Believe it or not, people ask me questions. Usually, they’re these:
Who runs this blog?
Why’d you start this blog?
For attention. No.
Because most food allergy blogs and websites are either (a) like 80% recipes, (b) terribly written, (c) aimed exclusively at mothers, (d) focused on the issues that surround food allergies, rather than on food itself, (e) focused on other allergies, (f) based in other cities, or (g) terribly written.
That’s my real answer, but my realer answer is that I’ve had a lot of trouble finding resources that do what I want them to (which is putting me in touch with allergy-friendly dining options in my general area). There are some, sure—but nothing anywhere near as thorough as I’d like, so I decided to try to fill that gap. Now I spend my days collecting and sometimes writing about all the nut-free and nut-free-ish eateries I can get my hands on.
What are you allergic to?
Tree nuts. Only tree nuts.
How about peanuts?
Nope. Fine with peanuts.
But I’m allergic to peanuts and I want to use this blog as a resource.
Go ahead. Most (but not all!) of the tree nut–free restaurants and products I write about are peanut-free, too. I try to be clear about what is and isn’t peanut-free, but if you can’t find that information in one of my posts, or if you’re wondering about a restaurant or brand on one of my lists (where there’s a lot less detail involved), feel free to ask via comment or message.
Why do you even bother with eating out? Isn’t it more effort than it’s worth?
No. I really like food, and I can’t (yet) cook to my own standards. Also, I used to be really phobic about eating out (like, actually phobic—well beyond a reasonable level of fear/anxiety) until I started facing the fear on a regular basis. I’m way better now. But eating out a lot has sort of become like a super-fun version of self-administered exposure therapy for me. It’s a sweet deal.
You suck / Why do you use so many em dashes? / Why do you always shoot with such a ridiculously shallow depth of field? / For a “food blogger,” you really suck at describing the specifics of flavor and texture.
You answered your own question with the first bit there, I think. Also, that last one wasn’t a question. (Also-also, I think the above problems are all improving with time. Slowly.)
You often mention that the lack of a “may contain” warning doesn’t mean a product is necessarily safe. Why not?
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 requires companies to label clearly for the presence of major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans). In this context, labeling clearly means one of two things: listing the allergen at the end of the ingredient list [i.e. “Contains wheat”] or listing the allergen’s name between parentheses after whatever it’s appearing as within the list of ingredients [i.e. “Ingredients: Whey (milk)…”], should its plain name not appear elsewhere in the list.
That’s all well and good, but what FALCPA does not require is the use of any sort of advisory warnings, ever. Advisory warnings are the statements that warn consumers that a product may contain a given allergen, or that it’s made in a facility that handles a given allergen, or that there’s equipment shared between the product in question and another product that contains a given allergen. A lot of companies label for cross-contamination, but a lot don’t—which is why the lack of a “may contain” warning doesn’t really mean anything at all without some background knowledge about the company in question’s labeling policies.
Also, please note various advisory labels—the “may contain,” the “shared facility,” the “shared equipment,” and all the rest—do not necessarily mean different things. “May contain” may mean “shared facility”; it may mean “shared equipment”; it may mean “we were nervous and wanted to cover our asses.” The FDA has no regulations in place for these sorts of labels, so anything goes, really. When in doubt, your best bet is probably contacting the manufacturer. Or, you know, abstinence.
(For the nitty-gritty on FALCPA, check out this link.)
How do you figure out whether a restaurant’s going to be a good option for you without, you know, risking it?
This is actually a question I get all the time, and it’s a really good one. Here are my steps:
- I find a place I want to look into. Sometimes, people send me suggestions, but for the most part, I find restaurants just like anyone else does: by hearing/reading about them, Googling “best places to eat [dish],” or (often) by passing them on the street. This is the easy part.
- I look up the menu. If I see anything nutty, I eliminate the restaurant—unless it’s somewhere I’m really interested in (or somewhere about which I’ve heard great things from the food allergy community). Those restaurants—along with the restaurants without any apparent nuts on the menu—go onto my to-call/to-email list, which is always overwhelmingly long, no matter how many restaurants I contact.
