Monday, May 4, 2009

Achoo and Worse

If you suffer from an allergy, I'm sure you take great pains to avoid whatever it is that triggers a reaction. And, with most allergens, once they're identified, that's pretty easy to do. If you have a food allergy, however, and you like to dine out, it isn't always easy. Some things, like MSG, show up in any number of pre-prepared canned and bottled foods, often under different names. And, since the owners of restaurants that use a lot of these products don't really know what's in them, asking does no good.

Many of the well-known national chains use food that's pre-prepared in corporate-owned commissaries, then shipped in plastic bags to individual restaurant locations. They save money by preparing food in large portions, and they only need a line cook, not a chef, to reheat the items before they're served. And it offers consistency. Eat at a Jack's Spaghetti House in Denver, and the food will be exactly the same as if you ate at the same restaurant in Memphis. I'm sure somebody knows exactly what ingredients are in these dishes, and perhaps it's even written down somewhere in the local stores, but I'm not sure who takes the time to look at it.

So, depending on the severity of your allergy, eating out can be a bit like playing Russian roulette. Years ago I knew someone who was highly allergic to mushrooms. She was dining at a high-end restaurant in Denver, and asked her waiter whether a specific dish contained mushrooms. Based on his insistence that it didn't, she ordered the dish and, after one bite, knew she was in trouble. The waiter still insisted the dish didn't contain mushrooms, though he admitted there were chantrelles in it.

The good news is that, these days, operators are more sensitive to people's allergies, and try to include the more common allergens in menu descriptions. After all, no one wants to be responsible for sending a diner to the hospital or worse. While the ultimate responsibility is yours, there are some things you can do to hedge your bets. First, you're better off dining at an independent restaurant where they know what's in the food. Second, don't rely on your waiter for help. Ask to see the chef, and seek his advice.

Finally, get to know which foods typically contain what you're allergic to. As mentioned above, if you can't handle MSG, stay away from Asian restaurants. Even if they say "No MSG," there's a good chance it's in the ingredients they use. If peanuts are on your list of no-no's, avoid Thai food which often contains them. A Caesar salad many times is made with anchovies. Eggs can be found in the toppings on fancy coffee drinks. And always remember, when in doubt, ask someone who is likely to know.