When I was born into this world, I was truly blessed; blessed with creativity, kindness, and a life-threatening nut allergy. In the first few years of my life, I miraculously avoided nuts. My parents only found out about my allergy in my toddler years because, being the greedy sod that I am, I snuck a hazelnut Quality Street from the table, shoved it in my mouth, and proceeded to go rather red. Since then, we have discovered I am deathly allergic to peanuts (which aren’t even a real nut, but go figure), severely allergic to some others, and it’s best to avoid the others just in case. After all, I don’t fancy going into anaphylaxis; that’s where you get a skin rash, your airways close, you go into shock, and can possibly die from either organ failure, heart attack, or suffocation. How fun. Living with an allergy like this isn’t just about not buying peanut butter, and not choosing to have Nutella on your pancakes. It’s a minefield.
Since getting diagnosed, eating out anywhere is a mission of almost military precision. I’ve got to make sure I’ve got my medi-pack of wonders with me whenever I leave the house. This includes two EpiPen’s, two inhalers, a pack of antihistamine, hand sanitiser, wet wipes, medical card, painkillers, and everything else a regular human being needs. And yes, I manage to cram this in a small bag for nights out. In all honesty, living in Britain, it’s pretty easy to avoid food with direct peanuts or nuts in, like satay dishes or walnuts in carrot cake, but it’s damn hard to avoid cross-contamination. Cross-contamination happens behind the scenes; it’s crumbs on a countertop, it’s a serving fork, it’s a bubbling pot, it’s the factory food is made in. Even a small amount, if ingested, is enough to send me into anaphylaxis. Some restaurants understand the severity, some others don’t. The same can be said for people, including family and friends. So, for those who need a bit more education on the severity of allergies, and for those who are just curious, let me tell you the tricky ways of ‘Tales of Imminent Death! or Eating Out (and Surviving) with an Allergy.’
Certain things are entirely off limits. I wonder what your reaction will be when I say I’ve never had an Indian takeaway. Normally, there’s groans of ‘whaaat? No way! How is that possible?’ or ‘OMG it’s my fave!’. Yeah, thanks for that. Why can’t I have it? Well, a lot of Indian food involves nuts in recipes, and most takeout places are notorious for cross-contamination, especially as food has to be made within a time limit. After hearing stories like this and this, it’s not worth the risk. And it’s not just some take outs that are off the list; most fusion places, practically all street food, almost all deserts, and most kebab houses are off too. Even with take outs I am relatively comfortable with (because, let’s be honest, I am never fully comfortable eating food unless it is prepared by myself, my parents, or my partner), I can only have minimal options, simply because death or an induced coma isn’t appealing to me.
So, take out isn’t really an option, unless I trust them with my life, or want to stab myself with an EpiPen. ‘So, don’t order in; eat out!’ I hear you cry. Alas, if only it was that easy. I can’t just pick a restaurant, waltz up, and order my meal. This is where the aforementioned military operation comes in.
Step One: Research restaurants close by. Eliminate fusion, Thai, Chinese, and Indian cuisine. Look out for chains, Italian restaurants, or pubs.
Step Two: Hone in on one. Get their online menu, and read it like a hawk. Got an allergy menu online? Even bloody better. Spot a satay dish? Throw the choice in the bin.
Step Three: Choose the restaurant. Arrive, and before even being seated, go red in the face with embarrassment as you ask if you can cater for people with nut allergies. Suitable answers: ‘Let me check with the chef’, ‘we don’t serve food with nuts in at all but cannot guarantee a nut free environment (so we don’t get sued),’ or a simple ‘yes’. Not suitable answers; ‘Yeah, I think so’, ‘we’ve got some nut dishes on the menu but you should be okay if you don’t order them’, ‘you’ll be fine’, or ‘we cook it all in one place, but you can ask for a dish without nuts’.
Step Four: Consider the results, maybe go somewhere for a little cry if this is your third time doing this today and your anxiety is high and you’ll settle for a bag of crisps.
Step Five (only to be considered if you haven’t had a suitable response, and yet it will be the most common): Wetherspoons? Wetherspoons.