- To restaurants with contact forms or email addresses on their websites, I send a message. It’s a cut-and-paste; the gist is that (a) I’m allergic to tree nuts, (b) I’d like to know whether there are any nuts or nut products present in the kitchen, and (c) if there are nuts present, I’d like to know whether they’re handled in such a way that cross-contamination would be a legitimate concern. Nobody ever answers all of my questions—I just hope for some degree of thoroughness.
- For restaurants without contact forms or email addresses on their websites, I just call and direct my questions at whomever picks up the phone, which sort of sucks, but whaddaya gonna do? With email, you can’t mishear “tree nut” as “peanut,” for example. Plus, whoever’s typing a response has plenty of time to double-check on the specifics of his or her answer, which goes a long way. Also, whoever’s in charge of responding to emails tends to be a little more knowledgeable/“higher up” than whoever’s taking calls, which means the emailer’s probably more likely to give me a correct answer. I’ve gotten incorrect answers via phone, but never via email. This is all totally anecdotal, of course.
- Restaurants with no nuts in the kitchen go onto a to-try list. (There are some exceptions—like sandwich places, for example. If they tell me all their bread comes with a “may contain” warning, I probably won’t add it to my list.) Restaurants with nuts in the kitchen, competent-seeming employees, and impressive allergen-control policies go onto the same list. (Most places will tell you they can accommodate your allergies, whether they can or not. I try not to trust too blindly.)
- I show up, confirm whatever it is I’ve been told with my server, and then I eat. If I’m eating something higher-risk (bread, dessert, Chinese food—anything that’s usually made with or near nutty ingredients), I’ll sometimes ask my server to double-check on the item in question and the ingredients that go into it.
- If I don’t have a reaction, I consider the outing a success. Sometimes, I blog about it.
Why do you only capitalize some dish names/capitalize after colons/spell out numbers under 10/close the spaces on either side of your ellipses/use serial commas?
Because I’ve gone mad with power. (Because I’m not a real publication so I don’t have an in-house style and so I’ve generally just tried to stick with whatever arbitrary choices I made early-on to avoid being inconsistent. So: Because I’ve gone mad with power.) Also, this question gives me way too much credit. I only wish I were that consistent.
P.S. With regard to the whole dish-name-capitalization thing, Mary Norris told me that I “have it exactly right”—conceptually, at least—but also that it’s my blog and that I should do what I want. So there.
Tell the truth: You’ve never been asked most of these questions, have you?
Only by myself. Frequently. Here, I’ll give you a real one:
With regard to restaurants:
“Truly nut-free” refers to those restaurants that are 100% nut-free. For me to consider a restaurant 100% nut-free, it needs to (a) openly identify itself as nut-free or (b) put some effort into making sure the ingredients they buy are free from cross-contamination. In an ideal world, nut-free would just mean nut-free—no nuts in the kitchen, no potential traces of nuts in the ingredients, etc.—but this isn’t an ideal world. Sometimes, nut-free just means “um, we don’t cook with nuts, and one time, someone with a nut allergy ate here”—and when a restaurant identifies itself that way, I tend to just keep that label.
I use “technically not nut-free” to refer to two different things: The first is those restaurants that happen not to have any nuts in the kitchen, but that (a) don’t identify themselves as nut-free or (b) don’t make any sort of effort to ensure their ingredients are free from cross-contamination. The second is those restaurants that do have nuts in the kitchen. (If I’m writing about them, though, odds are they’re probably pretty good at handling cross-contamination.)
With regard to brands:
If I’ve categorized a brand as “truly nut-free,” then that brand produces the product(s) in question i a nut-free facility. Often, these brands identify themselves as nut-free, and sometimes, they even require allergen statements from their vendors—but they don’t have to do either of those things in order for me to categorize them as “truly nut-free.” They just have to exclude tree nuts from their facility—whether intentionally or not.
A brand that’s “technically not nut-free” is one that has nut products present in the facility where the product in question is made. (Usually, though, if I’m writing about the brand, they’ll have some pretty decent measures in place to prevent cross-contamination.)
You eat out a lot. How often do you have allergic reactions?
Almost never. I’ve only had one since starting this blog, and it was at a decidedly nut-free bagel store. The last reaction I had before that was around five years prior, at a nut-filled café that I felt compelled to eat at regularly, for some reason. It was to a brownie that’d probably been cross-contaminated…by the nut-filled brownie next to it. Go figure.
Are you done yet?