I spent a fabulous evening on Saturday with a group of singers at our opening season potluck. Of course, for a girl with allergies, this could’ve been a complete mess. But as much as my restrictions can be annoying, corn, peanuts and legumes are generally pretty easily identifiable. For instance, a lovely spinach and ricotta lasagna probably won’t be hiding those particular culprits, but beware a pesto sauce on a pasta or pizza. Why you ask? Just think of the hilarious (aka, terrifying) moment on How I Met Your Mother when Ted feeds his then-fiancé Stella a pesto sauce that has been laced with peanuts instead of the traditional pine nuts. The engagement might have been just a bit hasty, as evidenced by Ted’s ignorance of Stella’s (theoretically) life-threatening peanut allergy. Can I say terrifying again? Speaking of, in a future post, I’ll be exploring the do’s and don’ts of dating with dietary restrictions. Watch out.
“Maybe I should have said something about that life-threatening peanut allergy earlier.” “Yeah, maybe.”
Back to the potluck. Luckily, I have a few very close friends within the group that are aware of my issues, and omit those ingredients when planning their contributions to events. I invariably bring a dessert of some kind—pumpkin bread in honor of the first day of fall!—so that I ensure that there will be a least one sweet thing I can eat! I chose to downplay my allergies though, and didn’t ask that our host or the other guests make any special accommodations for me. It’s an interesting debate–one that is getting a lot of press lately. Most prominently, this New York Times article examines the evolution of our communal eating behaviors and mores. Who is responsible for providing a safe and enjoyable experience–the host or the guest? Should the host ask guests not to include certain common allergens in their dishes, or at least label their dishes, or should the person with dietary restrictions be encouraged to bring safe dishes for his or her own consumption?
There’s no one good answer to this problem—the issue is completely context-specific. Small family function? Go ahead and omit the offending ingredient(s) so that everyone around the table can eat the same food and not feel left out. 25+ potluck with people you know only casually? Make sure you bring a dish you can eat, and prepare to refuse a lot of food if necessary (and don’t show up ravenous; you might make bad choices out of desperation). Remember, most people aren’t aware of the seriousness of cross-contamination, and it would be a mistake to think that they are.
The article suggests that “it’s becoming harder for Americans to break bread together.” It’s a romantic notion—a longing for yesteryear when we could all sit around a massive butcher block table and heartily down the common grub. I get it, but I can imagine that at least one person around that table would have been highly uncomfortable in the gastrointestinal department. The truth is, we’re becoming more aware of our body’s relationship with its environment in myriad ways and the increased awareness of potential food issues has also increased our ability to be proactive. Whether or not you announce your shellfish allergy or lactose intolerance to the world (and potluck attendees) is your choice, but the truth is that dietary restrictions are becoming ubiquitous in our society. Restrictions are only restrictive if we let them. Speak up, ask questions, and be proactive but friendly about your needs. You don’t need to send a mass email before a party warning that peanuts will kill you, and that all attendees should disinfect their countertops before making their dish. However, speaking individually with a few people may lessen the embarrassment of having to refuse dishes, and may result in a few more safe dishes at the next potluck.
Ultimately, I was quite lucky this time. I was able to ask about ingredients in a few dishes, but almost everything on the table was corn and legume-free, and there literally wasn’t a peanut in sight! I’m also happy to report that someone was quite skilled with a cheese plate…I’m not sure it would be prudent for me to share how much brie I consumed that evening…