Ever since I was a kid, I have struggled with severe food allergies. I was originally diagnosed as anaphylactic to milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, and peanuts, peanuts being the most severe. Fortunately, I was able to outgrow my allergies to milk, egg, and fish. I will never forget that moment when I was first tested for milk. The doctor sat me on the table, pulled out a tub of Breyer’s homemade vanilla ice cream, scooped the tiniest little bit onto a spoon, and fed it to me. As a kid I was terrified. My entire life I had been told that eating ice cream was a one way ticket to a needle in my leg and a trip to the hospital, but here I was about to put all of that to the test. When the ice cream hit my tongue, I was shocked. THAT was what ice cream tasted like? That’s frickin’ awesome! From that point on the world of food opened up to me. To this day, I believe that my food restrictions have allowed me to truly appreciate what I can eat. I will never say no to something if I know I can have it. While dining with allergies may be a challenging experience, it can be equally as rewarding.
To many people who suffer from food allergies, traveling can be a daunting experience, as immersing one’s self in a culture often means trying exotic and unfamiliar foods. To someone who has to be hyper-aware of their diet, this can be very challenging–especially if you are someone like me, who would react to the slightest bit of cross-contamination. I’ve found that with few exceptions (*cough* Chic-fil-A) restaurants in the United States are quite good at dealing with allergies. I’ve seen a lot of improvement since I was younger, especially in regards to peanut allergies. However, food allergies are much less common outside the U.S., and I’ve found that not everyone is aware of allergies or is comfortable preparing allergy-friendly meals. Nevertheless, even with food allergies, going out can still be a wonderful experience full of opportunities to try new and exciting foods.
The first thing to keep in mind when going out is that it’s imperative that you know how to communicate an allergy, especially when speaking a foreign language. For example, when I was traveling in Colombia, I used the words nueces to mean nuts and maní to mean peanuts. However, I learned that in Spain nueces means specifically walnuts, and although maní still means peanuts, it is an antiquated term. In Spain, they use the terms frutos secos for nuts (not to be confused with fruta seca which means dried fruit) and cacahuetes for peanuts. Learning all of this terminology requires that you ask a lot of questions, and at times you may have to pester your waiters a bit. It can get confusing and a bit stressful, as no one likes to be known as that guy with the allergies, but as my mom always told me, rather safe than sorry. A huge upside of all the allergy talk is that it really helps to develop language acquisition skills. It forces you to communicate yourself effectively and understand completely. By talking about your allergies, you learn how to speak around words you don’t yet know, learn new terminology, and have back-and-forth conversations. It doesn’t all happen at once, but I was surprised with how quickly I was able to hold conversations.
Traveling with food allergies can be hard, but it’s no reason not to enjoy yourself. After all, a restaurant’s worst nightmare is that their food gets someone sick or worse. Everywhere I’ve been in Madrid has been largely accommodating. And yes, it’s true that sometimes you have to skip out on the paella for bland grilled chicken, but it’s a lot better than nothing! Of all the reasons not to travel, never let food stand in the way.