spinach or mushrooms. And many holiday baked-goods can have traces of alcohol. When attending a business event by advance invitation where a food will be provided, I simply inform the host of my food allergies and explain that I do not need anything special prepared, just a ‘heads-up’ about which dishes to avoid. I am the bane of many chefs’ existence. Not because they don’t appreciate the importance of food allergies, but because I severely stifle their creativity. To date, all have been willing to accommodate and substitute special dishes when needed.
At restaurants, I’m usually very good about asking about allergy items when ordering, and always check my food carefully before starting, just to be safe.But this method, like most, is not fail-safe. This was highlighted after an incident with a salad five years ago.
I know when ordering salad to ask the server about spinach and mushrooms, but I never thought to ask about pumpkin in my salad. The following week of aftermath encouraged me to create my “allergy cards”, business-card sized cards outlining my food allergies. I always carry them with me in my wallet and give one to the server when ordering, and ask that they show it to the chef / kitchen staff as well. It’s just an extra method of communication, providing an extra measure of caution.
Of course, last month I didn’t have my cards in my wallet, in fact, I didn’t have my wallet. We had left the house only to run out for a can of paint, but somehow ended up grabbing dinner out as well. The menu was a good one, outlining most items’ ingredients. I ordered a seafood linguine with red-sauce. Distracted, I didn’t inquire further about the ingredients. Fortunately, when the meal came, I noticed the mushrooms right away. Mushrooms are a big allergen of mine and just the smell, or any other food item having come into contact can trigger a reaction.
The server was great. She offered to another, without mushrooms. I explained that they were probably in the sauce, and I couldn’t have anything that had even come into contact with them. She said she also had food allergies, and understood. When she returned from the kitchen, she informed me that they were, in fact, in the sauce but that the chef had offered to make the dish with the house red-sauce that didn’t have mushrooms. I agreed, and thanked her. Many restaurants will make you a custom item to accommodate allergies when possible. Occasionally, and especially with larger chain-establishments, this isn’t possible as most items are pre-assembled and simply cooked or warmed at the franchise. However, many of these franchises have fabulous food-allergy procedures built into all staff training and do their best to accommodate.
And quite frankly, the linguine was better with the improvised sauce, and now that I know the kitchen can accommodate, will request it again. A near-disaster turned into a great experience. And reinforced the need for me to ALWAYS carry, and USE, my allergy cards. Diligence prevents disaster.
To this end, I have now incorporated a customizable “allergy card” template on our Roll a Mile website so anyone with a food allergy can simply type in their allergies and print off a page or two of allergy cards of their own to carry and use when ordering meals out. Obviously these aren’t fail-safe, and have limited uses, but will provide an additional, tangible communication tool in the varied arsenal of tools employed by persons dealing with food allergies to prevent the accidental ingestion of food allergens. At least until better nutrition labels and menu ingredients listing is implemented.
While originally developed for food allergies, these cards can in fact be used for other types of allergies as well. Again, another tangible tool in the arsenal.
For more information visit www.rollamile.com or call us at 519-823-3046
P.S. Even some brands of moisturizers now come with mushrooms in them, have to be diligent and read the ingredients on anything I touch.