Restaurant Conduct Addendum

Last Thursday, I discussed a few cases of bad restaurant behavior regarding food allergies and preferences (How Not to Conduct Yourself at a Restaurant). I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on a few things.

20% treat or painful disaster?

I’m in the middle of reading Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body, Primal Mind, and last night I came to a section that spoke in detail about food sensitivities and how many individuals have to undertake an elimination diet to “heal” their digestive systems and reverse the damage done through years of eating the offending foods.

The urgency with which Gedgaudas talks about this made me realize that the card-carrying offender may be doing just that—eliminating foods for many months to see what the effects are. According to Gedgaudas, the elimination has to be absolute, as in, not even a molecule of gluten/casein/whatever-you’re-avoiding.

So let me say that I understand and support this effort. I didn’t come to this way of eating for those purposes, at least not directly. I have inadvertently enjoyed some improvements in several non-weight-loss-related areas (anxiety, acne, joint pain, digestive issues). For me they were sugar-free icing on a flourless cake, but I can appreciate how someone may be into Paleo eating to directly address these sorts of issues, or worse (autoimmune diseases, depression, food sensitivities).

There are a few places I draw the line though:

  1. Expecting the rest of the world to accommodate me because I’m “special”. As mentioned in a previous restaurant post (here), I’ve worked food service. These people drove me nuts. There were the minor tinkerers and then there were the I-will-use-every-component-piece-on-the-menu-to-make-my-own-creation-but-if-it’s-not-done-to-my-specifications-I-will-return-it. At some point, it turns into a big curiosity: “Why are you here?” If your dietary concerns are such that you risk a serious derailment or—banish the thought—death, you should probably write off restaurants all together. When you look at the chaos of the food industry and how restaurants actually function, you realize pretty quick that ANY trip to a restaurant will fall squarely in your 20% off-plan margin. If you are truly interested in food quality and control, you’d better take the time to cozy up to a chef or two, discuss their kitchen practices with them, and then expect to pay out the nose for the privilege. You’ll never get anything out of Chipotle that is 100% clear of SAD nasties. Sorry. Honestly, the best thing we can do is stop feeding money into that system in the first place.
  2. Lying about my dietary preferences. I will never call them “life-threatening” or an “allergy”. An allergy is a specific medical designation (click here for more). For example, lactose intolerance is not an allergy, but reacting to the urushiol in poison ivy, oak, or sumac is an allergy. I’m perhaps a bit sensitive to this because my husband sees this sort of unfounded definition escalation in the emergency room all the time. Patients mistakenly believe that it will cause everyone to take them more seriously and perhaps treat them faster, even if it doesn’t make sense in the real world. Trust me, I’m just as frustrated about the state of our dominant food paradigm and I wish restaurants and the servers who work in them were more educated about this stuff. But until that happens, we can all help by not exaggerating our issues and by working around them as politely and respectfully as possible.

And I’m just not sure about this card (see here). I see how it could be helpful for a kitchen to reference, especially if you don’t want to rely on the server to relay the message correctly. But a part of me just feels that it’s asking too much of a privately owned business that is running on thin profit margins in the first place. As much as the industry will have to begin reckoning with guests with allergies and intolerances, it is impossible for a restaurant to anticipate every possible offender. I have a friend who had a serious reaction after eating at a restaurant, serious enough to require steroid treatment and she was sick for several days after. After talking with the restaurant, the only possible vector was that the bread may have been baked immediately after some shrimp. What’s the lesson to be learned here? Does my friend have to ask how and when shellfish are dealt with in the kitchen? Does the kitchen stop baking bread after shrimp? It just gets crazy.

As disappointing as it is for me, I completely understand why some restaurants are putting their foot down on any special requests. They have to draw a line somewhere. I mean, just imagine the list of possible requests: kosher, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, halal, sugar-free, sustainable, local, seasonal, dairy-free…it’s mind boggling. What would a restaurant serve that tried to please everyone? Water. And even then, it would probably have to be captured rainwater spun to produce the proper charge. (I’m not even kidding. My friends own a home where the previous owners installed an expensive German system to do just this because they didn’t like the public water supply.)

I think this is a fascinating ethical question for our eating community, especially because it so clearly divides the community into those who do this for weight loss or performance and those who have health concerns. Many of us have the luxury (or at least, so we think) of being able to “cheat” while others can’t even think about it. Hmm…sounds like a perfect opportunity for a poll!

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