That’s what we’re becoming.

I was reading Pete Wells’s comment from the per se kitchen during the Keller-Achatz dinner that when sent to inquire as to food allergies, captains reported that the first 8 tables, of 16 I  believe, requested that the kitchen amend the menu for them in some way due to food allergies (I trust not simply preferences).  The ninth table was probably a deuce.  Pete didn’t expand on further requests.  One of the requests came from the editor of a prominent food magazine.

One of my dearest friends got angry with me for sending him an article noting that so-called MSG allergies have been thoroughly debunked.  He is insistent. What causes this irrational and senseless belief that our bodies react violently to any number of fruits and vegetables and livestock?

My favorite stories are from servers who tell of customers who claim to be allergic to dairy—so no milk, cream, or butter—and then order the cheese at the end of the meal.

People allergic to grapefruit?  Or sweet peppers?  Please.  Fennel?  Come on.

As Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking, an estimated 2% of the adult population have food allergies.  I ate a handful of hazel and brazil nuts at a Christmas party last year and my arm grew hives, my head swelled up and I looked like a boiled lobster.

Seeds and nuts are common sources of allergies and can be serious, of course.  Some people are allergic to gluten.  Another common allergy is to egg white.  And of course many have shellfish allergies.

When you have a food allergy it means that your body believes that something is attacking it and launches a response that results in everything from discomfort to shock.

But again, 2%.   All other "allergies," my guess is, stem from ignorance and fear and a generally food-neurotic culture.  I wonder if the French and Italians and Spanish, who tend to be so sensible about how and when to eat, report a similar incidence.  Any servers reading this?  I’d love to hear the best “I’m allergic to” story.

UPDATE: In comments, Anthony notes that people on statins shouldn't have grapefruit.  I'll give him that–my dad was on statins and had the grapefruit issue.  Another commenter notes it's possible to be lactose intolerant and still enjoy cheese; lactose intolerance isn't an allergy, though, and it's my understanding that it's usually kids who have milk allergies, though, as I'm sure is clear from my ranty little post, I'm no nutritionist.

ONE LAST THING: Many commenters are noting personal uncommon alergies (papaya, carrots)–if you do so, and know the actual substance with in the food causing the reaction, please note it.


238 Wonderful responses to “A Nation of Culinary Sissies”

  • Paul Griffin

    Heh. I work in a very hectic kitchen, and we get all manner of bizarre allergy claims brought to us, but my favorite by far was a recent claim by a diner of an allergy to salt. You mean the stuff that the cells in your body use to regulate water content? Must be a rough existence…

    If you don’t want something, just say you don’t want it or order something else. It’s a bit dramatic to claim an allergy when it’s really just a matter of preference.

    Personally, I have lamented my inability to enjoy grapefruit since being diagnosed with epilepsy and being prescribed medication that prevents me from eating it. However, if there’s something on a menu containing grapefruit, I don’t put in a special request, I just don’t order that item. Is that really so hard?

  • ZotlarsWife

    I’m severely allergic to Chocolate. For me, and my mother, it’s the cocoa butter that does it to us. We go into anaphylatic shock if ingested or get horrid rashes/hives if touched. I also have an intolerance (note, different than allergy) to MSG – I get horrid migranes from MSG, which is a well known trigger.

    I have had a number of people who think I’m just ‘pretending’ about my allergy and have tried to feed me chocolate because they think I’m faking or just ‘don’t like it’ – yea – I enjoy having my throat and airways completely close up !!

    And I hate it when people pretend to have an allergy just because they don’t like a certain food – my FIL does that. I don’t like eggs or green beans -and you know what… I DON’T EAT THEM! It’s my choice! And I don’t make a big deal out of it. Even with my real food allergy I refuse to make a big deal out of it – a quiet comment to a waiter/waitress is all I’ve ever needed to do! I’ve seldom had an issue (a cheesecake coming sitting on a bed of chocolate syrup) and I’ve just learned to ask and explain and waiters have been more than accommodating for me! It’s all about approach!

  • marianne

    I try to avoid bell peppers whenever I dine at any restaurant. While they are not a true “allergy”, they give me incredibly bad acid reflux that make the after-dining experience less than pleasurable and more painful than anyone would like.

  • Mark

    @ Abra: I’ll say what you tried to imply ever so diplomatically: this is an American problem.

    As an American and former celiac child myself, I think I understand both of those perspectives, and yet I still have to see this insistence upon recipe control (outside of true allergies) as another manifestation of the “customer is always right” power struggle that, here in Amsterdam, is pretty unheard of. Except from American tourists.

    My point? I agree with the title of the post, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Laurence

    Dear Chefs Keller and Achatz:

    I am grateful for the opportunity to attend your twenty course meal, but I am allergic to several foods. Could you please fax a list of all the ingredients to my attorney and doctor for review? After all, you are in the hospitality business and need to cater to me, me, me.

    By the way, my daughter only eats macaroni and cheese. I trust this will not be a problem.

    Kindest years, Joe Lookatme.

    It certainly appears to me that a lot of these allergies have become more prominent in the last few years. Perhaps they will all disappear after January 20? I keed, I keed.

  • crystal

    There seem to be “real allergies”, “convenient allergies” and everything in between.

    In my case, my one allergy is to either the antibiotics or the growth hormone in non-organic beef and non-organic cow milk. My allergy only occurs with beef. I have no reaction to eating non-organic pork, chicken, etc.

    My reaction occurs after about 15 minutes and is rapid heart beat, sheer anxiety, and yet at the same time, an overwhelming desire to go to sleep. It feels like my body/mind is at war with itself. Once I’m asleep, it’s almost impossible to wake me up.

    The last fast-food hamburger I had 15 years ago (brought home for lunch), resulted in sheer panic and my sleeping on the couch for 16 hours. I had finally pinpointed my problem. This allergy had developed over about 4 years. Prior to that, I could pig out at McD and BKing.

    Has anyone heard of this before?

    Rhonda, in her post, touched on this: “I think this all comes back to how our food is grown and what chemicals the farmers use. If the fruit/vegetable is covered in pesticide, or the meat is filled with antibiotics, etc., one would realistically develop an allergy to the poison and think that they are allergic to the actual food.”

    It has not a problem for me to avoid eating non-organic beef and milk. I buy beef and milk labeled organic from Whole Foods or from local farms where I know the farmers and trust their word that they do not use hormones and antibiotics. I can get away with eating dishes with a little non-organic milk in it, but I can’t drink a whole glass.

    My friends and family now serve me organic beef/milk *or* anything else (pork, chicken, fish, vegetarian, etc.). If a new host is serving me dinner, if I’m not sure of the beef, I can always eat other things. At first, I thought this would be an awkward time for the host and for me – – – that I would be embrassed and certainly did not want my host to feel badly, but it’s never really been an issue. No one has made a big deal about it. I don’t deal on it.

    Last year, my husband and I ate at Alinea – – divine!!!! The waitperson said the beef might be non-organic, so they substituted something else.

    More and more restaurants, although gradually, are serving humanely-raised, “organic” (in the logical sense, if not in the bureaucratic, legal sense), grass-fed beef. Yea for all of us!!!!

    I am actually very grateful, in a way, for my allergy, because I now don’t put the antibiotics and/or beef growth hormones into my body or the bodies of my family and friends. It can’t be good for anyone, can it? Maybe I’m the canary in the coal mine.

    However, after reading the other posts, I am now sorely tempted to proclaim I have an allergy to Brussels sprouts!!!! Who knew!?!

  • crystal

    I meant to say in my previous post, “I don’t *dwell* on it.”

  • Sue

    If I eat broccoli, zucchini, summer squash, or spaghetti squash, I become so nauseous and gassy that I have to go to bed. A gas pill helps a little. So I avoid these vegetables, even though I love them. So how do I explain to a server that those foods make me sick? I just say I’m allergic to avoid all the discussion, but I know everyone thinks I just don’t like those vegetables. Like I have the palate of a 2 year old. It’s very frustrating.

  • Sue

    If I eat broccoli, zucchini, summer squash, or spaghetti squash, I become so nauseous and gassy that I have to go to bed. A gas pill helps a little. So I avoid these vegetables, even though I love them. So how do I explain to a server that those foods make me sick? I just say I’m allergic to avoid all the discussion, but I know everyone thinks I just don’t like those vegetables. Like I have the palate of a 2 year old. It’s very frustrating.

  • Marlene

    I have a serious anaphylactic allergy to mushrooms. I don’t like fish.

