We’ve all heard about walking in somebody else’s shoes to understand them better. Though we can never truly experience the life of a person afflicted with severe allergies, those of us without any can sure try. Dismissing someone’s allergies for the sake of simplicity is all too tempting. The fact is that if someone you love or respect has allergies, the best way to cope with it is to put yourself – as best you can – in his or her shoes.
There is no doubt this rule is always put to the test. My wife and I enjoy going out for dinner. How we go about planning or choosing a restaurant is different than most. First off, my wife Jennifer is allergic to an armada of assorted foods. Some examples include flour, wheat, eggs, nuts, potatoes, dairy, seafood, and corn. “The worse thing about my allergies is that I have already tried these foods before and I know what I’m missing,” she once told me. How the allergies arrived remains a mystery. It all comes down to the usual debate about environment or genetics. None have sufficiently given her some comfort.
What makes ordering off a menu so difficult is that some of these foods or ingredients are essentials in many cooking recipes. For example, it’s not enough for her to ask if any of the foods have come into contact with nuts. She needs to know exactly how all foods are prepared, and this can often feel like a heavy chore. No matter how diligent we are, we can never be sure. We put our trust in strangers and that leaves a hint of worry.
Many times she is tempted not to ask any questions and just order. This is exactly what she did on one occasion, and she nearly paid a heavy price for it. In her denial she proceeded to order an entrée at a restaurant without asking any questions. To her astonishment she was allergic to three-quarters of the dish. When she asked the waitress how a straight forward dish can become so avant-garde, the waitress apologized and said “Yes, the chef like to be adventurous with his dishes.”
Our friends have understood when it comes to choosing an establishment. They know Jennifer will have to pick the place. It’s made our job that much easier. As for the restaurants themselves, they have been more than accommodating in going the extra mile in making her feel comfortable.
“Restaurants are more open and aware than they were 15 years ago,” explains Peter Hrib, a chef at Sentaure Restaurant in Montreal. “The culture has changed. For example, at this establishment we have changed our menu to a nut free environment. Staff and cooks are also more sensitive and educated about allergies. More often than not, they themselves are close to someone with allergies.”Still, it’s a difficult process for her to endure. She has to painstakingly go over the menu with a server each time, all the while having to overcome her discomfort for putting people through such an ordeal. “Why can’t I be normal? I want to eat that!” usually escapes her mouth at the dinner table. She’ll often stare at what I’m eating and all I need to say is, “…it does not taste as good as it looks” – unless we are eating at my mother’s, in which case she knows I would be lying. Mr. Hrib puts it this way, “People should not feel burdened anymore. When it comes to your health, do not risk anything. Ask as many detailed questions as possible. We’re ready for it.”
Finding a place where we can eat well and in peace is tough. There is, however, one place where we feel right at home – at my mother’s. For my mom, Jennifer’s allergies had a wide impact on the family as well. Decades of stylized and personalized Italian cooking were suddenly altered for her daughter-in-law. It was a remarkable act of generosity as it’s not easy to change traditional recipes on the fly. Luckily, my mother is talented enough to make the adjustments and still make things taste great.
“How does it feel to have such an effect on my cultural household?” I once asked her, not knowing my attempt at humor would actually move my wife to light tears. “I can’t believe what your mother has done for me. She has gone way beyond anything I could have asked for.” “It’s nothing,” I told her. “It’s what most Mediterranean mothers do. They literally live to cook and feed.”
Whether in the fast-paced surroundings of a restaurant or within the confines of a comfortable home, allergies follow people everywhere. It’s important that everyone remains diligent and offers support to a person with allergies. It’s the least we can do, for we will never know how it truly affects them deep down. For my wife, it upsets her that she’ll never be able to try her mother in-law’s tiramisu. However, I would not be surprised if mom figures it all out. Nothing would make Jennifer – and me – happier.