Saturday, July 25, 2009

What Do You Think This Is, A Restaurant?

Back in my salad days of waitressing, I came across a curious specimen time and time again. No, it wasn't rats scurrying around behind the chest freezer, and it wasn't black tar heroin in the basement. (I only encountered heroin the one time, notable as it was.) It was a type of woman, usually in her forties, who had recently decided to be allergic to just about everything, thus making my job as the person taking her food order a bloody nightmare.

I understand food allergies. I have dear friends who are allergic to a variety of comestibles. One of my pals gets what he describes as a "buzzing" in the middle of his forehead if he eats shellfish - usually right before he throws up. Lactose intolerance, nut allergies, reactions to sulphites and red dye number six...there's a variety of foods that are untouchable. Allergies are fairly straightforward: you eat it, and your body goes into hyper-vigilant G.I. Joe mode against enzymes and proteins in the food, creating a battle zone that can be hard to, you know, survive. Food goes in, bad stuff goes down.

There's another breed of folks, however, and their numbers are swelling. These are ladies who need stevia for their coffee because sugar makes them bloat. Women who can't eat a cupcake but will guzzle soy sauce by the gallon. The women - and for some reason, they are usually women - who have developed some sort of finicky food thing and need to be taken care of in a highly intricate way.

Now, I'm not doubting that these people have food sensitivities, and I'm not even questioning their suspect belief that the foods they've been eating all their lives, ingredients that are in everything, have given them deep physical and (probably) psychological damage. Guts get hurt. Furthermore, not every sensitivity is apparent or even present in childhood. For example, I avoid wheat in large amounts. Why? Because when I was fourteen, I took nuclear-grade antibiotics to wipe out whooping cough and completely stripped my gut of healthy bacteria. Now when I eat foods that are difficult to digest, they end up riping me apart.

So, there's a lot unnecessary of information. Sorry. My point is, I understand some of the special requests that happens. My usual rule of thumb is, if it needs an EpiPen, it's the real deal. People who have that level of allergy are pretty good at not freaking out the wait staff: if you're allergic to peanuts, chance are you don't hang out in a lot of Thai restaurants.

However. The other people - the "I don't eat wheat, so can I get the sandwich as a soup?" people - need to stop dining out. Menus are there for a reason. The kitchen is a busy place, and if I go back to my ESL line cook during a Sunday brunch rush and tell him that I need a grilled cheese with substitutions for the cheese and the bread (the butter can stay), the best I'm going to get is a blank look.

If a person knows they can't eat dairy, why order the crème brulee? Many menu items are not created from scratch as customers order them - sorry, but we didn't just whip up the risotto as you were sitting down. It becomes next to impossible to substitute, and irate glares when I say that the hamburger has meat in it aren't helping. You want vegetarian fare, go eat at Vegetarian Haven.

This goes hand in hand with my deeply ingrained suspicion of fake food. Not junk food, per se. I have a deep appreciation for the intense pleasure only a Big Mac can create. The kind of food that is masquerading as something else. Faux-mayonnaise, fake meat, artificial crab, Kraft Dinner without wheat or dairy, and salt without salt in it. That ain't right. It's the kind of chicanery that is often lauded in vegetarian and hippie-dippy joints: "Their chickpea patty with melted asparagus on sprouted spelt bread tasted so much like a cheeseburger!"

Amazing. You know what else tastes like a cheeseburger? A fucking cheeseburger.

The replacement food is never as delicious as the item its pretending to be. It's like a slow child attempting chaos theory: points for trying, but it's not the same. My policy is this: if there is something that you want to eat, then eat it. If it's going to kill you or make you have the runs for a week, then don't eat it. If there's a way to make it as tasty without the problematic ingredient, then by all means, go for it. There are plenty of exceptional flourless brownies in the world. On the other hand, if you're consuming a food that is not as tasty, or comes stuffed with gross chemicals, it might be time to retire it altogether. Have you ever investigated what fake chicken is made of? Real chicken has one ingredient. It's made of chicken.

People shouldn't be so wrapped up in food, but we are. Instead of making it about feng shui or science or whatever, it would be nice if we enjoyed what we eat. Vegetarian? I hope it's because you really, really love vegetables. Avoid wheat? Me too! I generally don't meet folks for bagels. Deathly allergic to scallops? Okay, first of all, that's awful because scallops are delicious. And you might want to give the waitress a heads-up: she can tell you that the soup stock is made from shellfish and avoid that pesky 911 call. Trying to patronize Big Tony's House of Lobster, on the other hand, is just not making good choices.

There is a psychological aspect to dining in a 'straunt. People want to feel cared for. Sometimes, people want to feel coddled and hand-fed. Unfortunately, tasty food means lots of customers, and servers don't always have time to build your meal from scratch. Apologies all around. Ladies: start drinking your coffee with sugar in it. Or...don't order coffee? I know I'm just a lowly waitress, and the Customer Is Always Right, but in this case, you're being a right pain in my butt.


  1. My son has a severe peanut allergy, the sort of thing that makes him swell up if he sits at a restaurant table that wasn't cleaned properly (even if it looks clean). We carry an EpiPen and Benadryl, and we never let our guards down. And, uh, we don't order anything with peanuts in it, or even go to restaurants that serve a lot of peanuts.

    It's not up to the SERVER to create a totally new meal for him; it's up to us as his parents to make sure we don't order the sundae with peanuts. Geez.

    Sorry those people are such jerks.

  2. I absolutely agree. There are people who are aware and careful and good at assessing risk - as I assume your family is.

    There are also a lot of people who go into a restaurant and try to come up with a totally new and on-the-spot variance on "cake" that doesn't include eggs, milk or wheat, all because of a preference. Those are the people I'm ragging on, not the folks who are legitimately careful about a serious food allergy.

  3. Yeah, in case I wasn't clear, I'm frustrated with the finicky folks who have taken advantage of the good faith that is extended to people with serious allergies, not with you. :)