    I ate once at Per Se, and not only was it the best meal of my life, everyone went out of their way to ensure there were no mushrooms anywhere near my food, including the chef coming out and explaining that he cleaned the grill and would cook my food on one part of the grill only.

    I told them I didn’t like fish, had never tried oysters. They convinced me to try the oysters and simply substituted something else for any fish course.

    I don’t mind telling a waiter when I don’t like something, but please don’t assume I just don’t like mushrooms. I could die because of that assumption.

  • Frank M

    I think I’m allergic to beer. After a couple, I start to feel giddy. Then after a couple more, I start to feel bloated, and my nose starts to turn red. But you know what? I’m going to give it another chance. :o)
    Great topic.

  • Pat Carroll

    An internship year of chopping, mixing and cooking at Hilton Harrisburg (4 restaurants, 200k banquet space) ended with me making two new apps a night for the sous chef. Great, except I had a hell of a time finding tasters … never imagined so many cooks allergic to this or that, who didn’t like tomatoes or mushrooms, wouldn’t touch cabbage (even in non-slaw form) or wouldn’t combine sweet and savory elements. Food Sissy Nation goes way beyond the dining room.

  • Todd

    “What causes this irrational and senseless belief that our bodies react violently to any number of fruits and vegetables and livestock?”

    In my case, eating a bell peppers and vomiting 15-20 minutes after is a clear indication that enforces a belief that my body is reacting violently, because, well, it is. It sucks because I love gumbo and all manners of things that use bell peppers.

    The problem is with communication. If I tell a waiter that I have a sensitivity to a food or that I have an intolerance, nine times out of ten said food gets included anyway because ‘a little won’t hurt’. They know the word allergy and they don’t like to get sued. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions instead and examine menu items.

    I don’t have a problem with spicy peppers, but bells and very mild other varieties make for a very unpleasant evening. And no, it’s not just ’embarrassing gas’ it’s ‘oh fuck, are we going to make it home before he shits himself in the car?’

  • Kevin Shinn

    I have a regular customer who swears she can’t have white flour, that she is severely allergic to it and can only have whole wheat flour. I haven’t broken the news to her that the wheat bread she eats has a blend of whole grain and white bread flour. Maybe I should rename it PlaceboLoaf.

  • craig

    I share Jared’s allergy to the urushiol in mangoes and poison ivy. Repeated exposures to poison ivy have made me more and more sensitive to it over time. After a particularly bad bout (my doctor said it was the worse case he had ever seen) I found that eating mangoes causes my lips to swell up. I love mangoes, I wish I could eat them, but it’s just not worth it.

  • kidnix

    My wife is allergic to soy, mustard, tomatoes, rye (and many more). When she eats any of these things, she breaks out and throws up. Food allergies are no joke and at times I have to insist that she tell our server about them because she’s embarrassed about being perceived as “picky”. We have never had any push-back, looks of disdain by the restaurant because of this and I’m glad that they are so accepting, it makes the after meal experience all the better for us.

  • Tags

    It’s worthwhile to remember that most food studies are funded by companies that have a stake in the culinary (I use that term loosely) status quo.

  • Kate in the NW

    That Marco Polo thing blows my mind. I heard it from so many places over the years I just assumed it must be true – (and you know what they say about assumtions!!!!).

    Now I have to go back and research the history of Italian (particularly northern Italian) cuisine and try to figure out how/why so many Italians have trouble digesting wheat.

    Thanks for the info, BarbaraB!!!!

  • The Hedonistic Pleasureseeker

    I am plagued with food issues (celiac, dairy intolerant, nuts=anaphlaxis=death), and have dealt with them by following a wholefood/gluten-free/organic/grassfed protocol at home, and the results have been amazing: After taking wheat out of my diet, for instance, my asthma and osteoarthritis disappeared in TWO WEEKS. Just disappeared. It blew my mind. Nearly all my inflammatory and autoimmune issues disappeared.

    Here’s the thing, though: It’s so banal, boring, and RUDE to discuss bodily functions in mixed company. Just, ugh, RUDE. You don’t want to hear about my experiences with wheat gluten and explosive diarrhea, because that’s just gross. I don’t want to hear about what carrots do to your complexion. I especially don’t want to hear about it while sitting in a nice restaurant, about to blow a Benjamin on dinner.

    It’s rude to make the rest of the world dance around our personal idiosyncracies. If a food item causes us or our children problems, even deadly risk, don’t bore the world with it, JUST DON’T RISK IT. Ask polite questions if we must, but don’t try to make the world spin in the opposite direction for our convenience. We are not the center of the universe.

    There. Problem solved! I love solving problems. Next?

  • Meredith

    I was a waitress for years and would never have assumed to know better than the customer about what they are allergic too. When you dine out you are paying for the experience and I would expect the wait-staff to look out for the customer.

    My son has several life-threatening food allergies, so much so that one restaurant asked that we get him something from the health food store a block over, because they were uncomfortable about feeding him. I respected that choice and thanked the waitress, because she was honest. She would rather be safe and prevent my son from vomiting all over the place or from going into shock. We don’t eat out often (because it’s really not much fun), but when we do we expect the staff to honor our requests as they would honor anyone else’s. People don’t choose to have allergies. I find it sad that customer service is so poor that people would be so condescending.

    And for all of you conspiracy theorists, get a life. Food allergies have been around for a long time and none of the pharma companies have a magic pill out yet. If you had any idea how difficult it is to deal with these allergies you wouldn’t make such naïve comments.

  • kevin

    Call me an asshole, but I spend most of my life as a personal chef carefully meeting my clients requirements, needs, and sensitivities. That’s my job and I do it without complaint.

    But when I cook for friends and family they get what I make, if they have an allergy to shellfish they can simply not eat the Gamba de Pils Pils, if they’re lactose intolerant then skip the Pastitsio. And as for MSG, if you can eat tomatoes, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese then you don’t have an allergy.

  • KT

    Put me in the column who say that I feel for anyone with a legitimate food allergy BUT stay home or order something you are not allergic to. I think that asking for a menu to be redone or dishes to be reworked to accomodate you is ridiculous. There is a reason restaurants don’t just publish a three page list of ingreients and say pick what you want and we’ll make a dish for you.

  • Rachel

    As a private chef with food allergies (diagnosed by a medical doctor) and who works specifically with folks with food allergies, I can tell you, they are very real. Some of the allergies I have come across seem very weird – potassium, avocados, quinoa, pinto beans – but, in our cases, blood tests have been done that prove that they are real.

    Now, I will agree that many folks will use this excuse simply to avoid foods they don’t like. For example, one of my clients is “allergic” to mayo but not allergic to oil or eggs. Hmm…

    But, the fact that some people say they are allergic when in fact they just don’t like something doesn’t mean that these strange allergies don’t exist and that they aren’t becoming more and more prevalent. I’ve seen and felt the reactions myself, and I’m willing to bet that that 2% number is waaaay off. Maybe only 2% go into shock but my understanding is that MOST people have mild food allergies to one thing or another.

    So, yes, food sissies do fill tables everyday in restaurants, but so do us allergy-riddled folks.

  • Tags

    According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s “Salad the Silent Killer” in “The Man Who Ate Everything,” vegetables (not fruits) developed defenses that poison, inhibit growth, and prevent nutrient assimilation in those who eat them raw.

    So cooked veggies are best.

    Especially avoid raw broad beans, alfalfa sprouts & chick peas

  • emily

    This appeared in one of my favorite blogs and I’m surprised it hasn’t come up yet here – it’s about how Israeli children who are fed Bamba, a peanut snack, as one of their first solid foods have far fewer peanut allergies than American children.

  • Lea

    I have a little bit of sympathy for patrons who use “allergic” as a blanket explanation for avoiding certain foods. I enjoy eating adventurously but have “sensitivities”–meaning that during a scratch test, salmon won’t raise a welt, but if I’m served beef teriyaki marinated in nam pla, it will not be a pleasurable dining experience for my server, the other patrons, or me.

    A visit to the allergist was a disappointment, as it’s not the type of histamine reaction they treat. I’ll leave out the graphic details, but eating the wrong thing won’t block my airway (so far), but will leave me abruptly unable to swallow, often swollen, and achy, lethargic and physically depressed for days afterward.

    I wasn’t offered any medical advice by the allergist other than vigilance and avoidance. I don’t have the financial resources to pursue more treatment with specialists (or, honestly, the money for any drugs they’d prescribe).

