Teachable Moments in Food Allergic Life

I spent the previous weekend in sunny California at the FARE National Food Allergy Conference. I met tons of great people – adults with food allergies, parents of food allergic kids, FARE staff, business owners, scientists, and others with a connection to the food allergy world. I also ate out a lot – and eating out with a crowd of food allergy-aware people leads to lots of teachable moments! 

I want to share one of these teachable moments with you in this blog post. The anthropologist in me would also call this a prime “ethnographic moment”: an episode where the values, rituals, practices, social interactions, and engagements with material objects important to a given community are brought into relief. Such moments are useful to food allergy activists and advocates for demonstrating how straightforward it can be to accommodate people with food allergies. For an anthropologist, these moments reveal how people navigate competing social facts, social expectations, and roles in real time. The are the raw data that we anthropologists use in our work.

37 Allergens at One Table

One dining experience sticks out in particular. On Friday evening, just before the conference officially got under way with a series of support group meetings, I met up with two friends who are, like myself, adults with food allergies. We had a little over two hours to go to a different neighborhood, choose a restaurant that could accommodate all of us, order, eat, and return to the conference site. After taking a car service to a neighborhood my companions were familiar with, we walked up and down a dense commercial stretch for fifteen minutes, discussing everything form our professional pasts to our hunger levels and restaurant preferences at that moment. One of use was familiar with the restaurants in the neighborhood and steered the group toward an old favorite.

It was early enough that the restaurant was largely empty – a good sign for food allergic diners. Our server came over quickly and we began asking questions about the menu, ingredients, and preparation techniques. We were each concerned not only about what the different items on the menu contained, but also what they might have accidentally come in contact with. Two of us pulled out menu cards and handed them to the waitress, who asked detailed questions about the allergens highlighted on the business-card-sized pieces of paper. It turned out that she also had training as a nurse. This was a relief to our group: she expressed none of the disbelief of multiple food allergies in adulthood that many adults with allergies encounter from servers. She was respectful and concerned about how best to provide us with a safe and tasty dining experience. She left to ask the kitchen staff when she needed more information to accurately answer our questions, and led the manager to our table to clarify one point in particular. At a certain point, though, her care started to seem like too much, and the leader of our dining party gently sent her to the kitchen to get our food started.

Between her care with getting the allergens and ingredients right and her specific and detailed questioning, the group felt comfortable with her expertise. Two people joined us later on; one a health conscious yoga teacher and the other an older adult who also had health-related dietary restrictions (though not food allergies). The waitress asked and answered questions about everyone’s needs as they joined, and everyone at the table checked with each other to make sure our various dishes could safely coexist.

As the leader of our dining party bragged to other conference attendees later that weekend, our server accommodated 37 food allergies as well as a number of preferences and other restrictions in our five-person party. Everyone played their part: diners were up front with their preferences and requirements, the server asked detailed questions in a respectful way and asked her colleagues for more information when faced with a question she couldn’t answer, everyone at the table was careful to discuss and respect the space and needs of their neighbors. This episode was a model of a good dining experience with food allergies.

Interpreting an Ethnographic Moment: Purity and Danger

The human part of me walked away from the meal safe and no longer hungry. The anthropologist in me has been pondering how our back and forth with the server was about minimizing the risk of impurity posed by certain material objects and everyday practices.

Our questions were focused on understanding the movement of certain objects – allergenic foods – throughout the restaurant prep area and kitchen. Since cross-contact is an issue for people with allergies, we asked our questions to determine which meal options were appropriately “pure” for each person at the table. “Purity” wasn’t just some abstract notion; it was a real, physical attribute that foods had to have for them to be safe for the allergic people at the table. The server’s questions, as I interpret it, were meant to better understand exactly what the risk of contamination was, what substances posed that risk, and how to preempt any risky exposures to allergens.

I’ve written about purity before on this blog, inspired by anthropologist Mary Douglas’s canonical work on the topic. While Douglas writes about immaterial spiritual purity, the “purity” that food allergic people are concerned about it material, physical, solid, practical. Though it can’t always be seen with the naked eye, the purity that I write about with regards to food allergy is a physical property of foods; the wrong kind of impurities have immediate, scary, physical effects on the bodies of food allergic individuals. What is more, “purity” is different for every food allergic individual. As my readers will be well aware, this complicates the effort to keep foods clean, safe, and pure, especially if someone has multiple food allergies, or different individuals in a household have different allergies.

This is just a first pass at interpreting this moment. It fits into a larger piece of my work that is concerned with how food production and preparation methods must often be rethought when one is preparing food that must be free from allergens. It’s a piece of my work that I’m very excited about, in no small part because it’s a way to write about allergies and food – and I love thinking about food!

What do you think about this angle on cross-contamination? How does our experience eating out with multiple food allergic adults compare to your own?

1 Comment

  1. Excellent piece Danya! I am sooo pleased with your work..you will never know. Cross contact is an issue that is very deep and intense. It's starts with the grower and manufacturer of a simple ingredient. Then it grows to the actually process of transporting the ingredient, packaging, label and selling it to a restaurant. Then, in the restaurant, the process of ordering, receiving and storing have a role in keeping that ingredient “pure”. Next up, the actually preparing of and serving of the food. I mention serving since a well intentioned waiter might believe slivered almonds were accidentally left off of a dish and they might add some on! Often waiters are part of the food process, beyond serving. I'm impressed with your food server and can't imagine that they did not pop a gray a hair or two.

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