Let’s say that we’ve found a table in a nut-allergen suitable restaurant (hooray!). In all honesty, it will probably be a chain restaurant that specialises in Italian food and does have some almonds on the menu, but yay, it’s not peanuts! As soon as I get there, I’ve got to wipe the table. I don’t care if the waiter comes along and cleans it in front of me, I’ve got to wipe it down. Sometimes, it’s an anxiety thing; sometimes, it’s because the table has only been brushed down, not properly cleaned. For a while, I had sort of let this habit slide, and forgot to do it in restaurants, until one fateful day. I sat down at my favourite cafe with some friends, ordered my favourite coffee and “nut free” breakfast, and before I even took a bite, my face had started to swell. One EpiPen injector and ambulance trip later, I was curled up in a hospital bed with blotchy red skin, an adrenaline come down, and feeling thankful that I hadn’t experienced anaphylaxis. Want to know what happened? The waiter had brushed down the table so we could sit down, leaving peanut butter residue on my side. I touched the table, which I believed to be clean, and rubbed those sweet, sweet peanut particles into my eye. BAM, lots of time off work and restaurant anxiety issues. So, now I shove my hands into my sleeves, wet wipe the table, brush myself down, and break out the hand sanitiser. Better to be safe than sorry, or dead.
Finally, here’s the big clincher that makes eating out so bloody hard; nowhere can guarantee being nut free. That’s what restaurants always say when I go to eat there. ‘We don’t use nuts in the kitchen but we cannot guarantee the food is nut free/we have a nut free area but we cannot guarantee the food is nut free/ we get ingredients from outside suppliers so cannot guarantee the food is nut free.” It comes in various forms, but it all means the same. I understand, and I really do, why restaurants cannot guarantee anything; they don’t want to get sued if something happens to a customer. So, every time I go to a restaurant, no matter how trusted they are, no matter how often I eat there, there’s always that reminder and that risk. Eating out is a damn risky business for someone with an allergy, and it shouldn’t be underestimated.
When I find a place that caters to my allergy, fully and wholly, I am beyond excited. Recently, I had two glorious moments; I ate at an Indian restaurant, and at a street food creperie. WHAT?! To me, that blows my mind! I visited Tuk Tuk in Edinburgh for a family meal, and sat there, so nervous. I kept expecting nuts to be bought out, and waited for that disappointing feeling of only being able to eat plain rice. Readers, I experienced the whole damn menu. Well, apart from the one curry with almonds in it, which they didn’t cook in the kitchen whilst I was there. Plates after plates of delicious food were bought out, items I had never tried before because of cross-contamination. I’m sure my table were exhausted with me at the end of it, because I was continually asking questions like ‘oh what’s this?’ and ‘oh WOW, is that mango chutney?’. I sat there at the end of the meal, full of food and excitement. I even popped off to the loo for a little happy cry. Also in Edinburgh, my partner and I queued up for a crepe at a street food vendor at the Fringe. I was initially very nervous, as they served Nutella (aka Satan’s favourite snack) as a topping. But, I got to the front, asked if they could cater for nut allergy sufferers, and was floored by the simple answer of ‘yes’. My server had deadly allergic to shellfish, so he knew how dangerous it could be. He then proceeded to do what I like to call “The Allergen Deep Clean”. New cooking utensils were brought out, the cooking slab was cleaned, the whole area was cleaned, hands were scrubbed, and I had literal heart eyes. A few minutes later, I had a nut free crepe in my hands, and I was skipping down the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, fit to burst with excitement.
Navigating the world of food is hard with any allergies or intolerances. But you don’t know how restrictive it can be unless you have that allergy. I don’t go to sports bars, I have to turn down birthday meals, I can’t order drinks from places with peanuts open on the bar. Flying sometimes gives me panic attacks, and areas like the London tube are just ripe for picking up cross-contamination. My boyfriend can’t even have anything with nuts in! However, I’m used to it. It’s all I can remember! But it doesn’t mean I don’t still get pissed off or sad or nervous sometimes. Allergies are much more common than you think. So next time you are out with a friend, and they mention an allergy, take it into account. It’s much more than just being picky. Let them pick the restaurant, don’t be arsey if you can’t go some places, listen to their needs. I guarantee you it will mean the world to them.