    Without any real medical guidance, it’s up to me to manage my intake responsibly for my own benefit and to avoid bringing unwanted drama into a restaurant staff’s evening. “Allergic” is easier to explain to a server than “I was overexposed to industrial solvents as a teenager and now have strange reactions to a lot of different chemicals/foods (fish & sulfites being the big ones). Their severity varies depending on other allergen/chemical exposure–so if there’s a high mold or pollen count or I’ve been sitting next to a woman with too much perfume, I may react to very small amounts that previously didn’t bother me in a big, embarrassing way.”

    I love good food and have no urge to live in a sanitized bubble. I’ll eat anything I don’t think will make me react (although I’ll go slowly with new foods), but it can be difficult to track the ingredients list of every component of a recipe–I can’t use most siracha, canned/powdered coconut milk or basalmic vinegar and even most organic wines are out.

    Most of what I know about my body’s tolerance has to be learned by braille: I can eat steamers (Ipswich clams to the non-New Englanders), but regular clams will make my face and throat swell a little and I’ve no urge to find out if I that reaction will increase in severity through repeated exposure. I can tolerate the level of naturally occurring sulfites in olives, but not the level in “no added sulfites” wine (“no detectable sulfites works ok”).

    I might be able to eat shrimp, but they taste “funny” to me and I don’t want to find out that’s a warning sign rather than a personal preference–I thought I just “didn’t like” fish until several orders of very good tuna sushi caused a small reaction. Now, every time I’m exposed, it gets more severe. Is it fish oil? Is it mercury levels? Some specific protein? Who knows?

    Believe me, I would love to be more specific about what chemical compounds cause me to react, but without a test to tell me or a pile of money to wade through the health care system until I can find the right test, it’s trial-and-error.

    So when I tell waitstaff that I’m “allergic” to sulfites and fish, it’s usually by way of explaining that I’d love to order a dish, but need to know if it has things I shouldn’t eat in it, or a hope that they’ll catch something I didn’t–like the nam pla in their beef terriyaki.

    I suspect, based only on my own experience and acquaintances’, that at least some of the people telling restaurants they have “allergies” have “sensitivities” and don’t just hold green peppers in contempt. Please cut us a little slack for being outside of convenient medical categories or unable to afford to pursue more specific cures. I want dim sum even if I have to try and dissect each recipe in my head: Jellyfish–ok. Chili sauce–probably not. Take one bite and wait. Slight flushing. Leave jellyfish to husband & friends and take refuge in another cha siu bao…

    …but if I’m laying out a lot of money for a special dinner out, you can bet your sweet bippy I don’t want the experience ruined along with the restaurant’s tablecloth and I’m going to say “allergic” so they take it seriously.

  • Maura

    I see I’m one of the few people here with no allergies, and for that I’m thankful. I used to be lactose intolerant, but that’s why God made Lactaid. Now it seems that the pain medication I take has reversed it. (It’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with. So…yay for heavy duty pain meds that have also ruined my short term memory?)

    It never occurred to me that I could claim to be allergic to sauerkraut. Maybe I would have been spared all those years of people insisting that I just hadn’t had the good stuff. (Seriously, not liking sauerkraut when you grow up in Central PA is like being a communist.)

    When I have a small dinner party (4-6 people), I ask about allergies and if there’s anything my guests will not eat. Why serve chicken if someone hates it? But when I was hosting a monthly dinner club, which included about a dozen people, I made it clear that allergies only would be taken into account. The same goes for Thanksgiving. Suck it up. If you don’t like something, there’s plenty of other food. I won’t make special provisions based on the dislikes of 15-20 people. For a guest to expect that, even if the guest is a good friend, is the height of rudeness. Lucky for me, my friends will eat almost anything. 🙂

    I’ve long been suspect of the proliferation of allergies in this country. I’m convinced it’s a combination of people being culinary sissies and having legitimate allergies caused by the crap that’s in so much of our food.

    An internship year of chopping, mixing and cooking at Hilton Harrisburg (4 restaurants, 200k banquet space) ended with me making two new apps a night for the sous chef.

    Hey Pat. I’m originally from Harrisburg. Don’t you write for the Patriot News?

  • Victor Infante

    Michael, you’ve obviously never had to sit helpless while your wife had a severe reaction because she didn’t know that something she’d eaten was cooked in fish sauce, haven’t had the feeling of being helpless while her entire face swelled, and watched her suddenly have difficulty breathing.

    Trust me, have that experience once, and you’ll take allergies and sensitivities deadly serious.

  • Emily

    I was a server in a Mexican restaurant several years back and was YELLED at by a diner for not informing her that there were onions in the refried beans… Allergic to onions? Please.

  • MessyONE

    Freya, are you seriously saying that glucose is the same as lactose? Really? So you have never had a fruit or vegetable in your life? Never eaten any green plants? Seriously?

    Glucose is the main product of photosynthesis. It is in every plant on the planet that has green leaves or stems. All animals have to consume it in one form or another to survive. You’d have died of starvation by now if you couldn’t have any glucose in your diet.

    Food sissies, indeed.

  • Sheryl

    Allergies come in various degrees. I had a casein allergy for many years, but it was never to the point where I’d go into shock. Eating dairy would cause me symptoms similar to the sinus congestion a person feels with a really bad cold, and while I generally avoided dairy, there were times when I’d deem a dish to be worth the discomfort and have a bit of cheese or cheesecake anyway. I’d pay for it for days afterwards, though.

    Like Lea above, I never got a lot of reactions from traditional scratch tests, and I’ve been exposed to something that caused my milk allergy along with a nice dose of chemical sensitivity that can affect the reaction to the food if I’m exposed to something else (perfume is a bad, BAD thing). As there’s no treatment for food allergies (unlike something such as dust or mold) “avoidance” is the only option.

    I was at a tasting dinner the other day with other food writers from my city and two fairly prominent people at my table of 10 made special requests because of allergies – and one of these was an acclaimed local restaurant critic.

    Are there people out there who lie to avoid something they think is yukky? Sure. But there’s also lots of people with genuine allergies of varying degrees.

  • Sues

    One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say “I’m allergic to that.” And then when you ask them what happens when they eat it, they make up some long-winded excuse about “Oh, well I’ve never tried it before, but…” In many cases (98%!) allergies are just an excuse for not wanting to try something!

  • Duncan | Syrup&Tang

    It was great to see the comments by MessyONE about aspects of lactose intolerance and Kristi about Oral Allergy Syndrome.

    On the one hand, we will always have to deal with the fact that humans aren’t so great at understanding cause and effect (as so often seen in fears of MSG, or in food poisoning claims — usually with the assumption that it was the most recent meal). On the other hand, if you have an unusual, genuine, allergy or intolerance (and the statistics indicate not many people do, all being relative), it’s difficult to convince people that yes, watermelon, chicken meat, uncooked tomatoes and avocado and apples (and more) all form part of one allergy (Oral Allergy Syndrome).

  • jennepenne

    I have a severe buckwheat allergy – there are several proteins that cause a reaction. If I eat buckwheat I end up unable to breathe. Each time I have a reaction it is more severe. This is fairly common in Japan but almost unheard of in the US.
    I have to be careful with breads, pancakes, desserts, and pizza crusts. Usually I ask if the recipe includes any buckwheat or buckwheat flour – ‘multigrain’ flours are most often the cause of a reaction. I can’t sleep on buckwheat husk pillows or eat buckwheat sprouts either.
    I don’t ask for substitutions. I just choose something else.
    The last time this happened, I ate three bites of a pizza before feeling the reaction begin. The dough had been rolled out in a flour that contained buckwheat. It is scary. I don’t wish an allergy like this upon anyone.

  • *susan*

    I am surprised by the tone of this article Michael. Perhaps too many people are using the excuse of “allergic” for “don’t want” but that doesn’t mean that allergies are not a real issue.

    I am not a sissy when it comes to food. But I have real allergies. Now, I admit, I will never have the opportunity to eat at Per Se, but my shellfish allergy is real, and potentially fatal. Yea, I have an epi-pen in my bag, but I reserve the right to eat out and not be served shellfish. The few tasting menus that I have had the pleasure of enjoying seemed happy to swap out the course [with advance notice.]

    I am considerate otherwise. I don’t order anything that has shellfish as an obvious ingredient, but I do ask the server to confirm that there is no shellfish in sauces.

