Sometimes, eating out can be a minefield. Whilst many may think of dining with friends as the perfect way to spend an evening or a sun-drenched weekend, others have worse things than calorie-counting to worry about.
I was around thirteen years old when I first discovered that I had a potentially fatal allergy to pine nuts. Not peanuts, thankfully, but the less-used pine variety, which are appearing with increasing frequency on local menus and amongst local salad leaves. I was travelling in northern Italy at the time, and I sat down for a plate of pesto that smelt lovely. Within seconds of my first mouthful I was standing up, coughing violently and staring around in bewilderment as my tongue and lips started to feel and look huge. Thankfully, there was a doctor in our group, and after a few hours of intravenous treatment in a nearby clinic I was back on my feet and fully recovered. Or so my report says – I hardly remember anything, as I was slipping in and out of consciousness at the time.
After a few tests back in Malta it was established that I was highly allergic to pine nuts, which we had already deduced by going through all the ingredients of the pesto. I had had what is termed an anaphylactic reaction, which can cause problems due to swelling of the mouth and airways (causing breathing hassles) and drastic drops in blood pressure (causing collapse and shock). No problem, I thought – I’ll just avoid pesto (and maybe Italy).
The plot thickened. Over the next few years I had similarly disruptive episodes after Mexican desserts, jazzed-up Caesar salads, bruschetta with extras, salmon on a bed of rice (and pine nuts), hummus dips, and a handful of other recipes which I thought were safe. Disruptive to the meal or event in question, disruptive to my chances with the lass I was occasionally trying to woo, and disruptive to my wellbeing over the course of the hours ahead. Looking back, I realise I was careless, but in my defence, the establishments I was eating in often grossly neglected to label their food and menus. Thankfully, allergy awareness seems to be on the rise recently, and food labelling has become more stringent. But many restaurants I’ve visited recently were sadly uninformed or unclear about the ingredients of their chef’s creations.
Anaphylaxis can be fatal, but not all allergic reactions are that drastic or dangerous. Some are merely a nuisance. Common allergens (things that cause allergies) include nuts, seafood and eggs, but people can be allergic to a vast range of things, including bee stings, latex and most foodstuffs.
Here are a few simple rules which can make eating out a safer, more fun experience for all those concerned:
If you serve food:
1. Make your menu detailed, and stick to it
If you’re writing a menu, make sure you list all the ingredients, and don’t be tempted to throw in anything extra once in a while. I’ve often scanned an entire menu and found only one or two items which I could say were ‘Mark-friendly’ (I’m also moderately allergic to milk protein), and I usually make my choices based on the lists of ingredients. So I trust Monsieur Chef won’t be feeling fancy and toss in some nuts or parmesan because his team won the league last weekend. For extra points, add special notices or marks to those items containing the usual suspects – just like cereals do – ‘contains nuts’, for example.
2. Know your menu like the back of your hand
This goes for all the staff. It should seem pretty obvious, but my personal experience has left me with my trust shaken on various occasions. If a fresh-faced waiter just joined your team, and is still learning the ropes, make sure he checks back with the chef when asked about ingredients, rather than hazarding a guess. With time, though, all staff should know what goes into each plate, or know who to ask if they don’t. It’s very frustrating to ask the waiters about allergens, and be given a very unconvincing and not too-reassuring ‘no, no, don’t worry’. This isn’t some joke, thank you very much.
3. Think of allergies when adding new items to your menu
I’ve often purposely returned to restaurants who had a specific cheese-free pizza, and I can rattle off a list of local places with ‘Mark-friendly’ desserts. So if you’re conjuring up some new creation, spare a thought for the milk or nut allergy sufferers, and give them a reason to love you.
4. Keep things separate in the kitchen
If you’re making a peanut-laden item, make sure you clean the table-top and cutlery before you set about chopping up your salad. Some allergic attacks can be triggered by the tiniest amounts.
5. Know first aid
If at least one member of your staff knows basic first aid, and the phone number of the nearest hospital or clinic, you could save lives. It might impress other patrons too, but that’s a bit lower on the priority list.
If you order food:
1. Don’t be shy
I used to try and avoid asking waiters for advice on specific ingredients. It sometimes caused confusion and hassle, and the topic of conversation for the first part of dinner always ended up being my blessed allergies. But after one accident too many, I’ve learnt to do it discreetly and effectively – and every single time I order. Don’t beat around the bush – just tell them what you’re allergic too, and make sure it’s not in anything your ordered. There’s nothing better than being able to tuck in to your mouth-watering plate of delights, knowing that it’s completely safe.
2. Be adventurous, but not too adventurous.
Having an allergy doesn’t need to be a death sentence for your social life. You can still eat out, and you don’t have to stick to bread and butter. Carefully reading the menu and asking advice when ordering should allow you safe access to many of the more luxurious items on offer. But if you (or the chef) have the slightest doubt, go for something simpler. Better safe and bland than bombastic and sorry.
3. Know your allergies
It’s not always easy to determine exactly what caused your reaction, especially if it was the first time. But doing your homework should usually lead to an answer fairly soon, and if you’re still in doubt, seek medical advice. Blood tests can help determine exact allergens, but you’ll often need a list of suspects to begin with. Once an allergy is confirmed, you might want to print out a card or some form of identification to carry around in your wallet or handbag. Don’t be shy to tell your friends and family – having someone at the table who knows about your allergies can save the day.
4. Know what to do
The person who knows your symptoms best is yourself, so if you feel that nasty tingling on your tongue, or something else just doesn’t feel right, don’t plod on with the meal and hope it will go away. It usually won’t. Know who to contact, know what to do, and know what medicines to take, if that’s the case. Those with severe allergies often have to carry an adrenaline injection around, but you can also get treated at any of the local health centres (Mosta, Floriana and Paola have a doctor present 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Don’t be embarrassed – they’ll forgive you for disrupting the meal. Just get it sorted, before you deteriorate.
5. Vote with your feet
If a restaurant has well-labelled menus and attentive staff, keep it in mind for next time. If another restaurant treats you like something that fell from the sky, tell them bye. I was once treated extremely rudely when I had to rush out of a cafe in the midst of an allergic reaction, despite stopping to pay the bill. That was over five years ago, but I’ve never been back. Another restaurant added pizzas with soya mozzarella to their menu once, and I went back three times in so many weeks.
When in doubt, remember safety comes first. If one of your guests collapses during dinner, phone an ambulance as soon as possible. And if you start feeling any unusual symptoms whilst eating out, tell the person next to you, and stop eating.
Most importantly, don’t let allergies spoil your fun. As mentioned above, whatever you’re allergic to, there are alternatives. It might take some snooping around to find the right restaurant and menu for you, but with so many options nowadays, you’re sure to find something. Once you’ve started your own list of safe places and specialities, sit back, relax, and savour every mouthful.
Guest post by Mark Camilleri.