Friday, July 17, 2009

On being gastronomically challenged.

My friends and family know that I have a dairy allergy. Unlike most children who develop allergies as toddlers and grow out of them before they hit first grade, I have had this condition my entire life. Despite the fact that I complain constantly about lots of other things, I rarely complain about this dietary inconvenience, because it's something I truly can't change.

I admit, I sometimes felt left out as a kid, going to a friend's birthday party and not being able to eat the cake and pizza that were served. I've been telling people not to put butter or cheese on my food since I was about seven years old. My mother never cooked with dairy, excepting the odd recipe for the rest of my family.

Growing up in the eighties and early nineties, before allergen warnings became commonplace on food labels, my parents and I had to read endless lists of ingredients to ensure the contents were safe for me to consume. I knew what whey powder and modified milk ingredients were practically before my classmates could spell the words.

Today, I'm fortunate to just be able to glance at the bottom of a block of text to see in slightly more prominent font, "CONTAINS: MILK" before I put it back, instead of spending several minutes scrutinising the tiny print, looking for esoteric chemicals that may cause me to react. All in all, I think I do okay, food-wise.

But never do I ever feel so out of place, gastronomically, as when I go on vacation.

When I went to Mexico five years ago, I assumed (incorrectly) that their cuisine would be light on dairy, and heavy on vegetable and corn matter. This assumption led to the worst allergic reaction I've ever had in my entire life, when I ate chicken that was cooked in... something. Butter? Yogurt? I still have no idea. I had even made it a point to ask, and the server told me no, "No es cocinada con leche." ("No, it's not cooked in milk.")

Usually, I can tell almost as soon as I taste it if I'm allergic to it; but I was on my second helping before my lips started to swell. Twenty-four hours, a couple of doses of Benadryl and a case of full-body hives later, I realized that it's difficult to trust anybody in the food industry.

When I went to France, I thought I got a lot of strange looks when I requested no cheese on my pasta or butter on my bread. (My husband disagrees, but I'm the paranoid one.) I mostly ate baguettes and pasta when I was there, as it seemed a safe alternative to their dairy-laden offerings. When I eat out, I always make sure to specify to the server that it's an allergy, not lactose intolerance.

Dessert is actually the thing that bothers me the least, probably because we only ever had it on special occasions when I was growing up. Birthdays, family visits, that sort of thing. And it was usually Jell-O or some cake or a couple of cookies: nothing fancy. Therefore, I have no concept of dessert being a regular part of one's meal, which I tell people, with a grin, has kept me healthier anyway.

I have never, ever been able to eat dessert in a restaurant, with the exception of a Chinese food place in Moncton I visited as a child which served Jell-O as part of the all-you-can-eat buffet. But seriously, no Oreo cake, or chocolate mousse, or tartufo, or peach cobbler, or apple pie, or fudge mountain, or ice cream of obscure flavour have I ever been privileged to sample.

People often ask me, "Don't you wish you could have [insert luscious-sounding food here]?", or if I "miss" dairy. I never had it to begin with, and the few times I have had it it's made me dangerously ill. Why on earth would I miss something that makes me feel like crap? Sometimes I do wish I could have it, though, if only to be able to understand the ineffable relationship between wine and cheese, or be able to debate the virtues of ice cream versus yogurt.

So now, on the eve of my summer vacation to my mother's hometown in northern New Brunswick (safe kitchen, since my mother and I will be cooking), I think about tomorrow's stopover in Quebec City, a city which, according to the menus I've found online, seems to have an obsession for multiple-course meals featuring various game and fish, drenched in every form of dairy known to humankind.

I found restaurants which sound truly amazing, but whose menu would kill me within minutes. It seems a shame that I can never partake in the many delights these establishments have to offer, because in my experience it has been much easier for a restaurant to accomodate my diet if they have simpler fare. Complicated menus rarely, if ever, can offer substitutions. Use oil instead of butter? Preposterous, you'd lose the flavour. Soy milk instead of cow's milk? Why, it would ruin the consistency of the sauce.

No, no butter poached lobster with asparagus and hollandaise for me, thank you. I'll pass on the sweetbreads, raisins and foie gras terrine with onion confit prepared in crème de cassis. I'll save the Chicken picatta coated with mozzarella and fresh herbs, marinated and roasted in pepper sauce for my next life.