    The only time that my inquiries didn’t help was when I ordered a special fish that only runs past Boston for two weeks a year. One bite and I knew I had made a mistake. Turns out this fish lived near the shore and ate, yup, shrimp. Obviously, the epi-pen and a very expensive emergency room visit mean that I am still here.

    As much as I love grapefruit, I can’t eat it since it negates my anti-cancer drugs.

    These are real issues and should not be belittled by someone like yourself who has a tremendous amount of influence throughout the food industry.

  • Gina

    Last year on MRs book tour – I had him sign my copy of Elements for my son who has many severe food allergies. Knowing how to cook is going to help him not only at home but also for what (typically) goes into dishes.

    I’m saddened and disappointed by this post, Ruhlman. It gave voice and credence who don’t take those of us seriously when we ask for help as if lives depended on it – because they do. I’m frustrated with those who use allergy as an excuse as it makes the journey for those of us with family with true life-threatening alleriges even more difficult.

    To the rest, enough of the venom and “helpful” diagnoses via secretly introducing the corn and the tuna. Get educated.

    Finally, look at Seattle chef Tom Douglas. All his staff (at restaurants and his catering) have gone through training regarding food allergies. One can go there and talk with the kitchen and be treated with the utmost of respect and not like a social paraiah who has committed the sin of asking the chef for an alteration. I hold him as what all chef/owners should strive for as serious food allergies are here to stay – and increasing in children.

  • Debbie Franco

    I am allergic to crustaceans. I found that out 6 or 7 years ago, when I had a severe reaction to crab. I had eaten crab legs and fresh strawberries for lunch. A little while later, my hands and feet started itching intensely. Then I broke out in large purple hives, and my skin turned bright red. My throat did not swell shut, but my tongue did swell up, as did the rest of my body.

    I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where the nurses took bets on whether I had reacted to the crab or the strawberries as both are in the top 10 for food allergies. After having allergy testing I found out it was the crab. I was told I was also allergic to lobster. I had no reaction to shrimp, but since it’s in the same group, I was told not to eat it anymore, as the reaction can come on suddenly. I dearly love shrimp, but after what I went through with the crab, I have not touched it. I had wondered previously if I was allergic to crab, because when I would eat it, my hands and the inside of my mouth would start itching. I loved it though so, I kept eating it. After the severe reaction though, no more.

    Anaphalactic shock is real, and no food is really worth dying for. As for people saying they’re allergic to something when in fact they really just don’t like it, it’s ridiculous. Either tell the truth or stay home.

  • Deege


    Unfortunately, you are misinformed about crustacean vs. mollusk allergies. When one has a shellfish allergy they should avoid both. Squid also is to be avoided in those with shellfish allergies.

    From the Cleveland Clinic:

    Anyone allergic to shellfish should avoid the following ingredients and foods:

    Clams (such as cherrystone, littleneck, pismo, quahog)
    Crawfish and crayfish
    Shrimp and prawns
    Squid (calamari)

    I’m allergic to shellfish and the last reaction I had to crab sent me to the ER where the doctor, after pushing the required IV meds, yelled at me. He loudly said “Do NOT eat shellfish again, or next time you may not make it to the ER!” How dramatic!

    For me, this is a curse! I love shellfish, and I live in New England. You can’t imagine the torture watching beautiful platters of lobsters and steamers being carried by my table.

    Asian cuisine, however, can be dangerous. Even after explaining my shellfish allergy I’ve been served “vegetarian spring rolls” that contained shrimp.

    To me, it seems unfortunate that people must tell someone they are allergic to something so it won’t be served. My guess is that this is the reason for the perception of “culinary sissies.” It also has the potential for those of us with such allergies to be served the offending food anyway, because we’re really not allergic at all.

  • carri

    wow, you have a knack for hot topics! the food allergy thing is so convoluted and crazy that we will never be the same…not ever. is it because they fuck with our food to the point that it we don’t know whats really in it anymore? bleached white flour, high fructose corn syrup,freshness enhancers (nice blanket term for chemicals that would sound unappealing on an ingredients list) As those of us who have been in the food service industry for a long time can attest, these are remarkable times. I have some not-so-funny stories of customers coming to my bakery and demanding wheat free baked goods. Easy to say, hard to do…how does an event like Keller’s and Atchatz’s pull that off with so many restrictions…where do you draw the line?

  • Rhonda

    Hi Susan & Gina:

    I cannot of course speak for Michael, but I have a hard time believing that his intent was to belittle ANYONE. That is not his style. He stated his (possible) allergy to nuts and opened a discussion. I, personally, think it was his hair gel that caused the hives but what can you say…

    This is what we do. Discuss, argue, tell each other to FO and then go about our lives.

    Allergies are very real. What causes them? This is what we all want to know and none of us have the answers.

    I have certain theories myself which will never be proven or unproven but the bottom line is that people are actually suffering.

    It is an unfortunate yet fascinating glimpse as to where we are as a society.

  • luis

    Again I am proven right!!!, Not a toot nor a boast, but I have been saying all along that food is a personal thing. What you eat and what you cook is your own. Simple as that!.
    For what these folks pay at Per Se or any other swanky joint they should bring their own recipes and have the chef’s wow them and even assist them improve upon them. THAT WOULD BE WORTH all that money. All the other fancy trappings everyone is so dependent on like presentation and this and that is b.s.
    A great Meal, A cooking lesson and a great Restaurant Ambience to have it all in. That is WORTH THA MONEY!.
    Everything else is b.s. because it comes down to regional/available ingredients and tribal cookie cutter food. And the more we learn about food and the more we pay for it the MORE we expect from it!. Ultimatelly if you read between the lines folks want food that really makes them feel right, and does them some good and most important tastes good and makes them happy.

  • luis

    Speaking of making folks happy… yesterday I made a spaghetti/pizza sauce from scratch and thru it on some bow tie pasta… long story short it wasn’t great… this morning I made and eggMcmuffin using my cute tiny non-stick egg/sauce pan and I reached for the same sauce. KABOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM! the heavens openned up and I was soooo happy!.
    All the sauce needed was time for the ingredients to reach culinary equilibrium and make friends with each other…
    Who KNEW?????????
    baby steps….and training wheels… Rome wasn’t built in ONE DAY!….
    Now DO I EXPECT PER SE or anyone else to cook me a sauce and serve it inside 45 min? and it be worth tha price? or live up to tha hype???
    Think about it folks??? It can’t be done!.

  • JR Prospal

    OK how about potatoes. I have an acute allergy to potatoes that leads to either full body hives or a more anaphalactic reaction where I stop breathing. This includes the steam, starch and even touching them which pretty much rules out culinary school for me. My allergy doesn’t keep me from eating out at fine restaurants or even fast food, however I do often have to endure often paying more because of substitutions, which I still can’t figure out. Yeah some “allergies” are discomforts, other are life threatening. I don’t think someone should pay more to keep from dying. i also don’t think I should just order something that doesn’t have potatoes. I’m glad to read that Chef Keller accommodates without complaint.

  • Steve O.

    I have only read a few comments, so I apologize if this has been addressed.

    My wife works with pre-k and kindergarten classes. In the lunchrooms (containing only a couple hundred children), there are specific (full) tables for peanut allergies, wheat/gluten allergies, and dairy allergies. There are even warning posters on classroom doors with children allergic to peanuts.

    It was only 22 years ago that I was this age and none of these allergies were known to myself or my classmates (albeit we were only four or five). I think, ultimately, that there must be a progressing environmental cause for the rise in allergies, not unlike that growth in autism and asperger’s syndrome. The trouble is that the cause could be almost anything, environmental or genetic, and is likely something that will take decades to identify.

  • Holland

    There’s good evidence that what people call allergies have alot to do with thier gut. Intestines that is. More specifically the bacteria that live there and the balance between the good ones and the bad ones. Speaking from my own experience,I was sensitive to shellfish for 25 years. Touching it with my bare hands would cause them to itch, like fire, for hours. To even touch stone crab meat to my tounge would cause a burning sensation and my throat would begin to itch and burn. Then I underwent treatment for candida overgrowth (the bad bacteria) and have enjoyed, shelling and eating stone crab claws by the dozen ever since. Check out ,Dr. Biamonte knows his stuff.

  • Steve O.

    I should also mentioned that, for adults, anyway, allergies are a great way to remain polite. For instance, I detest seafood. Instead of telling a host that I can’t stand seafood and it is only for for cats, I claim to be allergic and tend not to offend anyone.

  • Megan

    I normally enjoy your writing, but this irritated me to the point of seeing red.

