Are You The One With The Nut Allergy?

By guest writer Natasha Tsakiris
Illustration by Carmen Szeto 

I was four years old the first time I had a reaction to peanuts. My mother had just picked me up from daycare, where I spent the car ride home sick and vomiting. The next day she returned to ask what the children were given for snack time; the culprit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. After a trip to my doctor, followed by another to the allergist, it was confirmed: I have a peanut allergy.

Suddenly, every permission form we signed, every school trip I went on, every birthday party I attended, a mention of my peanut allergy had to be made for my safety, and the liability of others.

I remember in elementary school being one of three children, not in my class, but in the whole school, with an allergy. As the admissions office taped my school photo beside the other two students, I became branded, I was 'the one-with-the-peanut-allergy', the scarlet letter "P" for peanuts shining on my chest for all to see.

Every year after that, my allergy followed me. With each school year, my teachers would announce that no peanut products were to be brought into our classroom. While my friends and fellow classmates cared about my health, I could hear their sigh of longing for a PB&J sandwich, and see the Evil Eye stare they flashed me because I ruined lunch for them. I was mortified! Embarrassment would kill me faster than a peanut at this rate.

Contrary to the beliefs of my family and doctor, at almost twenty-seven years old, I have yet to grow out of my allergy; instead it's become worse. They say third time's a charm, and lucky for me, it was the third reaction to peanut that did me in.

I went to a coffee shop after school where I specifically remember asking for a chocolate chip cookie. The moment I took a bite, I knew something was wrong: it was in fact a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. No Prince Charming to save this Snow White, but thank goodness for doctors and drugs! That was the first -and so far only, thankfully- time I had an anaphylactic attack.

Despite the gravity of my allergy, everyone who knows me will tell you that I'm pretty lax about it, especially for someone who has cheated death. The reason is twofold: I don't want to miss out, and I don't want to be an inconvenience. While there are ways I and others can accommodate my allergy, it sometimes feels like everyone is being put out and forced to do more work on my behalf, which in turn makes me feel guilty. So when I go out to eat with friends I sometimes neglect to tell people that I have an allergy. It's not that I want to play Russian Roulette with my life, but I'm a liability for people, and who wants that on their conscious?

I obviously tell food handlers of my allergy, but it would be nice sometimes, to avoid the protocol speech I get each time I frequent a restaurant, café, bar or food establishment, I go to:

Manager/Head Chef/etc: "Are you the one with the nut allergy?"

Me, embarrassed, as my friends stare concerned: "Yes".

Manager: "While everything is made in-house, we can't guarantee that your dish or our appliances have not been in contact with nuts. How serious is your allergy?"

Me: (Deadly. I think.) "I'll be fine as long as they're no nuts in my food."

Manager: (Relief floods their face.) "Okay, good. We just have to take measures and let you know that we can't guarantee anything and if something were to happen, we are not responsible."

My friend: "Will you be fine? Do you have your EpiPen?"

Me: (Silent prayer that I won't have to use it.) "Yup."

9 times out of 10 though, restaurants will accommodate me; whether it's removing nuts from a dish, or using an allergen-free pan or board to prepare the meal, like they did at the Panera Bread on Highway 7 in Markham. I was there for a work lunch and ordered a salad. The dish had almonds, which are at the bottom of the allergy funnel for me, but to be safe, I asked them to not add them. The manager then came out with a binder to show me every ingredient in the dish. Once the dish was deemed safe for me to eat, he told the whole kitchen staff to wash their hands, change their work gloves and use fresh cutlery and appliances to make my salad.
While it was a bit embarrassing having everyone dining at Panera stare at me like I might die, it was very comforting that the staff went above and beyond to accommodate me.

Now I know what you're thinking: why not go to restaurants that are safe for people with allergies? I could, but I know my body and it's limits, and I know what and where I can eat. Yes, there's a chance that I'm putting myself at risk, but leaving my house everyday puts me in more danger than my allergy does. In short, I'm not going to stop living my life.

In 2010 The Globe and Mail released a statistic that 1 in 13 Canadians have a serious food allergies. That's a huge number, and it has only grown since in the last seven years.  With allergies so prevalent today,  you can see why restaurants are taking a major initiative to be allergy-friendly. We all need to eat, some of us just have dietary restrictions. However, food establishments still have a long way to go ensuring that every customer has a comfortable and safe experience when dining.

My allergy will always be part of my life, but I hope that feeling like an inconvenience won’t be. Maybe we’ll have as many allergy-free restaurants one day? Until then, I’m ‘the-one-with-the-nut-allergy”.