Sometimes, Everything is Poison

The experience of social dining is totally strange for someone with severe food allergies.  I mean, I guess I don’t quite know what the average dining experience is like, though in the years my allergies were less severe, I think I got a bit of a taste for it.  Sure, I kept my plate separate from that of my friends, and I was always wary of leafy greens, but now that so many foods are possible cross contaminators, I’m even more aware of the strangeness of the social dining experience.

People tend to bond over mealtimes.  I don’t know if this a thousand percent true in all cultures, but in Jewish culture and American culture and Hollywood culture, it’s totally the norm to have meals or meet for dinner or grab lunch/drinks.  On a typical Saturday, I tend to observe the Sabbath by attending a feast with a group of friends or family. And as you can imagine, very rarely if ever (unless I host) am I able to eat all the foods on the table.  And it occurred to me this past Saturday how utterly terrifying it is to be at a meal with multiple poisons.

The meal I attended had perfectly normal food.  A traditional stew called “cholent” comprised of buckwheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomato sauce, beef, and spices.  Bread.  Hummus.  Cashews.  Tri-color pasta salad.  All totally normal foods.  All foods with components to which I tested over a “3” on my skin test, meaning that I should do my best to avoid contact with them altogether.

I brought my own food, of course.  Chicken drumsticks with rosemary, oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, and grapeseed oil.  Quinoa.  Roasted eggplant with salt and pepper.  Green beans stir fried in cumin and turmeric.  Delicious, really.  But as I ate my food on the corner of the table delicately balanced so that it wasn’t touching any of the nearby poisons, I was terrified that something would accidentally fall in.  In fact, the previous night at Shabbat dinner, a leaf of lettuce fell onto my plate as my friend served herself some salad.  Totally normal, totally okay, and totally terrifying.  Because if my food touched that food, it would be contaminated and I’d likely get sick.  Not die, not even lose my breath (though it’s possible), but get sick, and given that I can’t really eat packaged foods, go hungry.

Dining with others is like walking on a minefield.  There are dangers everywhere, and you’re aware of them, aware enough to do your best to avoid them, but one misstep and KABOOM.  And it’s a weird minefield, because everyone else on it is totally immune to mines.  Like they have special boots or something that allow them to walk carelessly over a giant mine and JUST KEEP GOING, no harm no foul, not even flinching.  And you know that if you take one step to the right, one small tap of your toe, the bomb will go off.  And they don’t see it.  They don’t notice.  So you navigate alone.

Another friends with food allergies and I once shared some tips and tricks for communal eating with a non-allergic friend, and he found the below pretty interesting, which I found interesting because it’s completely rote for me.  And, I thought, really noticeable, so I was surprised he’d never noticed.  But I was glad to see I wasn’t the only with the below rules.

  • If you’re feeling brave enough to eat from a buffet, always take food from the center of the plate.  And preferable with a new utensil, because people are more likely to have taken from the outside and touched that food and the utensil may have touched someone’s plate.
  • Always hit the buffet before anyone else.  Discreetly, but be the first one at each item and take enough so that you don’t have to return for seconds.
  • Keep a watchful eye on everyone around you and don’t trust anyone when they say, “But I didn’t touch X.”  They didn’t consciously touch it.  But if you keep close tabs on them, you’ll notice they touch their food even if they’re using a fork and knife.  Maybe a small graze only, but a touch.
  • Look at each piece of cutlery before you use it.  Scan for dirt, dried food, etc.  People don’t always clean dishes perfectly, caterers certainly don’t, and things can fall into plasticware.  Similarly, take plates from the middle of the stack.  You don’t know what’s touched the top one.
  • When pouring a drink, try to find an unopened bottle.  An opened bottle implies someone else touched the cap.  That person also likely ate something you can’y have, and they likely touched that food.  You touch the bottle, your hands touch your food, and boom, sick.

It’s unreasonable to expect that other people are aware of what they’re touching or eating.  They see food.  People with allergies see tiny little mines ready to explode.  When the average person handles food, he or she is handling something normal and not scary and isn’t paying much attention.  The average person has no idea that there’s poison around.  The allergic person isn’t aware of anything else.

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