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Betsy Cotton has a certain issue with Italian food. “Every time I eat garlic, I get a bad stomachache and don’t feel well,” she explains.
A few years ago, the Thomas Circle resident went to a Maggiano’s in her hometown of Troy, Mich. “As we were ordering, I expressed to the waitress, ‘You know, do you have anything that’s not that garlicky or has no garlic in it?’ She immediately looked at me, and said ‘Oh, is this an allergy?’ For convenience’s sake, I said yes.”
The fretting waitress rushed back into the kitchen and sent out the chef. He came to the table and explained that there was a lot of garlic on the counters: If it got near her food, would that be OK?
What a bind: If she’d answered yes, Cotton would have all but admitted that she wasn’t actually allergic. If she’d answered that, no garlic could be within an angel hair of her food, she’d have thrown the kitchen into a tumult just to cater to her “allergy.”
For the ingredient-averse, a dinner out can be a horrible experience. If they consume something that torments their taste buds, their meal will be ruined. So they learn to adapt.
And while chefs and servers know that particular ingredients are unlikely allergens, they don’t dare call out their patrons—that would be discourteous and unprofessional. They have to take allergy requests seriously. So pretty much anyone can claim to be allergic to anything and, problem solved, the ingredient is removed!
But just because the kitchen staff doesn’t object doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s going on.
“When people fake disease, it’s just like people who fake to get handicap plates,” says Jeff Black of Black Restaurant Group, which owns BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant in the Palisades and several other establishments in Maryland. “I view it as the same thing. It’s ethically and morally wrong. There are people that need those parking spots. There are people that have real dietary restrictions.”
Black recalls one woman who came into his Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda and ordered a crab cake sandwich, which came with mustard on the bun. When the waiter brought the dish out, the diner said she was allergic to mustard and asked if she could just have a plain bun.
Well, explains Black, the crab cake patty also had a grainy mustard in the mix. So the server came out with a menu and offered to take a new order, at which point the woman said, “Oh, I’m not really allergic.”
“All she had to say was ‘I don’t want mustard,’” says Black, who notes that the condiment was mentioned in the menu.
“It’s just discouraging when you have that stuff,” says Black, whose son is diabetic.
His advice: Just be an adult, explain what you want, and his cooks will make adjustments. “Don’t play games. And don’t lie,” he says. “I’m expected as a business owner to have a certain amount of integrity. If I say something is going to be a certain way, it’s going to be a certain way—and you hold me to it. It should cut both ways.”
Regardless, restaurants have to treat any claimed allergies very seriously. Over the summer, I requested an interview with Joe Raffa, head chef at Oyamel, part of Jose Andres’ THINKfoodGROUP. I received this response from company spokesperson Laura Trevino:
“Food allergies are very serious stuff so at THINKfoodGROUP we developed a series of menus to better accommodate our guests with special dietary needs. For us it is simply part of hospitality.”
My request was denied. But Trevino forwarded two of the special menus. One was for the Latin dim sum brunch at Café Atlantico in Penn Quarter. Here’s one dish:
<9.000000>Pineapple shavings with plantain powder and tamarind oil…$2.00
Really? No seafood in the pineapple shavings?
Over at Vidalia, near Dupont Circle, Chef R.J. Cooper sees allergies, fake or real, as just part of the job.
“If I have a guest that walks in the restaurant, I’ll do whatever I can to make that guest happy. Any kind of allergies, any kind of modification,” he says. Cooper says the best thing a patron can do is call beforehand. The more time the kitchen has to prepare, the better it can make adjustments and write up a new menu, often with multiple dishes.
“The strangest allergies I’ve ever heard of, I’ve heard here,” says Cooper. Chicken. Pepper. People who are allergic to onions come to a restaurant named Vidalia.
But Cooper counsels servers to walk customers through their orders, making sure they know what they’re getting. Sometimes Cooper will come out of the kitchen to help.
“You don’t want any miscommunication between the guest and the server and myself,” he says.
Communication can also be difficult for people whose aversions go beyond being finicky to full-blown phobias.
Dupont Circle resident Katie Campbell, 25, was repulsed by citrus for years based on an incident that happened when she was 5 years old. She began choking on an orange—a “nice healthy snack” provided by a friend’s mother—then ran into a bathroom alone to gag.
“It was the middle parts, the white pulpy part in the middle,” that gave her trouble, she says.
For the next 15 or so years, Campbell claimed to be allergic to all citrus fruit.
“I had no problems with the taste, but I just was afraid of them,” she says, later adding she “didn’t mind orange-flavored candy.”
For years growing up, her family rarely ate oranges anyway. “We were more of a banana family,” explains Campbell, who grew up outside of Detroit. Then, during her middle-school years, her father “discovered” mandarin oranges and put them on dinner salad most nights. Time and again, Campbell had to defend her fake allergy.
When she was 22, Campbell attempted citrus again, and decided, meh, it’s not so bad. She says she still doesn’t eat oranges very often because they’re quite messy. But the citrus-shunning chapter of her life is over.
As for the garlic-hating Cotton, she bluffed her way through the Maggiano’s meal. The chef ended up customizing a dish for her: pasta with white wine sauce and “parsley or something. Boring,” recalls Cotton.
These days, Cotton chooses her words more wisely. “I do sometimes say, especially if I’m at Italian restaurants: ‘What has the least garlic in it?’”
During that meal at Maggiano’s, Cotton says she never considered simply admitting the truth. “At that point, I was too ashamed. If I had said it wasn’t a real allergy, they would have hated me,” she says. “But it did teach me not to do that again.”