Friday, December 2, 2011

Food or Poison?

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.


Warped Mind of Ron said...

If I had such a severe reaction to a food I would be paranoid and probably never eat anything I didn't prepare myself.

Jameil said...

YIKES!!! That is scary!! I don't mix the jam & pb utensils b/c I think it's disgusting to have bits of other in the containers. Makes me shudder to think about it.

LL Cool Joe said...

We have a friend who has celiac disease, so I know how critical it is for her to only eat the right food. Often she brings her own food with her when she comes round to our house. She's so bad if she eats the wrong thing she ends up in hospital.

I can't eat apples. Weird I know.

Granny Annie said...

This is a troubling post. I am fortunate not to have food allergies and cannot imagine being responsible for feeding such a person the wrong thing. Joey's friend had the right idea about bringing her own food when she comes to their house. She is not only protecting herself but she is protecting her hosts from possibly serving her the wrong thing and feeling responsible. If the extremely allergic person makes a choice to eat out, they have to consider the consequences of doing so and must not blame the restaurant if the order goes wrong. Somewhere along the way we must all take responsibility for our own actions and not look to blame others who cannot begin to control such overwhelming allergy illnesses.

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: I'm glad to hear that. I feel that people will think I'm being paranoid for not trusting a restaurant that makes claims about having a special menu catering to the gluten-free. You'd think they'd be trained to pay careful attention. But everyone makes mistakes, and it could happen so easily.

Jameil: It's not that much trouble to wash one knife. Keeping the PB and the J separate is a good habit.

LL Cool Joe: That is kind of weird. I've never heard of anyone who had a problem with apples. But technically you can be allergic to anything, so I'm sure you're not alone.

Granny Annie: Indeed. You take a calculated risk by eating out, and anytime you take a risk that is your own responsibility. On the other hand, think of how restrictive it would be to never be able to eat any food you did not prepare yourself. If you want to travel, be a guest at a wedding, or even just go out on the town for more than a few hours at a time, you have to find some way of feeding yourself. It's a complicated issue with implications that are cultural and social as well as medical.

G said...

Sounds like you're about to enter an unfortunate phase of not visiting restaurants anymore.

At least on the bright side you know what other foods to avoid and on the other bright side, a lot of stores are carrying a multitude of gluten-free products.

Also on the other bright side, as per the guidelines of my post of 11/30, I wrote a small post about you that will appear on 12/7.

Lynn said...

One of my coworkers has a nut allergy and we are very careful with things we bring in to share.

She recently went to a focus group place that had sat out wrap sandwiches to eat - a mixture of selections. She choose chicken salad, took one bite and crunched down on something and it was a nut. She ran to the restroom and used her epi pen, but returned to the focus group office long enough to tell them what happened and that she was having to leave because her lips were already swelling up. The receptionist said brightly, "Oh - you must have gotten the chicken salad with cashews!" Duh.

DarcsFalcon said...

It's so strange to me. When I was a kid, most of us took PB&J sandwiches in our lunches, and airlines were famous for giving peanuts away. Restaurants would have peanut shells scattered on the floor from the bowls of peanuts left on the tables for the guests to nibble on while waiting for their food.

Now it seems like food allergies are so common. I don't know what changed or why, but things are definitely different now. It's downright scary, something that used to be pretty safe is now almost scary in how it can impact people.

We just can't be too careful anymore and I don't blame you one bit for wanting to shun restaurants now. I think I would too!

Just Plain Tired said...

Holy buckets! Now I'm feeling quite ignorant about food/allergy reactions.

Owl Dancer said...

Wow, I thought I knew a fair amount about allergies, but I had no idea that even a little peanut oil on a handrail could be enough to cause someone serious harm! Thanks for writing this. It will make me a lot more mindful about things. Sorry you were so sick after the gnocchi! I can't say that I blame you for wanting to be diligent about what you eat and where. It just isn't worth becoming so ill over.

Sparkling Red said...

G: Yes, I am lucky. At least my "health problem" is one that I can avoid experiencing if I'm careful. Lots of people are allergic to things that are unavoidable, like pollen, and certainly there are far worse things than allergies.
I'm excited to see what you post on the 7th!

Lynn: Oh my goodness... You'd think that in this day and age people would at least be aware of the dangers of nuts!

DarcsFalcon: You're so right. The number of people with allergies seems to be exploding. People tend to become allergic to the most genetically modified crops: wheat, soy, and corn. Apparently there are proteins in the standard wheat plant now that were never present in naturally-evolved wheat. No wonder some of us can't digest it.

Just Plain Tired: Then I've done my job well. :-)

Owl Dancer: I'm glad to have a chance to let people know more about allergies, although I'm far from being an expert on the subject. And thanks for what you wrote on my Sturm und Drang post - that put a big smile on my face! :-D

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, my wife likes cheese sandwiches. But I will never look at one the same way again.