A note from Now Find Foods:
This piece is about Anna’s personal experience and journey. We respect Anna’s creative process and we understand and empathize with her struggles. What we found compelling about this particular piece is the raw emotion and struggle that we personally and believe that many of you, have felt and experienced.
We struggled about whether or not to publish this particular story of Anna’s. Everyone has different reasons for their food restrictions, whether they be life threatening allergies, immune issues, or general health. We would never judge anyone for their choices. We decided to publish it because we felt that it was important for people to know that they were not alone.
However, we do not and would never recommend anyone eating anything that would cause any adverse reaction and possibly harm their health.
Anna’s Brunch Experiment
Sometimes I just want to feel normal. Not the new normal that I’ve gotten used to, but the kind of normal that other 24-year-old recent college graduates around me are used to. I want to wake up after a night of questionable choices and meet my friends for a big ol’ brunch at a Pinterest perfect restaurant in [insert big city here]. So, when I saw the chance to do just that this past week, I took it. I was in New York City visiting family and friends, and I resolved that I would find a way to meet them for brunch so I could have a mere taste of what I haven’t gotten to experience for years now.
Okay. It wasn’t exactly normal. My “questionable choices” the night before added up to a New Girl binge-watch and a midnight peanut butter snack (eating after 9 pm is living on the edge for me!). And, when it came to brunch, I had to put more work into it than showing up somewhere and hoping for the best. I have eaten out only a handful of times in the past couple years, and each time it’s been so incredibly frustrating that I’ve sworn I will never eat out again. However, months pass, I heal a little bit more, I become frustrated that even after so long I can’t go out to eat, and I reach a place where I’m willing to try it again. For this trip in particular, I spent at least an hour pouring over brunch menus from Tribeca to Lincoln Square to Williamsburg. I was looking for one single dish that I could order and consume without worry. There were multiple places where I could order a lone beef burger patty and coffee as my meal, but it wasn’t the normalcy I was looking for. If that was the only option, I would move on to the next menu. There had to be one place in the entirety of New York that would serve my diet! However, after the twentieth menu I found through an “allergen-free restaurants” Google search with no options, I was becoming convinced that in fact there was not one place in New York that would serve my diet. I was going to have to order coffee and watch my brunch companions eat their food. I had done it before, I would do it again, and, though saddening, I would get through it.
I had already resolved myself to coffee and brunch conversations of “Oh, I don’t mind if you eat in front of me, I watch people eat all the time, it’s normal for me, I’m not even hungry, food has no hold on me anymore, I’m used to it by this point, it’s totally fine, I don’t even want it, it’s fine, I’m fine, everything is totally fine” when by some miracle I came upon a menu of an Israeli restaurant that had not one but multiple food options in the realm of my diet. I was ecstatic. On top of which, there were two locations – one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and one in SoHo, Manhattan. I had two brunch dates planned and would meet an old friend at the Williamsburg location on Saturday, and my brother and his girlfriend at the SoHo location on Sunday. Two days in a row of eating out is completely unheard of for me, so I was rarin’ to go!
Thoroughly unashamed of interrogating waiters about ingredients, I met my friend in Brooklyn on Saturday armed with my supplements and a number of questions. “Does this have garlic? Can you take it out? What other spices are in it? Yes, individually – exactly which spices? Is this cooked in butter or oil? Where is your meat sourced from? Can I replace this with that?” and the like. I’m completely willing to ask extensive questions because any amount of embarrassment is preferable to a stomachache afterward. I ended up ordering roasted eggplant with pine nuts and tahini, and a lamb burger – hold the garlic, please. As my meal was coming out, I took my digestive enzymes and chugged some apple cider vinegar, swearing to my friend that I wasn’t drinking pee but a healthy digestive tonic. And finally, after all of the questioning and pill popping, I was ready to have a very normal brunch with a girlfriend. Our food was delectable and we chatted as if no time had passed since we saw each other a year ago. It was exactly what I wanted, and though I finished my meal about thirty minutes after she did (taking care to chew my food thoroughly), I felt like an ordinary millennial out for a casual weekend meal.
