Food Allergies, Vol. 5, Issue 26

Dear Etiquetteer:

In the last five years I have developed a strange spectrum of food allergies, from celery (who knew one could even be allergic to something like celery?) to lemon juice, "tree nuts," beef (I can have dairy, just not the cow itself), and more. I read ingredient labels before I purchase anything, and have to instruct waiters very specifically when dining out (no lemon in my water, thank you, I'm allergic). I always have an epi-pen with me, inhalers, Benadryl, all the medications for emergencies.

I e-mail an updated "Foods of Death" list before any family gathering, and my sister, for example, prepared two different bowls of pasta salad for a recent celebration: one with celery and mayonnaise, and one without celery, and with Miracle Whip (no lemon juice).

But it can get awkward at casual gatherings, when I have to be very selective, and ask questions quietly. On a couple occasions, people have felt bad when I did not eat their refreshments. The worst was a barbecue gathering of people from a professional association we belong to, out in a distant state, where I ended up only able to eat one person’s pasta salad, corn chips and desserts. Hardly a nutritious day, but I explained that one day wouldn’t malnourish me for life, and I wasn’t upset. It was, however, quite awkward.

I don’t want to be a diva and demand special treatment from people (except my siblings, who say, "Well, we always knew you were weird!"), but I don’t want people to feel bad either, when they notice that I’m not eating. What’s a person to do? There’s a quandary for Etiquetteer!

Dear Allergic:

Modern medicine has created so many problems for Society! If you were just dead of undiagnosed allergies people wouldn’t have all the difficulties of feeding guests with restricted diets. On the other hand, you’d be dead, which is Entirely Unacceptable.

Etiquetteer sympathizes with you in your plight, which you seem to be handling with dignity and discretion. Etiquetteer applauds your desire not to be a diva; it never gets people very far anyway.

But Etiquetteer has to Wag an Admonitory Digit, however, at your hosts. No matter how disappointed they may be that you can’t eat what they’re serving, it’s very bad manners for them to let you see it. There’s nothing you can do about that but change the subject. If they carry on to an unacceptable level, simply say to them what you told Etiquetteer: that you don’t want to be a diva and demand special treatment, and that talking about your diet is rather boring.

Do you know what Gloria Swanson used to do? In her later years she became a strict vegetarian and what was known at the time as a "health nut." When she was invited to a dinner party she’d pack her own little sandwich or whatever in her purse and slip it to the butler when she arrived.* It would magically appear on her plate when dinner was served. Now you’ll observe that this only works in a household with servants – it’s so hard to find good help nowadays – but this would work equally well at a potluck like the one you described. Just bring your own.

You could also "head ’em off at the pass" by entertaining them in your own home with recipes that accommodate your allergies. Thinking people will put two and two together after a casual reference.

*Ethel Merman, on the other hand, was invited to a Passover seder by Jule Styne and brought a ham sandwich. Etiquetteer does notrecommend that approach.