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Bella English

With food allergies on the rise, dining out is a puzzle

On a recent night, we took our son and daughter out to dinner in Washington, D.C., where they both worked this summer. We let them bring along some friends, and we all settled at a table in an Italian restaurant my daughter had chosen.

It was a small place, and the waiter, an older Italian gentleman, was busy. His English wasn’t great. We took a few minutes perusing the menu, which was your standard fare. I ordered the eggplant parmesan, my husband ordered chicken parm, my son a pizza, and daughter something called Pasta Jambalaya.

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Then the fun began. My daughter’s friend is a vegan. She had her eye on a pasta dish, but had some questions for the waiter. Did the pasta have any egg in it? Could she get gluten-free pasta? The waiter nodded a quick yes (but to which question?).

She had another question: Is there any cream in the sauce? Our waiter pointed to a few items on the menu, and she ordered pasta primavera.

My son is the picky eater in the family, and Megan had chosen this restaurant because it had pizza, one of the few things he’ll cheerfully eat. But Nick didn’t want “whole chunks or big slices of tomato” on it, he told the waiter, who by this time was rolling his eyes while scribbling.

Nick comes by his tomato funk honestly. I love tomato sauce, tomato paste, sundried tomatoes, and tomato soup — creamy, never ever chunky. But I despise a real tomato, slimy and seedy and nasty.

Last spring, Nick did a semester abroad in France, and called home with a problem: “Mom, I can’t find anything to eat here.” When I finally stopped laughing, he told me that he was existing on baguettes. He finally found an Italian restaurant that served pizza.

At our Italian restaurant in D.C., Nick’s friend told our poor waiter he was lactose-intolerant. He couldn’t get pizza with cheese on it, but after consulting the menu, and the waiter, he found a pasta he could live with. Meanwhile, Nick ate about half his pizza, picking out the offensive tomato slices.

At the end of the meal, the waiter, sure that he had found a dessert that would please our table, announced: “We have tofu ice cream for dessert!” Even the lactose-intolerant in our party passed on that one.

The next morning, we met Megan and a friend for breakfast. The menus came, and we began to order the usual: bacon, eggs, toast, pancakes. Her friend ordered a big fruit salad. Was that all she wanted? “I eat only gluten-free,” she responded, explaining that she has celiac disease.

When we got home, I called Dr. Larry Cohan, the best pediatrician known to mankind (he captured my son’s heart years ago with his unparalleled armpit sounds). Cohan, who has practices in Braintree and Boston, said that about 20 percent of his patients have some sort of food allergy, half severe and half milder.

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, allergic reactions can range from the mild, such as rashes, hives, itches, and swelling, to the severe — trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, and in some cases, death.

Food allergies in children have risen by nearly 20 percent in the past decade, now affecting about 5 percent of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers don’t have a clear answer as to the causes.

“Food allergies seem to be a phenomenon of developed countries,” says Cohan. “Why that is, we don’t know.” Peanut allergies are virtually unknown in Third World countries, he says.

“One of the leading supplements for malnourished kids is Plumpy’nut,” he says — a peanut-based paste full of calories and vitamins. Indeed, it has been credited with lowering mortality rates during African famines.

But in this country, some schools have eliminated peanuts and all of their byproducts, and many restaurants train their servers to ask diners immediately if they have any food allergies. At Legal Sea Foods, president and CEO Roger Berkowitz takes food allergies very seriously.

“I remember years ago, if you got two peanut allergies a week, it was something,” he says. “Now, it’s 30-odd every day. It’s at epidemic level.” The wait staff is trained in how to deal with allergies, and in ingredient selections. Either the chef or manager delivers the food to the table, so the diners know that it was handled by someone in management aware of the allergy.

The most common issue at Legal is for those with celiac disease, who are allergic to the protein gluten found in wheat, rye, and barley. Legal, with south-of-Boston locations in Braintree and Dedham, has a “Wheat and Gluten Sensitive Menu,” from appetizers to dessert. A note informs diners that all seafood and meat are cooked with gluten-free crumbs or fried in brown rice flour and cornmeal. “All cookware and plateware will be pre-washed and wiped dry before cooking and presentation,” it states.

Does anyone remember the days when you’d go into a restaurant and the only choice you had to make was well done, medium, or rare? Scrambled or over-easy?

Cohan and his wife had a couple over to dinner not long ago. The man told them he was violently allergic to peanuts. Cohan ordered a cake from a boutique bakery, which assured him that it was not only nut-free, but the pans had been washed twice before baking.

Dinner proceeded, and Cohan presented the dessert, a scrumptious, and expensive, chocolate cake, explaining how carefully it had been prepared to avoid nuts. The guest’s reaction? “I don’t like chocolate.”

I myself do admit to one allergy: people like that.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.
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