    In response to your statement that 2% of the population has food allergies: if you are going to spout medical numbers, there are two very good things to keep in mind. First, make sure they are from a medical source. Second, make sure that the data is in date. Giving McGee as a reference is pretty shoddy, as his work is 25 years old.

    I think that the word “allergy” does get used in the wrong place at times, but a lot of people understand “I have a wheat allergy” much better than “I have an auto-immune disorder that rejects wheat”. It’s a “falsity” that I think can be forgiven for those that use it. I know nobody who uses the term “allergy” to get out of eating the stuff they don’t like, although a few here have admitted to it.

    Personally, I have a dairy allergy. It seems to be focused more on cow than sheep or goat, which means I don’t have to entirely give up cheese. I was 29 when we realized it, but it actually has been a life-long allergy. When I went totally cow-dairy free, what a huge difference it made! I could breathe better, less tightening of the chest and asthema issues. I could give up my allergy meds altogether, except during periods of heavy pollen activity. Sinus headaches were no longer the norm. Does this mean I’m a wuss for trying to avoid it? I am a lucky one – I’m not anaphalctic, I don’t need to carry an epipen. I do try to order food that seems to avoid the dairy issue, and happily ask for no cheese/sauce/dressing on items. I ask about if there is butter. If I ingest some, it’s not the end of the world, but I am uncomfortable. More so if I’ve been totally cow-milk free for a week or two or more.

    The fact is that food allergies are becoming more prevalent. Peanut allergies are the most well known, but more and more we see kids with other allergies too. While “The Big Eight” (milk, egg, peanut, tree nut (walnut, cashew, etc.), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.) account for 90% of those allergies, there are a lot of other that pop up as well. I have a good friend who is very allergic to cinnamon, and several people here mention papaya. With the way the current food packaging stands, allergens can hide, and you never know they were there until the allergy rears it’s ugly head. Same goes for eating out – the menu certainly doesn’t list every item in a dish, and even when you think something should be safe based on description, it’s not always. I cannot count the number of times I’ve received a dish that has a cream sauce on it, when no cream sauce has been mentioned! I do try to keep my demands to a minimum, though, so as to not inconvience people. I tend to eat a lot of salads with no cheese or croutons. I can ask for information from waitstaff, and more often then not, they don’t have an answer, and are not interested in getting one. My best experience was one waitress who got the bottle of bbq sauce they used and showed me the ingredients list, because she wasn’t sure if I’d see something there that she wouldn’t realize was milk.

    I *think* the huge outbreak of allergies comes, in part, from all of the mutating of food we do these days. If you take a look at the “Big Eight” list, you’ll see some of the most heavily genetically modified foods there. Soy, wheat, and eggs are all very commonly modified. Milk has all sorts of wacky extra hormones in it, due to all the stuff they give the cows to produce more. Fish and Shellfish commonly have funky stuff in them from everything dumped into our water. Odd coincidence? I can’t imagine so. Whenever you play with something like that, you literally create new protiens – proteins that the body is not familiar with, and that have never been tested on the human body before. That’s kind of a scary thought.

    Should I, as somebody with an allergy, expect everybody to cater to me? No. However, I think that a little respect should be in order when I say “I can’t eat that – I’m allergic”. I also agree with the idea of going in during off-peak hours with the requests that somebody with an allergy is likely to have. I think it shows the restaurant and chef the respect that they deserve.

    Oh, and most medicines do not work well in the presence of grapfruit juice.

  • escapee

    You know, my in-laws didn’t believe in food allergies when I was first married. They would slip in a little tea here (tannin), some chocolate there (cocoa), maybe some grapefruit juice there (medication problems).

    I never knew they were doing this, so when I ended up in the ER, I couldn’t tell what was the problem.

    They stopped doing it after the third Thanksgiving in a row interrupted by ambulances.

    I wish not believing in allergies made them go away. Nobody wishes it more than I do.

  • Charlotte

    2 more anecdotes as part of the endless stream of comments (I have to add that I agree with your article, Michael, and that I thought you did a good job of prefacing it by “I’m NOT talking about legitimate allergies…”):
    – irony #1: I read in TONY about a week ago a piece of advice by your friend Donatella to claim being allergic to dairy to avoid “unnecessary butter and cream” in restaurants (to stay thin, and apparently “it doesn’t really change the taste anyway”). The timing in relation to your article’s was amusing.
    – irony #2: I have a sister-in-law who, in a family of food sissies, is genuinely allergic to a LOT of things (severe latex-fruit allergy syndrome, which means that she has to avoid almost all exotic fruits, bananas, bell peppers, avocados and worst of all, tomatoes… I can’t even imagine living without EVER being able to taste all those wonderful red sauce Italian dishes). Now guess what? She is the most adventurous eater in her family — I guess you have to compensate a little when nature decided to deprive you of lasagna and guacamole for life! Some commenters above suggested she stays home and eats Mac’n’Cheese, but she goes out and orders whatever is on the menu that she can eat (I’ve never seen her asking for a substitution, but she checks every dish with the waiter). That makes her a pleasure to go to restaurants with!

  • jscirish27

    As a cook working in NYC, we get a lot of requests, some strange, some understandable. It does seem people are using the term “allergy” as an excuse to alter the menu more and more however.
    While I do feel there are many with legitimate allergies, I think that most diners that make special requests do so for two reasons: they are paying for the meal and feel entitled to “have it their way” or; they honestly don’t understand how inconvenient it can be for the kitchen to accommodate their preferences. Also, while I would never belittle or minimize the severity of some people’s allergies, sometimes I have to question their judgement. I work in a restaurant that is exclusively seafood, and we often get diners who claim to have “severe” shellfish allergies. Since we handle shellfish on both stations, I always try and ensure that I sanitize everything to avoid cross-contamination, but I always worry anyway; it does make me wonder, however, why someone with severe shellfish allergies would come to a restaurant that largely specializes in shellfish.

  • Tim

    I think I find it most interesting that you would accuse Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin of lying about a food allergy. In reading Pete Wells’ piece, she was the one allergic to peppers.

  • Anne C.

    Interesting post, MR.

    From reading all these comments, it seems that there were examples from all four types of “allergic” eaters: those who are truly allergic and would die, those who have extremely painful reactions but will not die, those who have unpleasant reactions and will partake if the situation warrants, and those who do not like or want to try something. That’s a lot of variation under one descriptor. It’s impolite, in my opinion, to claim a life-threatening allergy when you don’t have one, as it diminishes the credibility for those who do. It would be much better if you could say the truth: “I don’t like it,” or “it doesn’t agree with me,” and people took your word for it and didn’t press for details or try and convince you otherwise. You know if you’re willing to try something new — being bullied doesn’t help. (I know, I know. The real world doesn’t always work like that.)

    I think jscirish27 above hit it right when he references peoples’ feeling of entitlement. People either feel entitled to badger others about their food preferences or people feel entitled to have the food changed to suit their preferences. Whether or not this entitlement is valid or not is up for debate.

    I have a friend who has a severe latex allergy and she is very pleasant to dine with. She has figured out a) what are the specific triggers for herself and b) how to ask the waitstaff about the food without being overbearing. It also makes her particularly sensitive to others with food allergies. She will always go out of her way to make sure her guests have at least a couple food choices, as having nothing to eat at a dinner has happened to her several times.

    So, in a nut(ha ha)shell, if you treat everyone’s preferences with respect (and not induce them to lie) and if they treat you with respect (not expect you to change everything, particularly if there are dishes they can eat), the world will be a better place.

  • No Name

    MSG comes from corn, and my daughter does indeed have a corn allergy so it is possible to be allergic to MSG.

  • Kate F.

    @ Diana–my confusion w/ my friend was that she claims chicken as one of her allergies, but she cooks chicken and eats it at home, so I’ve never quite understood the problem! (My mother-in-law has celiac and thanks to my shellfish…problem…I fully understand the frustration of Non-Picky Eaters with true food sensitivities!)

  • Rhonda

    I just watched a very informative documentary entitled “The Future of Food” by Deborah Koons Garcia (Jerry Garcia’s widow).

    This was a looooong haul and covered ground that we all have been over thousands of times. Not the greatest pieces of work but informative.

    What I did find interesting was the explanation of wheat and gluten allergies. There is a real explanation for this.

    So, in summation, allergies are real because we have fiddled with the food and there is not an economic way back.

  • Lorelei Armstrong

    Eggplant makes my mouth burn for a couple of hours afterward. No problem– I can avoid that.

