I sit with friends in a plushy alcove at a restaurant. A halogen light beams into the center flower over a white tablecloth. I place my order, smiling at the waiter. “No lemon, no black pepper or chili, not even as garnish,” I say. “But please tell the chef to use all other flavors.” That should cover all my bases. I love the taste of cilantro, sage, cinnamon or rosemary that together with textures—from crunchy to smooth—create a concert of my senses. I admire the chef who orchestrates ingredients to perform a melody of sensual pleasures. But fresh lemon wrecks my mouth. Upon touch, small blisters pop up on my tongue and gums. They dissipate within the hour, but not before they ruin my meal. Black pepper and hot spices blow off the top of my skull, or at least that is how it feels from the inside.
“She’s allergic,” my husband adds.
When my food arrives, though, three slices of lemon flank the fish. A network of black dots covers the macadamia crust of my 3”-size piece of fish that is listed at $35. My battle-worn mouth contracts reflexively.
“That’s only garnish,” the waiter explains when I remind him of my food sensitivities.
Why is it that I am the one to apologize when I must send the dish back?
The rest of my dinner companions are half way through their food when mine reappears, this time as a dish deserving the “Best of Hospital” honor. That sprig of rosemary that had so proudly hailed from the top of the previous serving is no more. Ditto for the patches of sauce that had lain artistically on the rim of the original plate. The chef is angry with me, I can tell. The fish lies lumpy, as unappetizing as the lampshade over the pale halo that now filters through the fish’s translucent tissues. Last weekend at another restaurant it was the lamb chop’s second coming that must have been laundered in the washing machine, and with my favorite mint jelly MIA.
These past few years, Northeast chefs have adopted the culinary spice repertoire of the Southwest. And while my dinner companions range from those who bask in the hot burning sensation to those who admit they’d rather taste the original ingredients, unmasked by jalapeño, I do not have the luxury of tolerating piquant or acidic foods.
More frequently now, I’ve I become the eccentric complainer at the dinner table. In more restaurants, over more frequently spiced-up dishes, I must publicly detail to the waiter yet again my food allergies. More often, I must seem to my dinner companions as a spoiled brat—or a bitch. But topping it is the chef’s resentment when required to redo my order. I am starving, but the chef lets me know that my audacity deserves no more than IV drip sustenance.
In my youth, my days passed in relative tranquility until Saturday. Then, my encounter with my grandmother’s salad became my family’s undoing. Sunday through Friday, my mother’s salad traveled from my plate to my stomach uneventfully. But come Saturday, at my grandmother’s, I would refuse to bite into the lettuce. At the sight of her own mother’s quivering lips, my mother would leap over the rituals of warning, begging or coaxing and would revoke my radio privileges for the week.
The thought of missing Wednesday night with its Top Ten sent me into a fit that was instantaneously met with banishment to the other room. From there I could hear words spoken aloud, predicting my future spinsterhood. Who would ever marry a girl this difficult, stubborn and capricious? I sat alone, wallowing in misery. Because of a few leaves of lettuce I would be relegated to a lifelong of knitting sweaters for all my future nieces and nephews.
The mystery of my problem was unveiled in the early 90s, well into my adulthood. A Yale researcher identified the likes of me as “Super-tasters.” With that diagnosis, years of private frustrations and public family feuds came to a halt. Aha! The innocent lemon my grandmother used in her dressing was responsible for my family’s weekly crisis. I sent copies of the report to everyone who had witnessed meal fiascoes in which I had starred. A super-taster, the article explained, had a tongue in which the taste buds were clustered in far greater numbers than in the rest of the population’s, causing the owner of that special tongue to feel flavors at up to four times the rate of “non-tasters” at the opposite end of the bell curve. Most people were otherwise clustered in the center bubble.
Voila. Now I could also reveal to my hostesses why I didn’t finish that piece of chocolate cake (I tasted her Equal), why I sneaked to the kitchen for a stainless steel soup spoon (I tasted the silver polish,) why I passed on those green peas everyone adored (I tasted the original tin can.) Finally there was an explanation to why I sprinkled sugar on my tongue at the political fund-raising dinner (sugar molecules diffuse jalapeno’s.)
So now I know, but what good does it do me? Waiters still don’t listen, and when they do, chefs ignore their instructions. While the word “allergy” increasingly sets a three-fire alarm in more restaurants, the chef and staff take it too far. The interpret “black pepper” as “any green or red pepper,” “Chili” as any spice. On the other hand, when I recently ordered the forever-safe chicken soup—without bothering to add a warning—it put my mouth on fire. Whoever guessed that chicken soup had become a Mexican feast?
Three out of five times I send my dish back to the kitchen, and an irascible chef punishes my impudence with his blandest versions of food, letting me know that if I don’t like his recipe, I’d better dine elsewhere. While I managed to beat the prediction of spinsterhood, thirty years later I still come across no less capricious than in the scenes at my grandmother’s home.
What’s there to do? I order tea with a scrumptious dessert to fill my empty stomach, to soothe the blisters on both my mouth—and my ego.
Novelist Talia Carner lives in