Speed Reads

Blame Oprah

Allergies are serious business. Don't lie to your waiter about your gluten, food tolerance.

If you don't have life-threatening physical reactions to gluten, garlic, dairy, peppers, or other ingredients, do not lie to your waiter and say you are allergic to them, says Neil Swidey at Boston Globe Magazine. "By all means, ask if your dish can be prepared garlic-free or cauliflower-free or gluten-free," he adds. "You're paying good money, so you should get the meal that you want.... But for the love of Julia Child... please, please stop describing your food preferences as an allergy. That is a very specific medical term, and invoking it triggers an elaborate, time-consuming protocol in any self-respecting kitchen."

People with serious allergies, including celiac disease (which isn't technically an allergy), have toiled for decades to get restaurants and other food handlers to take their allergies seriously, and lying about your allergies — whether it's because you don't like an ingredient, or you've incorrectly self-diagnosed, or you like the attention — sets those efforts back, Swidey says. He explains:

Every time the cooks see the word "allergy," they have to assume the customer's condition is life-threatening. The big danger is cross contamination, where an allergen is inadvertently transferred from one dish to another, often through a shared cutting board or utensil, or through the oil in the fryer, or even food dust in the air. That means with every allergy, the action must stop in this kitchen jammed with cooks and dishwashers. The cooks consult a printed breakdown of ingredients in each dish to make sure the allergen isn't hiding out in a component. They either grab new cutting boards, knives, and tongs or put theirs through the sanitizing dishwasher. And when the plate is done, they use disposable wipes to hold it by the edge. Imagine doing that repeatedly across a breathless night, disrupting the choreography of the kitchen each time. [Swidey, Globe Magazine]

The fear is that chefs, waiters, and cooks are getting resentful at the customers who claim false allergies, and they'll start cutting corners on customers will real allergies. "Imagine that a diner whose 'serious dairy allergy' required you to take all those time-consuming steps decides to finish her meal by ordering ice cream, telling her server that it's okay if she 'cheats a little'," Swidey says, adding that this happens all the time. Just tell your waiter you are not eating gluten or avoiding dairy or whatever, and the cooking staff will happily leave those ingredients out.

Swidey spends a lot of time discussing gluten, the elephant in the room, and in the video below, Dr. Alessio Fasano — who brought awareness of gluten intolerance to the U.S. by diagnosing the nation's first cases of celiac disease in the 1990s — explains how his work with celiac spawned a monster, that he believes most people's bodies can handle gluten just fine, and how he eats gluten himself. Read Swidey's report at Globe Magazine, and watch his brief, slightly opinionated history of gluten below. Peter Weber