    Foods high in magnesium give me migraines. Beans are the worst offenders. So I apologize if I come off as a ninny in a restaurant. I’ll take a waiter’s and chef’s contemptuous scorn over a migraine any day. I have yet to encounter anyone working in a restaurant who has a medical degree.

    In fact, I think I’ll just go to restaurants where I can be served cheerfully, with no eye-rolling, thanks all the same.

  • Shannon

    I agree with the basic point that patrons in restaurants do seem to confuse “allergies” and “preferences”- but do remember to be sympathetic to those of us with true allergies- and love food. For me it is shellfish- I am so sensitive that even the smell can get to me- I carry not only an epipen but an inhaler so that I can eat in restaurants that serve large quantities of seafood. (Sometimes it isn’t enough, more than one time I have had to pull my family out of a restaurant because of the hives) I can’t eat fried food anywhere that also fries shellfish in the deep fryer- blah, blah, blah. I often feel guilty because I have to quiz servers to make sure food is safe for me to eat- but I would NOT enjoy a repeat of the time there was seafood stock in a corn chowder and I ended up in the emergency room. Remember for some of us it is life or death- and while we might be annoying- dead is not fun. We suffer for our allergies more than you can know. After all- I can never visit Maryland properly!

    By the way- I also hate broccoli- never got over that from childhood- but I just don’t order things that have broccoli in them- I never ask anyone to take it out.

  • James Hyde

    Keep in mind it was a 20 course meal and I assume there was more than 10 people per table, so I am not sure it would be surprising a large number of tables have a sensitivity to at least one of the ingredients in one of the courses.

    Like Diana’s husband and Marilyn, I too have developed an allergy to poultry, of all types (duck, goose, chicken, turkey, etc..). I’ve tried a bunch of “organic” poultry too, but same effect.

    I can tell from the moment I take a bite (usually) and feel minor irritation in my mouth, but if it gets serious, it is a full traditional allergic reaction.

    As to the overall discussion, I try not to make a fuss, but usually my wife will speak up before me.

    By the way, when a restaurant goes out of the way to ask if there are any allergies, I would assume they are prepared to deal with it.

    Have to admit, I really, really miss KFC (let alone finer dishes).

  • Jaye

    I went through chemo a little over 2 years ago. Before chemo, I had no allergies other than cedar and ragweed.

    One day after I’d gone through chemo, I was munching on some baby carrots while watching TV. My lips started swelling up and my mouth itched. Am I allergic to carrots? I don’t think so because I’ve had them in soups and salads and such and been fine, but I think when I eat a bunch in a sitting, it’s probably not smart.

    I also have weird little reactions to tomatoes that haven’t been cooked/peeled, as well as raw lettuce in big amounts (like in a salad). A few pieces on a sandwich or something are fine, but a salad tastes great, it doesn’t feel great at all.

    But I’m not allergic dammit. I still eat all of these things and just deal.

    I have a good friend with a deadly egg allergy and another with a deadly nut allergy. The nut allergy developed in her 30s and I’m now schooled in epi-pen use.

  • Marlene

    I forgot to note where my doctor thinks the mushroom allergy comes from. I am also anaphalatic alleric to penicillin and to a lesser reaction extent to blue cheese. I can eat blue cheese in very small amounts, but I still pay for it later.

    I’m pretty careful about all molds now. But my doctor thinks it’s a fungi/mold thing.

  • NMC

    I’m with you on much of the tirade about food allergies, although I’ll say this: I’m allergic to crawfish. And that’s it. If I eat anything with crawfish in it, I throw up and have even ended up at the hospital over it. I love crawfish,and would eat them given the opportunity (actually, I have– that’s how I got sensitized to them). When I had heart surgery, it turned out this mattered because of a die used in some cath processes.

    That said, I eat in New Orleans a lot and just am a little careful– I was bothered when the availability of Chinese crawfish caused it to be added to gumbo, which is totally nontraditional, but all I have to do is ask about the stock and order something else.

    That said, I really wonder how set menus work with folks like me. I’ve not eaten in Per Se or Allinea, etc. So I’m not unsympathetic to the people who reported allergies. But you’re right that the Wells article made no sense.

    If I could eat crawfish without barfing, I’d do it in a minute.

  • Carrie

    Corn and Soy. Allergy not intolerance. Ain’t that a bitch? Corn’s in everything.

  • anita

    That 2% number for food allergies is too low. I don’t know where he got that, but my allergest estimates 10%.

    It is sad that people who don’t “like” foods claim allergies as it sets people up to not beleive those of us with actual allergies, like the boy who cried wolf.

    And those sweet peppers? If they’re roasted, they can close up my throat and I can die. Not a good way to end an evening.

  • some guy

    2% is about right. McGee is correct about something that involves food? Color me surprised.

    I’m a line cook. I bend over backwards on a daily basis to make sure diners leave the restaurant satisfied. I do it with a smile on my face.

    When you tell my server that you’re allergic to onions, garlic, or cilantro, yet leeks, shallots, and corriander seed are OK, I’m a little insulted. I am, in fact, very insulted – you think I would disregard your preference for certain foods enough to feign a deadly allergy. If you’re just not into eating certain things, you should probably just pick a different item from the menu, or better yet, keep your food snobbery at home and cook for yourself. The chef has constructed the dishes to be experienced a certain way. Just because you can’t understand the effect cilantro has on your dish, does not mean it isn’t vital to the overall taste the chef is trying to set forth. When I have to plate the dish without it, I’m not giving you my best, and that does not sit well with me. I can’t stand to know that the dish that just left my window isn’t as good as it should be.

    For those with legitimate allergies, the whole 2% of you, I will do everything I can to make your experience enjoyable. I’ll switch cutting boards, toss on the gloves, switch knives – you’re comfort is worth it to me. However, 2% means I should get roughly 4-5 tickets a day with notes on them, not over a dozen – day in, day out.

    It’s severely obvious that the margin between the 2% and the 8% actually reporting allergies to my waiters do so because they simply love the attention. Working in an open kitchen allows me to see your dining partners rolling their eyes when the wait staff has to clarify that yes, you are allergic to onions, but the shallot broth you just ordered is fine and the sauce with the veal stock base in course two doesn’t need to be omitted.

  • anita

    Is McGee a doctor? I think not. Here are some current stats from people who ARE doctors:

    “Food allergy is a life-threatening condition that affects 6 to 8 percent of children under 4 years of age in the United States and roughly 4 percent of adults, and its prevalence appears to be increasing. Each year, 100 to 200 people die in the United States from severe food allergy-related reactions.”

    “he number of American kids with food allergies has soared 18 percent in the last decade, with an estimated 4 percent of children and teens now affected with the condition, a new federal report says.”

    “ood Allergy
    Approximately 12 million Americans suffer from food allergy, with 6.9 million allergic to seafood and 3.3 million allergic to peanuts or tree nuts. 18
    Eight foods account for 90% of all reactions in the U.S.: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. 18
    Approximately 2.2 million school-aged children have food allergy. 18
    One in every 17 children under the age of 3 has food allergy. 18
    It is estimated that more than 150 people die annually from anaphylaxis to food.19”

    Ok, so my Dr. seems to have overestimated, however, those of you who say that those of us with allergies shouldn’t even to out to dinner are insane. Any GOOD restaurant can deal with this issue. If you don’t know how to please a customer, stop cooking.

  • crystal

    I think that The New York Times op-ed article today (Prof. James E. McWilliams, Nov. 17, 2008) entitled “Our Home-Grown Melamine Problem” should be mentioned in this discussion about allergies and/or “toxic” food. (

    In his op-ed piece Prof. McWilliams says,

    “To think American consumers are immune to this unscrupulous behavior is to ignore the Byzantine reality of the global gluten trade. Tracking the flow of wheat gluten around the world, much less evaluating its quality, is like trying to contain a drop of dye in a churning whirlpool.

    “More ominous, the United States imports most of its wheat gluten. Last year, for instance, the F.D.A. reported that millions of Americans had eaten chicken fattened on feed with melamine-tainted gluten imported from China. Around the same time, Tyson Foods slaughtered and processed hogs that had eaten melamine-contaminated feed. The government decided not to recall the meat.

    “Only a week earlier, however, the F.D.A. had announced that thousands of cats and dogs had died from melamine-laden pet food. This high-profile pet scandal did not prove to be a spur to reform so much as a red herring. Our attention was diverted to Fido and away from the animals we happen to kill and eat rather than spoil.

