Friday, August 28, 2009

Bringing Outside Food Inside a Restaurant-- Is it a Good Idea?

In 1998 I moved to New York City to attend acting school and live out my dream. To say the least, I was beaming inside and out. However, my mother was a little less excited about this move. Not only was I moving to New York City, alone, I have severe food allergies and she feared I would not eat well. Concerned about how I would deal with my food allergies in college she actually prepared dinners for me and shipped them to my apartment door on dry ice.

I quickly learned my peers lived off of cheap food and local dives around Washington Square Park. Friendships and great ideas were born bonding over quick lunches and late dinners. A few weeks into school I started to get to know a great group of people. After class one day we decided to get a bite to eat together. A friend of mine pointed to a restaurant across the way and I knew just by glancing at the name, which was in a foreign language, it was probably going to be out of the question for me. I learned long ago that if I cannot communicate with the servers or the owner, I can't eat there.

I told the group I would pop over to Wendy's to get a hamburger patty and join them in a few minutes. I decided to get the patty to-go and head over to the restaurant to eat with my friends. By the time I arrived they were being served. I sat down at the end of the table and pulled out my hamburger patty in a Wendy's potato boat. Before I took the first bite, a man came over and demanded I leave his restaurant immediately. He was irate and offended. I was mortified. I ran out of the restaurant as he followed behind me pointing and shouting.

I sat on the curb outside and nibbled on my patty while I shed a few tears.

But I learned an important lesson. It does not matter if I am going to dine at a mom and pop joint or a four star restaurant, I call ahead, around three o'clock in the afternoon, and ask to speak with the manager or chef. I explain my food allergies and politely ask if there is something he or she could make for me from the menu. Some are rude and tell me they don't have time to deal with me, but the majority are very happy to help. And a few have special ordered something for me so that I could dine with my friends and family.

If I prepare for the dining occasion in advance, I find I do not have to bring food with me to a restaurant. It's really a good rule to live by.

Nicolle Avery

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Egg & Dairy-free Italian Cooking-- Is it Possible?

I was seven and my mom and dad took my brother and I out to an upscale Italian restaurant. I remember the tables were dressed with linens, little vases with fresh flowers, and water glasses. The dining room was barely lit with candles and I just knew we were in for something special.

When it came time for the server to take our orders I had to order a meat patty and steamed vegetables. Being allergic to so many things as a child, a hamburger patty was the extent of my fine dining experience.

The food arrived and I looked around at all of the yummy pasta dishes with red sauce and white sauce. I imagined what a bite of rolled up pasta and red sauce would taste like together. I loved ketchup and it's red, so this stuff had to be good.

I enjoyed my patty, but I sat there and dreamed of the day I could try Italian cuisine.

Not too many years later, my mom started experimenting with substitutions to create egg-free and dairy-free Italian dinners for me to try. I don't want to be too dramatic, but I fell in love with Italian cuisine. This stuff is amazing. My mom learned how to make lasagna, stuffed shells, pasta and sauce, and so many other great dishes. There were new tastes and sensations in my mouth that I had never experienced before. The words creamy, rich and cheesy took on a whole new meaning for me. Some of these delicious recipes are in her cookbook, Cooking for Food Allergies Everyday & Gourmet. They had to be in there!

To this day, I prepare something from the Italian variety at least once a week.

Nicolle Avery

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dining In v Dining Out with Severe Food Allergies to Egg & Dairy

I grew up having to say, "no, I can't have that because I am allergic, but thank you for offering" more times than I can count. When I turned 16 I learned that friends and boyfriends wanted to go out to eat to socialize. That was a frightening thing for me to realize. Benadryl and epi pens were always stashed away in my purse, strapped to my being every time.

Now I'm 30 and it's still hard. My friends and family are very aware of my food allergies and for the most part they go out of their way to think of me when planning parties and dinner outings. None of my friends have food allergies so they end up accommodating me when we meet for lunch or dinner. Sweet for me, but limited for them. There are about 5 places in Orlando that I trust to serve me.

What I mean by "trust" is that when I go to a place I look at their whole menu and take into account the size of their kitchen and how easily it would be to cross contaminate my food with something that could cause me to have an allergic reaction. If half the menu is made up of omelets and eggs galore, then I will have to keep moving along. I have come to find out that there is only so much a kitchen staff can do to make sure my food will be safe for me to eat.

Over the years however, I have grown to love dining out and being with friends and family over dinner and drinks. I love it. There is not much else in the world that can compare to a lovely table, white linens, glasses half filled, forks and knives scattered on plates, surrounded by the people I love to talk with and laugh with.

Except for me, no matter what, even if I have been to a restaurant 100 times, there is still part of me that is on guard, nervous, after every bite wondering if it's just the pepper that's making my throat tickle and itch a bit or is it an allergic reaction? And because my reaction can happen fast and be so severe, the slightest change in feeling can cause me to put my fork down, drink a few sips of water, look around at my friends and smile, hoping they don't notice the change in me. Then I take a brief step out of the conversation to check in with my body; asking all the questions. After I realize there are no other symptoms I reassure myself that I'm okay and that it's just pepper. I don't want my friends and family to recognize I'm doing this, because the fact that we're at this particular restaurant in the first place is because of my food allergies. The last thing I want to do is bring more focus to these darn food allergies.

But since it's a life or death thing, I usually look at someone if I'm in question and ask, "Can you take a look at my throat?" It's truly so embarrassing, but the people who are around me love me.

So, even though I absolutely love dining out, I prefer to dine in over a fabulous meal I have prepared by my own hands. I know I have read every label and I know every thing that is in my kitchen. When I take a bite into something scrumptious, I'm not worried about the tickle I feel in the back of my throat, I know it's the pepper.

Nicolle Avery