This afternoon I watched a colleague of mine assemble a cheese sandwich. In my world, a cheese sandwich is the gastronomic equivalent of a slice of solidified road tar in between two stinky old insoles. It's not in the category of "food".
It's a surprise to me how many people have little to no allergy awareness. In fact, I was pretty ignorant myself at this time last year. I fancied that I knew a fair bit about allergies, having had a good friend who would go into anaphylaxis when exposed to any type of nut or seafood, even trace amounts. To this day I never use the same knife in the jam jar and the nut butter jar, just in case a nut-allergic person should happen to show up at my house demanding jam.
Still, I didn't realize how toxic peanut butter is to some people. I didn't know if I ate a peanut butter sandwich on the subway I could transfer peanut oil to one of those poles standing passengers hang onto, and that tiny amount of peanut oil could potentially kill someone. For example, my friend's seven-year-old son. I no longer eat peanut products in public.
I also didn't realize how sensitive people with celiac disease are to gluten. Over a year ago I organized a lunch meeting for work. I knew one of the attendees couldn't have gluten, so I simply avoided ordering sandwiches, wraps and pasta. I didn't realize that the BBQ chicken sauce might have gluten in it, or if there was preservative spray on the tossed salad it might have gluten in it. This fellow came to me to double-check that I had been diligent, and only then did I find out that it wasn't enough not to have wheat as an obvious ingredient. He told me, pardon my French here, that if he ate even a trace of gluten he would "shit blood for a week".
This is one area in which ignorance is very dangerous. For example, a friend of a friend is extremely allergic to all forms of onions and garlic. If there is so much as a trace of these in anything he eats his tongue swells up and he will have acute stomach pains that keep him bedridden for days. My friend was out at a restaurant with this unfortunate guy, and they checked very carefully with the server about the dish he was going to order. He was assured that it was all clear. When the food came, it was liberally sprinkled with green onion. Green ONION.
It doesn't matter how clearly you communicate. In the end you have to trust other people - the server, the manager, the kitchen staff... And who are they anyway? A bunch of strangers.
The Total Gastric Devastation I experienced a few weeks ago has now been conclusively blamed on wheat. Ken didn't realize that gnocchi contains wheat flour as well as potato flour. My symptoms were wheat poisoning. My body completely rejected it.
I now feel very nervous eating out, especially in places where there are gluten-free options that look just like the regular food. How do you know that the server didn't accidentally swap your plate with someone else's? How do I know that this is a gluten-free waffle if I didn't open the package myself? Am I willing to risk being extremely ill on the say-so of a stranger who has six other tables to wait on, might be a little high or hung over, and just doesn't care all that much?
I have eaten out in a few restaurants where I felt comfortable, for example one place where my mom goes regularly (she's a gluten-free gal), and another (a Montana's) where the manager has celiac disease. Still, right now I feel infinitely more comfortable eating my own food at or from home. At least I'll be saving lots of money.