A Different Kind of Allergic Experience

I belong to an organization that I care about deeply. It's the kind of organization that seeks to take care of both its members and the community at large. I know that any organization is fallible, being made out of fallible people. And, so, any organization is bound to fail its members from time to time. This weekend the member that it failed was me, and in order to move past it, I feel the need to write about it. I also know that what I'm feeling right now is a common but often silently kept experience, and so I want to both raise awareness and get my feelings out in the open.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have extensive food allergies. A couple of them have been issues since childhood, and others I grew into as an adult. It's a rather impressive list of allergens, hitting four of The Big-8 allergens and several other, more obscure ones, too. If I'm going to eat out, I have to scout out restaurants and often talk to managers and chefs to make sure that what I'm eating will be safe for me. I carry a special "restaurant card" listing my allergens and emergency contacts which I to give to wait staff so that the kitchen is aware of my issues.

I am fortunate to have several good friends who have taken the time to learn about my allergies and have become quite proficient in cooking for me. Many people in my circle remember to label things as “Libby-Safe” at communal dinners and even bring me the ingredient lists from packaged food to make sure that I know exactly what I'm eating. I don't expect this. This is a kind gesture that friends who understand make, and it makes things infinitely easier for me. It's wonderful when a friend calls me and says, “I think that our dinner tonight is all food that you can eat. Would you like to join us?” It's a huge relief to know that the people in my life “get it.” And I'm truly not offended if I'm going to be in a situation where I know ahead of time that my restrictions might not be met. It's just part of life with food allergies. I either pack my own food or do without.

This weekend, my organization held its annual fund-raising event. It's the kind of affair where people get a little bit gussied up and go out to have a fun evening with the people we work alongside all year long. Lots of money is raised at this event and it really feels like the community comes together to give a big hurrah to the organization that we are all so proud of.

This year's event featured a catered sit-down dinner. I was hesitant to go because I've been trying to be very careful about cash flow since the launch of my new career. But a number of friends were going and I do care about the community we all have together, so I decided to look into it. What clinched the deal for me that the ticket order form gave you a choice of two entrees and specifically asked if you had any food allergies or restrictions. I chose the chicken entree because it seemed like the easier of the two to adapt for my needs. I made sure that my order form was in on time, and I was confident when I showed up that the caterers would had gotten the message.

I popped my head in the kitchen during the cocktail hour so that I could make sure everything was OK and to see if there were any questions about my allergies. It became very clear that the caterers had not been notified about my allergies at all. They asked what the allergens were, and I showed them a copy of my restaurant card. The food had been prepared elsewhere and brought in and so they were unable to accommodate any special requests on the spot. They apologized to me and told me that they were afraid all they had to offer me was a plate of undressed salad greens.

I felt a great number of things in that moment, and every single one of them bubbled up as tears and spilled out of my eyes. More than anything, I honestly felt betrayed.

Does that seem like a strong reaction? Perhaps. But you see, I thought I'd done what I was supposed to. I was clear about what I needed, and I had my ticket order in on time. I trusted that this community-focused organization who is so good at taking care of its neighbors would also be able to take care of me, one of its members. I trusted that I'd be able to have a lovely evening with friends and that I'd made enough of an effort ahead of time to be safe with my allergens. Finding out that my own community didn't do what they said they would do to ensure my well-being felt like a slap in the face.

I immediately went to the primary organizer for the event and explained what had happened. He directed me to the person who had been in charge of food planning and communicating with the caterers. Apologies were made, and I was told that I'd be given a refund for the dinner that I could not eat, but at that point, there was really nothing that could be done. I ate my salad greens and watched everyone at my table eating their entrees. A meal is so often meant to be a communal event, and I felt detached. I left before dessert was served because I couldn't hold back the tears any longer.

Living with food allergies isn't easy. There is a certain amount of vigilance that you must have at all times. I find myself constantly having to evaluate who I can and cannot trust. Sometimes a restaurant goes to great lengths to make you feel welcome and works with you to give you a dining experience that is special, tasty, and safe. Other times, a restaurant is dismissive and fails to give you the information that you request. In those cases, my anxiety kicks into high gear, and I do what I need to do to protect myself, even if it means not ordering. And so that's why this really isn't about the food. This is about a promise broken. This is about a community saying that they would take care of me and then failing to follow through. I'd have rather been told up front that I couldn't be accommodated than to have the experience I did this weekend.

I have an ongoing fear that a waiter will dismiss my allergies as excessive worry and neglect to check with the kitchen to make sure my french fries and someone else's crab cake won't be sharing the same oil. I fret that some jaded barista will consider my requests to be “high maintenance” and spitefully sneak dairy milk into my beverage instead of soy. It's such a relief when I am in a situation where I know I can relax and trust that someone else understands and is taking me and my allergies seriously. When I think I'm in a situation or with people I think I can trust and then it falls apart on me, I feel simply stupid for having let my guard down. Even though I believe that this weekend's events were an honest oversight and I'm honestly not sure where the ball was dropped, it still left a chink in my armor.

For more food allergy information, check out http://www.foodallergy.org/.

For information about how to handle allergies and the impact that they can have on individuals and their loved ones, check out Sloane Miller's excellent site Allergic Girl: http://allergicgirl.com/

1 comment

  • Rachel Vdolek

    Rachel Vdolek Tacoma, WA

    Libby, I totally get the anxiety and the frustration that goes into eating out when you have food allergies. I am allergic to dairy and eggs with many other sensitivities that make it hard to eat out. I've had so many similar reactions to people when I don't get my orders right. I have cried many times over it, and come close many other times. I guess I just wanted to say you aren't alone! There's a few of us out there :) Anyways, if you want to connect, I'm on twitter (twitter.com/rachelvdolek) if you do that sort of thing or you can email me at rachel.vdolek@gmail.com. I'd love to chat more!

    Libby,

    I totally get the anxiety and the frustration that goes into eating out when you have food allergies. I am allergic to dairy and eggs with many other sensitivities that make it hard to eat out. I've had so many similar reactions to people when I don't get my orders right. I have cried many times over it, and come close many other times.

    I guess I just wanted to say you aren't alone! There's a few of us out there smile

    Anyways, if you want to connect, I'm on twitter (twitter.com/rachelvdolek) if you do that sort of thing or you can email me at rachel.vdolek@gmail.com. I'd love to chat more!

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