Saturday’s brunch was a success. I did have an uncomfortable bloat for the rest of the day, one that I’m not used to, but I chalked it up to taking a long walk after the meal instead of giving myself time to rest and digest like I usually do. With this under my belt, I entered brunch on Sunday with confidence and ease. I met my brother and his girlfriend in SoHo this time, and I was again outfitted with a bag of digestive enzymes, a glass bottle of apple cider vinegar, and plenty more questions. However, my questions this time around led to an unfortunate realization. Unbeknownst to me the day before, the tahini had garlic in it. That would explain the stomachache. When I heard this, I started to become frustrated. Half of the reason I picked this menu was because I could garnish their plain vegetable dishes with Tahini. Tahini is generally just sesame paste, after all. So why? Why? Why why why why why why did they put garlic in their tahini? I started spiraling – one slight hiccup, and oh boy was I spiraling. None of the options on the menu looked appetizing if I couldn’t put tahini on them. I didn’t want a plain roasted eggplant without tahini. I didn’t want steamed vegetables with just salt. I could make way better food for myself at home.
I frantically scanned the rest of the menu, looking for anything else that I could eat. There was nothing. And, as generally happens when I try to eat out, the tears started flowing. All of a sudden I was reminded that as much as I may try, I don’t get to be normal, and the tiniest things can make or break my meal. The wave of normalcy that I had been riding crashed, and I wanted to crawl into a tiny hole of my own food and my own kitchen and never, ever, ever come out. I started beating myself up for even thinking that it was possible. I started cursing my body for being so uncooperative. I looked around at the other diners in the restaurant and was mad at them, too, because they didn’t know how easy they had it. It was starting to get bad, and I could feel myself going into panic attack mode. In public. I didn’t know what to do and the waiter was looking at me asking what I wanted, so I got myself together, scanned the menu one more time, and made a snap decision: “the Mesclun salad with two eggs, please.” And that was that.
I knew that raw vegetables were going to be hard on my stomach. I hadn’t eaten them in a year. I knew that chicken eggs could be allergenic. I hadn’t eaten them in two years. But in that moment, the only way to stop the spiral was to order an off-limits dish and go with it. I could either have a massive freak-out in public or accept a stomachache, and at that point the latter sounded better. I looked to my brother, took a deep breath, and internally whispered affirmations to my body that it would turn out ok. My food arrived, I put my fear aside, and I dug in to a plate of raw vegetables, toasted nuts, and sunny-side-up chicken eggs. It was a leap of faith. And, I have to admit, a delicious one. I had forgotten how satisfying fresh, crispy vegetables and healthy-fat laden eggs could be. Again, I finished my meal half an hour after my brunch mates, chewing even more than usual because I knew that my body would be working extra hard to digest the raw food. When we were done, I said my goodbyes and walked home expecting pain to hit. I waited and waited and waited, sure that my body would rebel. But, by some miracle, the stomach ache never arrived. I felt completely – dare I say it – normal!
Which got me thinking. I still stand by the idea that routine, stability, and sameness are the name of the game when it comes to healing from digestive issues. Nevertheless, occasionally breaking that routine has its place, within certain limits. My particular digestive condition is such that I won’t go into anaphylactic shock if I eat an allergenic food. It isn’t life-threatening if I eat something that I shouldn’t, even if it does cause a lot of painful symptoms. This gives me some wiggle room when it comes to making an impulsive decision at a restaurant.
Of course, if you have a life-threatening condition or allergy, it is absolutely a different situation and making a snap judgment isn’t an option. Given my own limits, however, I was able to discover new information about my body by branching out of my airtight safety bubble. On Saturday, I learned that my body isn’t ready to handle garlic. And honestly, I had been wondering for a while if I could reintroduce it into my diet but was too afraid to try. The only way to find out was to have it by accident, and now I know that it still makes me bloated and uncomfortable. Noted. On Sunday, I discovered that my body is ready to handle raw vegetables and eggs, if only on occasion. Double noted. At this point, I have a difficult time determining which foods I can’t eat because they will cause actual symptoms versus which foods I don’t eat just because they’ve hurt me in the past and I’m afraid. The weekend of brunch was an enlightening reminder that my past is not my present, and sometimes it’s not my body that’s holding me back but my fear.
Oh, and one more thing. If you cry in public because a condiment you were positive there wasn’t garlic in has garlic, you might just get a complimentary appetizer. Yes, that happened. When my waiter saw the tears that I was trying to hide (quite unsuccessfully), he came back to the table with a plate of fluffy white pita and hummus, “on the house.” Of course I couldn’t eat it, but watching my brother and his girlfriend do so felt oddly… triumphant. I’m not saying that I go out of my way to cry just to get free stuff, but if the tears are flowing anyhow, and a kind waiter takes pity on me and decides to bring free food to the table, well, at least I have that. These are the spoils of war and, after my own personal digestive battlefield, I’ll take what I can get.
To read more about Anna’s story, please visit Anna’s Corner.
For strategies for eating out, please read our Dining Out article.