    “Frightening as this all sounds, the concerned consumer is not completely helpless. We can seek out organic foods, which are grown with fertilizer without melamine — unless that fertilizer was composted with manure from animals fed melamine-laden feed (always possible, as the Tyson example suggests).

    “We could further protect ourselves by choosing meat from grass-fed or truly free-range animals, assuming the grass was not fertilized with a conventional product (something that’s also very hard to know).”

    – – – –
    So, in some cases, could chemicals like melamine and nitrogen in our fertilizers for food and/or in our wheat gluten be part of the problem, and not the food itself?

  • jean

    My late husband was allergic to chocolate. He could eat a piece and he would sneeze. The better the chocolate the more he would sneeze. Godiva dark chocolate would make him sneeze ferociously. Hersheys just a little achoo. Did that stop him from eating chocolate? NO!

  • Nicole

    I have the Mugwart pollen allergy (carrots, celery, coriander, fennel, parsley, peppers, sunflower) and Ragweed pollen allergy (banana, cantaloupe, cucumber, honey dew, watermelon, zucchini) which my allergist diagnosed years ago. I’ve never found the semi-itchy throat and ears that I get when I eat them raw (cooking seems to alleviate it all together) a deterrence, though, and eating a bread product afterward to clean off my throat helps a lot. I also find that the fresher the fruit or vegetable is, the less it bothers me. Really ripe bananas can drive me crazy, but ones that haven’t started getting any spots yet are fine.

  • Walt

    As a celiac, my body does not process gluten properly; but I’ve never had an issue in a restaurant that cooks with fresh product and has a staff that knows it’s way around an ingredient. I am however, shocked by the number of people in the article (8 people of 16 tables)that claim a food allergy on the night of a Chef’s tasting dinner.

    I never make a reservation without informing the restaurant of my issue up front and I always try to eat something that can be easily adapted to my needs. To show up at any restaurant with a serious allergy without prior notice, let alone a tasting dinner (where even more prep has to be done before hand) shows a total lack of respect on the part of the diner. How self-centered do you have to be to expect that a $1,500 tasting menu be changed at the last minute just for you?

    It’s about the food people, not your ego.

    You expect the Chef to have some respect for the ingredients. How about a little respect for the Chef!

  • jscirish27

    As a line cook, I totally empathize with many of the feelings expressed here. You are already expected to perform miracles on a nightly basis, and then when you throw allergies v. preferences into the mix, it can be damn near impossible (yet we do it anyways). What I always recommend to our staff (because it is possible at our place since everything is cooked a la minute) is that they offer the dish with a completely different accompaniment. With causes less problems on big pick-ups (ie. forgetfulness) then trying to leave out certain items.

    I do believe allergies were rarely prevalent, but probably have become more so because of the build-up of toxins in our food supply over the years. That is why chemical free farming and the proper sourcing of food is so important for our food future.

  • Hilary

    Not sure if this was brought up above or not. But I have developed an allergy to raw tree fruits. I thought I was imagining it at first, and kept trying more tree fruits. However I’m now at a point where if I eat a raw apple or peach or any other tree fruit, my lips and tongue swell up. I finally found a British allergy website that explained that people who are allergic to the trees, have allergies to the fruit. The reaction does go away when the fruits are cooked.

  • Kimber

    I am allergic to balsamic vinegar. not sulfites, not vinegar, just balsamic. i had the unfortunate experience of having my throat close up on 3 separate occasions until i could figure out what the heck i was eating that i was reacting to. when i go out, i make sure to ask the server before ordering a dish if there is balsamic in it. if so, i order something else, no big deal.

  • Phil

    Kimber: That’s very strange. I have the exact same anaphylactic reaction to salmon and, irregularly, avocado.

  • milo

    “Some schools have simply outlawed peanut products. This is the rare of the case of the tyranny of the minority. What is the world coming to?”

    Would you prefer kids bring PBJ sandwiches, causing the allergic kids to DIE?

    No question it’s a bummer, but obviously something has to be done when kids get a reaction from even being in the same room as a peanut.

  • milo

    One thing that’s particularly scary right now is trying to figure out what to do with babies to try to help them avoid allergies. For years the “experts” all said not to give kids any peanuts, but now it looks like that may be completely wrong and actually making the problem far worse. It’s pretty amazing that modern science and medicine can’t figure something like that out and that right now there is advice that is flat out contradictory.

  • some guy

    “Is McGee a doctor? I think not.” – anita

    Yes, Harrold McGee is a doctor – he holds a Ph.D. from Yale.

  • milo

    Yeah, for statistics on allergies, best to use a more recent source, and as brilliant as McGee is, that doesn’t really fall under his area of expertise.

    So do does the training to be a chef include information about allergies? And being able to deal with them by making substitutions?

    It seems like it should be possible to find a reasonable compromise middle ground between the consumer and the chef, whether it’s allergies, intolerances, or even simple preferences. The consumer should hopefully be able to find something on the menu that fits their needs (which is where detailed enough menus and informed servers come in), and if there are minor adjustments necessary, the chef should be willing and able to make them. Particularly when it’s something like simply leaving something out, or swapping a side dish or sauce with one already on the menu with another main course.

    And especially when a request for a substitution is along the lines of “I don’t eat XYZ but I’d be happy if you would substitute anything else for it”.

    If a chef is doing a tasting menu, particularly one with many courses, I would think it would be smart to have at least one or two alternatives planned ahead of time since it seems inevitable that there would generally be some people who are either allergic or simply don’t like certain things. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is raw items like sushi and rare meats, which some people have to avoid for health and safety reasons.

  • Lainey

    i guess i can’t judge because i like almost any food. but people are ridiculously picky these days. are we so spoiled that we can say “oh no thank you” to a sliver of onion or a cheese that has a weird consistency? i had a couple of friends in college who’s only choice in a meat was chicken and one who would not eat red sauce. seriously.

  • milo

    “are we so spoiled that we can say “oh no thank you” to a sliver of onion or a cheese that has a weird consistency?”

    There is spoiled, and there is actual physical distress. And often it’s hard if not impossible for an observer to tell the difference.

    If a sliver of onion gives someone an allergic reaction, or headache or severe gas or heartburn or diarrhea, I don’t begrudge them for asking it left out.

  • milo

    Megan, are you talking about Christina Desforges in Quebec? She’s the only case of suspected death after kissing someone who ate peanuts I have seen, and the coroner determined that she didn’t die from a food reaction, she was at a party with heavy tobacco and pot smoke, which set off her asthma (and they suspected she may have been smoking herself).

    While peanut allergies are serious and potentially lethal, and people have reported rashes and other reactions from kisses, I wasn’t able to find a source saying anyone actually died from that.

  • lessthanjoey

    I’m rather in the sissy column but I also agree wholeheartedly with those who say that our food system is causing the problem. My girlfriend can eat cherries with no problem when she is in France, but cherries here cause the skin on her palms to dry up and peel. Likewise for a few other ingredients (that I’m currently blanking on, great bf that I am!)

  • Blake Avery

    I cook as Commander Palace in New Orleans and we get an absolute ton a so called food allergies. It’s always surprising because in New Orleans people should expect the food to be a certain way. My favorites include, Salt (seriously), onion, herbs, and the most said allergy…cilantro.

  • casacaudill

    My brother in law is allergic to mushrooms, or so he says. I think he just doesn’t like them. His wife is allergic to pork, until the bacon comes out … and then suddenly it’s a-ok. I think people use the word “allergy” when they really mean “dislike” because they want to feel important.

  • Kate in the NW

    MR –

    I know this is an old post and I don’t know if you continue to read comments, but after this post I kept rolling something around in my head.

    When my daughter was born (a decade ago), we breast-fed for ages and I was VERY careful with foods – both with what I ate while breastfeeding, and with what/how we introduced foods to her. This was not easy, as we are adventurous eaters and she started reaching for EVERYTHING and saying “Some…?” in a most plaintive voice at about 10 months.

    The reason for our caution? My husband’s family, which is absolutely RIDDLED with allergies. Fortunately, most are environmental, not food-based (other than a familial sensitivity to wheat, which – sadly – she inherited).

    ANYway – I did a bunch of research. At the time, there were some theories floating around about the role of processing/additives in food being the real culprit in the dramatic increase in food reactions in recent years. Seems from the comments here that this is becoming a more accepted theory (though I readily acknowledge there is also a fair amount of narcissistic whining going on, and many “allergies” simply aren’t).

