Dining Out With Food Allergies

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Photo by silverfox09/Flickr CC


I suffer from a life-threatening allergy to tree nuts, a condition that lies somewhere between inconvenient and debilitating. I can happily eat peanuts on airplanes or Beijing restaurants. My mother stocked my grade-school classrooms with Kit-Kat bars to eat during my schoolmate's birthday parties, earning me the frequent jealousy of my peers. I've learned to demonstrate proper Epi-Pen use to dates and supervisors with aplomb.

But your relationship to your dinner changes when it can kill you. In a burst of post-college optimism, I went in for allergy testing more than a year ago, vaguely hopeful that I might be one of the 9 percent of people who outgrow tree-nut allergies. I walked out of my allergist's office several hours later with an ugly garden of welts sprouting on my inner arms, and my allergist said my reactions were some of the worst she'd ever seen. They lingered for days, a sad reminder of my dashed optimism, not to mention reminders of the other unattractive features of anaphylaxis: throat sealed shut, flooded lungs, blood wandering out of veins and arteries.

Even when a server assures me that she's 100 percent certain my dessert is not going to suffocate me, I still count to ten as I breathe in after swallowing my first bite.

As a result, some of my strongest memories of food are colored by longing and by fear: gazing at the brightly colored cookies that I was not allowed to eat in an Italian pastry shop the morning after my younger sister was born; glumly stuffing a loaf of bread into my mouth in Mexico after eating a piece of cake I hadn't checked carefully for nuts in an attempt to flood my system with something other than allergens. Every time I go out for a meal, I'm aware that a restaurant may refuse to serve me. A server may not really know what goes into a dish he's assured me is safe. A chef may be outsourcing dessert and unclear on the chain of ingredients. People have been less than truthful with me about what food contains or about how carefully they've questioned the chef in order to move checks, and me, along. I don't blame them. But even when a server assures me that she's now 100 percent certain my potential dessert is not going to suffocate me, I still count to ten as I breathe in after swallowing my first bite.

And so I was pleasantly surprised earlier this month when the staff of B & B Ristorante, one of Mario Batali's three Las Vegas outposts, did what no restaurant has been able to do: convinced me to trust them. Perhaps it was the moment when Marco, my server, started going through the menu with me to point out what "we" could and couldn't eat, and demonstrated an easy familiarity with what went into everything--even the Montepulciano he poured as he went over the menu.

It helped that the food was terrific. Panko-crusted rabbit leg dusted with horseradish and served with greens, and halibut on a bed of wine-stewed greens were two dishes that balanced salty and bitter flavors so carefully that B&B could hold the best seder in Vegas. And after spending a week in Rome eating my way through gelaterias, I can say with confidence that the restaurant's blend of cream and berries into a plain gelato can stand against San Crispino's divine honey flavor. But I was able to concentrate so closely on my meal because, for an hour and a half, I was able to suspend my worries that there might have been a miscommunication or an accident somewhere along the way. Like a normal human being presented with beautiful food, I could just eat.

I found out their secrets. They're secrets other restaurants can and should follow. Look for them here next Tuesday.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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