Food Allergy or Food Aversion?

I’m all about communicating clearly and often to a restaurant to let them know about your food allergy ahead of time, asking the kitchen if they feel comfortable about accommodating you, and then continuing to be clear and polite in your communication with staff etc., etc., etc..

(And it works. See the Dell’anima post just last Thursday. Update: I thanked Joe by email. He said, “It was my absolute pleasure to make sure that you were taken care of last night.” How lovely is that?!)

When I talk about how to get your needs heard, I’m referring to those of us with food allergies for whom eating a specific food will cause a negative immunological response on the spot, quick and severe. (Food intolerant, you are in here too, no one wants a three day tummy ache or instant diarrhea or exacerbation of your genetic disease).

What about those for whom a certain food or ingredient is an aversion? It doesn’t make them sick; they just really *really* don’t like it? How should they get their needs met?

Through Serious Eats "Should picky eater fake allergies?" they report on a story pubbed by City Paper in Washington DC that talks about people who tell a restaurant that they are allergic when in fact they just don’t want a particular item. The story is called: Breaking Out in Chives. By Ruth Samuelson

“For the ingredient-averse, a dinner out can be a horrible experience. If they consume something that torments their taste buds, their meal will be ruined. So they learn to adapt.

They lie.

And while chefs and servers know that particular ingredients are unlikely allergens, they don’t dare call out their patrons—that would be discourteous and unprofessional. They have to take allergy requests seriously. So pretty much anyone can claim to be allergic to anything and, problem solved, the ingredient is removed!

But just because the kitchen staff doesn’t object doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s going on.”

The article interviews Jeff Black of Black Restaurant Group, which owns BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant in the Palisades and several other establishments in Maryland.

His advice:"Just be an adult, explain what you want, and his cooks will make adjustments. “Don’t play games. And don’t lie,” he says. “I’m expected as a business owner to have a certain amount of integrity. If I say something is going to be a certain way, it’s going to be a certain way—and you hold me to it. It should cut both ways.”

It should but it doesn't always. Not nearly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this phenomenon usually as a complaint from chefs. They know who those people are, the ones who say they are allergic but quickly prove they aren't (usually by nibbling the offending item on a friend's plate, say) and it pisses them off. “Just tell me what you don’t like and I won’t put it in there,” chefs say to me about those folks.

As anyone with allergies or food intolerances or celiac disease or is diabetic or has any special dietary condition knows “just telling the chef what you need” doesn’t always work. This Allergic Girl blog is my chronicle of just that: which chefs don’t need to be told twice to really get it and those that are simply clueless.

My hunch is that these people with ingredient aversion have had the same experience we've had, namely: not being heard by restaurant staff. So they go to extremes, lying or misrepresenting the seriousness of their dietary request in order to be taken seriously.

This is a problem for everyone in the food allergic, food intolerant and yes, the food averse populations. It’s creating confusion and hard feelings on both sides of the kitchen.

The solution? Restaurants listen to your customers. I’m fairly certain that if these ingredient-averse patrons felt heard to be begin with the wouldn’t feel the need to break out the big guns and say that their dislike or oranges is in fact a life threatening allergy, when it’s no where near.

Food averse customers: don’t lie. Be honest and clear in communicating your needs to a kitchen. Chefs are people too; a good chef will want to accommodate you, whether you have an allergy or aversion. And if the chef doesn’t listen to your needs, go elsewhere.

From City Paper: Over at Vidalia, near Dupont Circle, Chef R.J. Cooper sees allergies, fake or real, as just part of the job.

“If I have a guest that walks in the restaurant, I’ll do whatever I can to make that guest happy. Any kind of allergies, any kind of modification,” he says. Cooper says the best thing a patron can do is call beforehand. The more time the kitchen has to prepare, the better it can make adjustments and write up a new menu, often with multiple dishes.”

Food allergic, food intolerant, food averse, and picky food eaters: take heed. Communicate early, often, assertively and politely. More often than not you will get just what you ordered.


Mrs Tai Tai said…
It is sad to hear that people pretend to have food allergies when they do not.

My son, like yourself has severe allergic reactions to many types of foods - so I always read your site with interest as I want to learn and understand how he will cope when he gets older.

The fact that people lie just because they don't like the food makes me angry. I would not want to wish food allergies onto anyone. These people that are lying are trivialising food allergies and I believe makes it more difficult for people to understand that those that are allergic are not just being difficult. That being wary could be the difference between life or death.
After reading this, I posted about the subject on my own blog.
This is great stuff. I am laughing because my Grandmother, who is no longer with us, used to say she was allergic to onions when we would go out. She just hated them. Now I feel awful since I have an allergic child and really have to explain our situation.. On top of that my Grandmother created a dislike for onions in me too. Funny how things work...
Unknown said…
That is awful that people pretend to have a food allergy in order to avoid a food. It's a little similar to people who just want to park in "handicap" parking spots in order to be closer to the door. It is better to just be honest and direct about your needs and preferences in a restaurant. And restaurant staff needs to respect and listen to the customer. Service just ain't what it used to be, I'm afraid, and our manners as a society aren't either!
Meg said…
You know, some of those people sounded like they could be allergic/sensitive/intolerant. I know many of them were just lying, but if you get very sick after eating something, I would say you should be allowed to use the term "allergic" even if it is better classified as a sensitivity. I have been to many allergy doctors, and all of them have said the same thing: no allergy test is 100% there are false results all the time. If something makes you feel sick, you are likely allergic/sensitive, as there is no better test than that. Perhaps more information on allergies beyond the top few, and on reactions beyond the ones that get the most media coverage, should be gotten out.

Also, as a side, note, I have been tested (both by a doctor and by reaction) to be allergic to many "non-normal allergic" foods, so yes, many times people think I am faking. After all, how many people are allergic to rice? And then all the nightshade family, anything related to latex like bananas and kiwi, it goes on and on.
zia said…
I understand why people would lie. It's easier and faster. I dined at PF Changs over a year ago and they stressed about every sensitivity I had. It so much easier to say yes yes and get manager's manger out of my face about a shell fish allergy that would only temporarily paralyze me so we could just enjoy our meal. If you lie and say it's an all-out allergy, the end result is the still get an allergy-free meal, even if the end result wouldn't have landed you in the hospital. I have real allergies, but I understand why people would lie. It's hard to explain, for sure! And I understand why all of us with real allergies would be offended, so you dont' have to defend yourself to me. Don't worry! I can see both sides just fine. Been there for sure.

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