    One interesting theory is that the dramatic uptick in peanut allergies is because of how peanut butter is processed (and it wouldn’t surprise me if other foods followed the same pattern). Apparently peanut-butter processing changed significantly in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s – just when peanut allergies exploded among the general population. And guess what the culprit seems to be? Hydrogenation and homogenization. When they do that to the peanuts, something changes in the protein that makes it much more allergenic…and how are most kids introduced to peanuts? JIF! Better living through chemistry, indeed… (!) gives some info, but I’m sure there’s more out there.

    It is SO SAD when we take good food and make it toxic. And that kids suffer. Another argument for simple, local, seasonal, unprocessed.

    Good topic – thanks!

  • anita

    Several people have mentioned the difference between Americans and French people in what they will/won’t eat. I don’t know the stastics of French people with allergies, but I think, after reading all of these responses, we can agree that many Americans do have food allergies.

    So… what’s the difference in the US and French food supplies? American – big industrial food nation, feedlots with animals unable to move, corn in everything, etc. French? Am I right in supposing that they mostly eat more locally, from small producers and don’t indulge in our preponderance for fast, commercial, cheap food? And hey – I don’t ever remember seeing peanuts on a french menu (one of the major allergens).

  • Paula

    I have ulcerative colitis. There are several dietary “trigger foods” that I must not ingest in order to avoid a flare up lasting up to 6 months. U.C. sufferers have some shared triggers and some very individual ones as well. Some of my triggers are not my sisters (who also has u.c.). I’ve had great difficulty trying to explain this when I go to a restaurant. The server concludes I am “allergic”. I’m not allergic, it just makes me sick. At this point it is easier to go along with the allergy as they understand what that means. The two things that will make me very sick are orange juice and raw garlic. I can’t have anything raw in the onion family. It’s the juices in the garlic, onion, etc. that make me sick. I can have garlic if it is pressed and cooked. I cook with shallots and onions, I just have to cook them very thoroughly. The high acid in the o.j. kills me. I have to stay away from acidic things as well. I wonder if I will ever be able to go to The French Laundry because it would be a dietary minefield with all the courses and I don’t want to be the person who says they can’t have (and rattle off 15 or so things). I would feel like I’m being such a pain and a killjoy. At other restaurants I find out what on the menu is “safe” for me and I order that.

  • MessyONE

    I think we’ve started to miss the point. I’ve worked as a waiter, I know a few chefs, and I have to say that the most irritating thing in the world is a person who treats any restaurant worker like a private servant who has to blindly obey every whim just because a customer has their behind in a chair. I know a lot of people who would agree with that.

    Any person who goes into a restaurant expecting to order something off the menu, then rearrange/tear apart/change ingredients on any dish just for the sake of their personal preferences should go home and cook what they want. The customer, contrary to the fantasies of people who think that the possession of a credit card entitles them to be a petty dictator, is NOT always right. I have fired clients, and so has just about every person I’ve ever worked for. Some people are just not worth the money they spend.

    Most restaurants very helpfully post their menus on the front door. Many have web sites that include menus and wine lists – the most organized also post their daily specials, too. If you call a restaurant, there is always a staff person who is more than willing to assist in discussing the menu. Given all that, there is no excuse for anyone to sit down in a restaurant where they have a reservation and whine that “there’s nothing here I can eat”.

    People who have allergies are generally well aware of what they are and how to cope with them. They have no right to expect a waiter or a chef to be their “mommy”. The people who just don’t like what the restaurant serves should either choose another place or go home. Pretending to be allergic belittles those people who really DO have life-threatening allergies and insults the people who cook and serve food.

  • Harry

    Anne C. made a lovely summation about varying levels of sensitivity to foods, so I won’t repeat what she wrote.

    The point’s been made several times: “allergy” is a specific chemical reaction. There are other reactions that make one sick that aren’t technically allergies. But since everyone understands allergies, a lot of people say allergy while few understand Celiac Disease (a genetic condition), for example. But if you try to parse the Celiac’s problem as an allergy you get the wrong answers, and so you doubt the person has an allergy. And you’re right – the person isn’t allergic, but he still can’t eat fava beans (or is it lima beans?) without endangering his life.

    For the record, for a small percentage of the US population (the estimates I see cluster in the 2-5% range), cilantro tastes like soap. It’s a genetic issue and there’s no getting around it. Except to develop a taste for soap, I guess.

    Now on to sensitivities. There was an interesting article on NPR last week about digestional bacteria. The short version is that the bacteria – and therefore what one can easily digest – vary from place to place. Further, when one is in a new place one eventually acquires the local bacteria.

    After having planned several weddings, I have full sympathy with chefs who are fed up or frustrated with the increasing flurry of special requests. For that reason I loathe people who say they are allergic to something when they merely don’t like it or don’t want to try it. Own up to your food preferences and stop making dining dangerous for those who are actually are allergic (or whatever).

  • Susan

    I’m a longtime lurker on this blog, and this topic just hits too close to home so I felt the need to comment.

    I am severely allergic to peanuts, peanut butter and all other nut products. And by severe, I mean if I eat this stuff I will kick the bucket within a matter of minutes unless somebody hauls my ass to the ER.

    I appreciate Ruhlman’s take on food sissies, because I so do not want to be that girl. I love food. I love cooking and eating out and I so do not want to be a pain in the ass when I order food. I always straight up tell the server I’m allergic to nuts and I avoid ordering anything that looks like it would include those products. I also tell the server that if nuts are in what I want, I will simply change my order. There’s no need to be a diva about it.

    But on the flip side, I do wish more restaurants took legitimate food allergies more seriously. I am very diligent as to not cause any problems, and I would appreciate if people in the food biz did the same. It’s very frustrating when restaurant staff act like you’re insane when you tell them you have a food allergy.

    But I truly appreciate restaurants that are thorough and helpful on this issue, and my husband and I are often repeat customers at places that we know we can trust. It also annoys me when I go out to eat and every freakin’ dessert has a nut product. I mean seriously? Why would a restaurant do that in this day and age of the increase in food allergies, particularly to nuts. That’s happened to me twice in Philadelphia – at La Bec Fin and the Rose Tattoo.

  • Juli

    My husband’s aunt has a wheat and dairy allergy that she did not develop until she was in her 60’s. As she learned about the disease and learned what she could and could not eat, on the dairy side, fresh milk and cheeses seemed to be the problem. Through trial and error, she discovered that she could eat very hard, aged cheese – they think maybe some enzyme or something that causes the reaction no longer exists in the older cheese? So, that might be an explanation for some people who order cheese at the end of the meal, but couldn’t have cream, butter,etc.

  • bob

    It’s a shame wieners (the people, not the sausage) have caused so may servers/cooks/etc to disbelieve people with real food issues. I personally had what was probably the finest meal of my life (at Tetsuya in Sydney) nearly ruined by the attention-grabbing wife of a friend. She insisted that she was alergic to a whole host of things so that she would be the “special person” at the table. Sickening.
    Yes – my friend confirmed that these were not things she was alergic to, just things she didn’t like.
    Luckily the waitress was a funny gal who made fun of the whole attention-grabbing affair – which kept the rest of the group in stiches, and my friend’s wife red in the face and embarrased for herself. YES… quite a bold move on the part of the waitress that could have backfired. Gotta hand it to the ladies in Oz – they don’t take much crap at all from California trust-fund princesses.
    I think the best way to deal with this all is by setting a good example yourself… like dumping dates who pull this kinda crap.

  • phillygirl64

    I have a serious tree nut allergy, but peanut and coconut are ok…In addition, bleu cheeses throw my digestive tract into reverse (sorry, that’s the nicest way I can put it)

    I get annoyed at folks who claim allergies they don’t have, because when they are found out, they make all of us seem suspect

    It would also help if the information was clearly spelled out on the menu (and even better if there is sufficient lighting to read it…)

    My biggest peeve, however, is that it often seems that every other dish has nuts in them – macadamia-crusted this, stir-fry with cashew that…dressed with a walnut-oil vinaigrette

  • MessyONE

    Phillygirl….have you ever tried to find a freakin’ sandwich with no cheese? Why do Americans HAVE to slather everything with cheese, anyway? And why do they feel the need to add half a pound of the stuff when a slice will do? And why is it that if you ask someone to just leave off half the cheese they get offended?

    I’m suspicious of cheese that can’t be served unless it’s been melted too….what’s that about? Are they trying to hide something about it?

    Sigh… I can see a whole slew of conspiracy theories that could be made of this…..