For years, I’ve apologized for my diet, for my food allergies. I’ve kowtowed to shop owners, genuflected in front of flight attendants and begged pardon from baby-faced waiters whose eyes I pray will someday get stuck mid-roll.
Part of it is my upbringing—we’re a very non-confrontational family—we don’t make waves. Part of it is media, telling me (and you) that I’m a weirdo. Part of it is friends, family, tour guides, etc. enforcing the stereotypes and making me feel small. But most of it is me being afraid that everyone is right. That I am weak, that I’m faking it, that I’m a burden, that I don’t deserve to eat out, travel or attend dinner parties without bringing my own food (which is what normally happens).
And it’s bullshit.
And all those people owe me an apology. In fact, I’m going to take this a step further and suggest that you take a look at your own behavior. Because, odds are, you’ve been a dick to someone about their food allergies. We deserve a fucking CAKE for all the crap you “normal people” put us through. (Granted, it’s gonna have to be a gluten-corn-sugar-nut-dairy-free cake, but we’ll take it.)
When you interact with someone who has food allergies, please keep these simple rules in mind:
DON’T ask: “What happens if you eat it?”
I’ll projectile vomit all over your mother’s blouse. I’ll get so constipated that my intestines protrude over my waistline. I’ll get diarrhea so bad it puts food poisoning to shame. I’ll sprout pus-filled blisters all over my face, and then blood will start squirting from my eyeballs.
REALLY? Do you really want our dinner conversation to include a detailed list of all my gross symptoms? If you want to know out of concern for my safety, you can ask whether I carry an Epi pen and where it’s located in case of an emergency. Otherwise—and I mean this kindly—bugger off.
Do you know how difficult it is to explain disgusting stuff in a way that won’t disgust people? Do you know how much I hate doing it?
First of all, I’m NOT going to eat “it” so this isn’t a relevant question. Secondly, I wouldn’t ask YOU about your health problems over dinner, and I think it’s incredibly rude that you ask about mine—EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
(In case you’re not great with sarcasm, the above allergies are made up. But, still, you get the idea. It’s never going to be pretty. That’s why we allergic people don’t EAT these foods. If food allergies gave me silkier hair or prettier skin, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.)
DON’T make me feel like a freak
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out to dinner when the waiter will take my partner’s order and then, after listening to me, give him a nod and say, “Oh, so you’re the normal one.” Or maybe he’ll refer to me, from then on, as “the difficult one.” Or, my favorite, “So you’re THAT girl.”
Yes, you’re right, waiter. I came here so I could feel bad about myself. Thanks for letting me know that I’m a freak and reminding me that my life will always be a little shittier because I’m forced to deal with people like you. Totes awesome.
About 15 million people in the U.S. have some sort of food allergy. I happen to have more food allergies than the average person, but that’s not my fault. You wouldn’t tease someone with a broken leg, calling them “difficult” or abnormal. I wish I had a broken leg—at least it would eventually heal. This shit is probably gonna stay with me forever.
So, please, I beg of you, THINK before you open your mouth and spew words.
DON’T openly make fun of me
Do you think I like giving up delicious foods? Cookies right out of the oven—that’s heaven right there. And I can’t eat them.
Oftentimes, the one thing people remember about me is “Oh, she’s the woman allergic to XYZ” because YOU made such a fuss over it. I’m a pretty cool person with lots more to be remembered by than food allergies. Please refrain from being a jerkface.
DON’T just order pizza
FACT: 60 percent of the U.S. adult population is lactose intolerant. And, in the U.S., minority populations are much more likely to be affected. So the next time you plan an event and only order pizza, you’re really just excluding more than half of your attendees AND managing to dissuade minorities from showing up. How about you reconsider that order, huh?
DON’T act like this is a bigger deal for you than it is for me
I recently took a reporting fellowship to Israel. I was told that I’d be “fed a lot and often.” Free food? Who doesn’t like free food? Especially free Mediterranean food! But, of course, just to be on the safe side, I emailed the trip coordinator the week before, letting him know about my allergies.
Of the 30 countries I’ve visited, it was the worst experience I’ve ever had traveling abroad.
Now, usually, I’d be totally fine procuring my own food. Drop me anywhere in a Romance language-speaking country, and I’m a food-finding machine. But this is Israel. I have no idea how to speak or read Hebrew.
I told the coordinator that I was allergic to the ingredients in falafel the day before we were stopping at a falafel place for lunch. Instead of planning ahead and helping me out, we got to the falafel place, and the coordinator said I could eat hummus. HUMMUS. He wanted me to scoop up hummus and eat it with a spoon.
I’m all for a good hummus spread, but that’s not exactly a filling meal.
It gets better. The tour guide finally offered to help me find food, which took a while because it turns out that falafel stands are SUPER popular. So finally we stumble across a Japanese place that makes sushi and the guide goes to order me some salmon rolls. Normally, this would be awesome. But the salmon had obviously been sitting out for a while and was kinda graying at the edges. I asked the guide to inquire after refrigerated salmon.
He flipped. The look he gave me was of pure disgust. He stalked out of the restaurant, threw his hands up in the air and proceeded to tell me how frustrating and difficult I was. He told me, angrily, that there was no way I could get food poisoning from eating that fish.
I explained to him that I was sorry he was frustrated but to look at it from my perspective. I’d had food poisoning before and wasn’t eager to get it again. Plus, he had to deal with my allergies for five days—I had to deal with them for life. He proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t making his life any easier.
*whistling sound as the point of the conversation goes over someone’s head *
Yes, during the trip, both the guide and the coordinator berated me for having food allergies, for not getting myself food and for being difficult, frustrating and a burden on the trip. They also told the entire fellowship, a sizable group of journalists, all about my food allergies, discussing them openly, loudly and publicly—as one usually discusses the health problems of others. NOT.
(In his defense, the tour guide did apologize eventually. But not until I sat in the bathroom of a Japanese restaurant for 20 minutes, sobbing.)
DON’T tell me to eat at vegan/vegetarian restaurants
I’ve been to plenty of vegan and vegetarian restaurants where the chef doesn’t know what ingredients they use in their sauces. That’s the cue for me to get up and walk out. And it SUCKS.
DON’T ever use the words “Oh, why don’t you just try eating a little?”
Because I can’t even.
DO try and be flexible
When a waiter goes out of their way to make sure my meal is allergen-free, I call their boss, I write an amazing review, and I tip really well.
Should I have to do this? Shouldn’t it just be a part of a waiter’s job? You’d think, but it’s incredibly rare.
So, friends, isn’t it worth the extra time to make someone feel less awkward and alienated? I’ll make it worth your while (probably with cake!)!
DO ask how you can help
I was recently on the phone with United Airlines for more than an hour, trying to get a list of the ingredients for their in-flight meals. I was days away from boarding an international flight, and I didn’t want to take up precious space in my carry-on to pack my own breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I’d like to tell you that United Airlines has a list of ingredients for their meals, this being 2017, but that’s not the case. In fact, when I got on the flight, the flight attendant didn’t even have the gluten-free meal I’d requested. Instead of apologizing for the mixup, she told me that I should’ve called ahead of time.
Which I did. And I emailed. Twice.
So, when you extend some compassion—any compassion—to someone with food allergies, know that you’re making their day. It’s a common courtesy that I rarely get from anyone.
DO refuse my apology
Because I shouldn’t have to apologize for something that’s not in my control. And I’m going to try my damnedest to stop apologizing, but if you hear me do it, please politely decline. That’ll let me know you care about me, and that I’m worth your time, your compassion and your (extra) effort. And from one human being to another, I thank you so, so much.