“Here, Allison, have some of my brownie sundae. It’s to die for!”
I am not the kind of person to turn down a free dessert, so I took a big spoonful to discover that my friend was not joking — it was pretty amazing. We decided to split the huge bowl filled with a brownie covered in chocolate sauce, ice cream, and whipped cream on top. It was heaven, until the dairy kicked in a few hours later and I started to feel feverish, sick to my stomach, and prickly all over my body. I went to bed and woke up the next day feeling fine, so I thought nothing of it.
A few days later, a similar reaction in my body occurred when I ate pasta with alfredo sauce. My concerned mom took me to the doctor, who suggested that I might be lactose intolerant. The doctor suggesting avoiding all dairy for about four weeks to see if my stomach pain would disappear.
When I heard this, I almost fell out of my chair. “No dairy? At all?” I was the kind of girl who got up in the morning to have a Greek yogurt with granola, ate a caprese panini with tons of mozzarella cheese for lunch, and any kind of pasta with cheese for dinner. This was hell for me.
But, after my rather difficult adjustment to a dairy-free diet, I felt better than I had in months. I had no stomach pain, no sluggish feeling, and no headaches, which I discovered were other daily side effects caused by dairy. I decided to cut it out of my diet for good, except for the occasional treat thanks to Lactaid pills and Tums.
By the time I turned 18, I discovered that my intolerance had developed into a mild allergy. Now when I eat dairy, my throat starts to itch, and not even over-the-counter medicine will make my symptoms disappear. I manage to avoid it at all costs, thanks to substitutions and amazing parents that cook special dairy-free meals for me. There is just one part of my allergy that still makes me feel like crap: eating out.
In my personal experience, restaurants do not always respect my allergy, the food doesn’t always taste like it should, and more often than not, I feel like I'm missing out. While it “sucks” that I can’t eat dairy, it doesn’t mean that I cannot or should not have options and eat foods that taste good — or that at least taste like food.
Almost every time that I go to an Italian restaurant, I end up getting a meal that has dairy in it, even after I tell the waiter that I'm allergic. As many Italian connoisseurs would know, sprinkling some parmesan cheese on the top of just about every plate of pasta is the tradition.
One night at a rather well-known Italian restaurant in New Jersey, I specified in my order that I wanted gnocchi with marinara sauce, and no cheese. I explained that I was allergic to dairy several times, so there could be no milk or cream in my sauce, and no cheese anywhere on my plate. The waiter assured me that he would have the kitchen make it separately, no problem.
30 minutes later when he came back with my plate, I saw white dusting all over. I foolishly hoped it wasn't mine, but the waiter brought it right over to my place setting. I was so frustrated that I just wanted to stand up and scream at the waiter like Will Farrell in Stepbrothers and say, "are you kidding me? I told you I couldn't have cheese!"
To be polite, I just muttered, “excuse me, sir, but there is parmesan on the top of this and I can’t eat cheese.” He stood still for a few seconds and sighed as he grabbed my plate and walked away. The waiter acted like I was bothering him by having an allergy. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t eat the cheese, but he made me feel bad for asking for a necessary accommodation. My family ate their dinner while I sat and waited another 25 minutes to finally get my incredibly bland and unsatisfying pasta.
Not only do some restaurants not respect my allergy, but they also don't seem to care about how the food they serve me tastes. Exhibit A: when I went to France on a school trip, we visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to admire the works of Van Gogh and Monet, and also to have lunch in a prestigious restaurant. My teacher took us to the restaurant in the upstairs of the museum called Restaurant du Musée D’Orsay for a fancy and traditional French lunch experience.
There was a pre-set menu so we all paid the same price and received the same meal — except for me. I can remember the waitress swooping a hot plate of chicken packed pastry in a gravy sauce right over my head, and placing it on the table next to me. It was then that she dropped a plate of cold vegetables in front of my place setting.
I looked up with a bemused expression. I wondered if it was an appetizer or a mistake, but it was actually my “dairy-free meal.” The restaurant read that I had an allergy and decided to serve me crunchy, cold, and flavorless vegetables as my friends chowed down on their warm, buttery, and luxurious chicken
Sometime after we finished eating, the waitress brought out individual apple pies for each student as a dessert. The restaurant decided to solve the problem but just not serving me any dessert at all. When my teacher made a stink (I was too shy to speak up about it), the restaurant graciously brought me a fruit cup. I smiled and ate it, but I remember thinking, “why bother?” My friends got to eat warm apple pie, while I ate cold melon that wasn’t even ripe.
I was extremely angry that I had paid 30 euros for uncooked root vegetables and a melon. There was no protein, no taste, and definitely no value to my meal. I was hungry the rest of the day and felt extremely ignored. I couldn't see a reason why the restaurant couldn’t have added some sort of flavor that the French are so well known for to my meal.
All in all, it can suck to have a food allergy when eating in a restaurant. I manage to live a happy lifestyle without dairy, but it is certainly easier to do in the comfort of my own home. Just because I can’t eat dairy doesn't mean that I should feel like i'm being a pain when I ask for food accommodations, or eat without enjoyment and fulfillment. There are plenty of ways to make dairy-free and other allergen-free foods taste good without making it feel like I am missing out.
Looking back at my restaurant anecdotes, I laugh because they seem so ridiculous, but the truth is that's really what it can be like to eat out of the house with food allergies. Some restaurants do not seem obliged to respect or care about what I'm eating or what I can eat on their menu, although their goal should be to serve delicious meals to all customers. Allergy awareness should be more prominent in restaurants both in this country and abroad because the truth is up to 15 Million Americans have food allergies just like me.