Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Can't eat, won't eat

The Three Graces by Peter Paul Rubens

I was asked by Rude Health to do a 'rant' by their bandstand at The Real Food Festival. I got there late, having mistaken Olympia for Earls Court, and literally ran on, grabbing the mike as I staggered forward in my pink high heels and hat.

My subject was 'allergies', especially appropriate during Food Allergy Awareness Week. Allergies are the bane of every chef's life, especially if, as in my case, you do a fixed menu.

There is a difference between food allergies, intolerances and aversions. The first gives you hives, the second gives you gas, and the last means you simply don't like it.

You'd be amazed how many people in the latter category 'upgrade' their aversion to a full-blown allergy when ordering in restaurants. Short of demanding that your guest has a blood test on the spot to determine a positive IgE antibody reading, the restaurateur is in a helpless position to rebut these claims.

My own sneaky technique when faced with, say, a guest suffering from a 'dairy allergy' is to exclaim:

"What a shame! I've got this extensive and expensive cheeseboard, and poor you won't be able to try it..."

The reaction can often be:

"Oh maybe I'll have just a little bit..." accompanied by an embarrassed giggle.

It's not only hard for professional chefs; having a dinner party has become a nightmare for a host. Between the vegans, the vegetarians, the pescatarians, the wheat free, the dairyacs, the coriander haters, the ayuverdics(no garlic,onion,mushrooms) and Atkins dieters, the hostess ends up with nothing to offer everyone, maybe just a bowl of porridge, with soy milk of course, unless she's the kind of masochist that wants to do a separate meal for each guest.

Despite reports that allergies have grown in the last decade by 18%, the percentage of genuine food allergies is low. In a recent Californian study by Dr Marc Riedl, while 30% of adults believe they have a food allergy, it's actually only about 5%.

The rate is slightly higher for children, 8%, but most outgrow their allergy by the age of 12.

Lets take a look at food allergies around the world: they are highly heritable and often have a genetic or geographic bias.

As much as 70% to 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant, only 10% to 15% in Westerners, while 50% of Asians cannot drink alcohol.

The Japanese can be allergic to buckwheat flour, used in soba noodles.

Irish people, particularly those on the West Coast, suffer from coeliac disease, they cannot digest gluten.

Nightshade vegetables such as aubergine, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes can cause arthritic symptoms.

An allergy to celery of all things is common in Central Europe.

Peanut allergies can lead to anaphylactic shock or death.

Some people hate coriander, it tastes like soap or worse, bedbugs, the origin of the word 'coriander'. On the other hand, it's considered a folk remedy for diabetes.

We must also distinguish between fussy eaters and religious taboos: restrictions such as halal meat for muslims and kosher food for Jews are well known but did you know that some religions, Jainism for example, advise against eating things that grow underground for, if you eat the root, you kill the plant.

Old world religions can be suspicious of new world ingredients. Imagine our diet today without peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, coffee, tobacco.

Things we don't eat are famine foods: associated with desperate times and terrible poverty: in Iceland and parts of Sweden, for instance, mushrooms are considered an animal food and only eaten in times of hardship.

Another food edict is against salt: the author Jeffrey Steingarten writes that after a worldwide test conducted by the World Health Organisation, only 8% of people are sensitive to salt, that there is no proven link between high blood pressure and salt, and that most of us can eat as much salt as we feel like...

One of my most frequent complaints about other home restaurants, which must reflect home cooking in general, is undersalting food. I use good quality sea salt while cooking, in this way I minimise the use of salt at the table.

Having spoken to people with very real allergies, tested and proved by blood tests, I know they are irritated by the fakers. My beef is with the food intolerance group: it's funny how the women (yes it's generally women although I do know a few men who are also neurotic about food) who complain of wheat or dairy intolerances are invariably skinny with concave stomachs. (Hey, where do they fit their reproductive organs?)

Why don't they just admit they are 'being single forever/not being able to fit into Topshop clothes/can't cope with not getting society & media approval' intolerant? That'd be a bit more honest.

As far as I'm concerned, they are just on a diet. Which is fine, but why come to a supperclub if you don't like to eat?

I 'think' this is how to listen to my rant:


  1. I'm now wondering what bedbugs taste like.

    As a member of the audience at the time, may I say that I greatly enjoyed your rant.

  2. Were you there? I didn't see. There were two rather cross looking older people sat right in front of me, which was off-putting.
    Do you know how to upload a sound file?

  3. Wow this was a very cool rant! Sorry to have missed you at the Real Food Festival!

  4. Hallelujah. I agree with everything you've said. I've enormous sympathy with real allergies, but a lot of the modern 'intolerances' seem to me like self-obsessed, pleasure-averse attention seeking. Interestingly, husband (west of Ireland heritage) is a coeliac, diagnosed as a toddler, and avoided anything with gluten in it well into his adult life. He had a test recently and there is now no sign of coeliac disease in his system. Sister-in-law, a consultant gastroenterologist, says that she has had several patients recently who had been diagnosed a coeliacs years ago and now no longer show up as coeliacs in tests and have no symptoms when eating foods containing gluten.

  5. What a brilliant post - and I say that as both a 'coriander hater' and as one of those freaks who's allergic to celery (blood test evidence available on application). 'Why come to a supperclub if you don't like to eat?' you ask and I couldn't agree more. To go to a supperclub or worse a private dinner party and insist on having your every micro-specific 'preference' adhered to is, quite simply, selfish and vulgar. Unless it will actually kill you or make you terribly ill, you should just suck it up and accept that some meals, places or cuisines are going to be off limits to you.

    I loathe coriander, and its evil cousin parsley, with an intense passion but I just don't order anything with it in, or if I really like the sound of the rest of the dish and it can't be left out I get busy with the chopsticks and fish it the hell out.

    Thank you so much for speaking such bold, eminent sense!


  6. I'm like Hugh, i HATE coriander, but if served something containing it at a dinner I am far too polite to say anything. If it can't be fished out I just eat up and move on to the wine! Asking for people to accommodate your allergies is understandable, but to aversions?! downright rude and selfish. I'd serve them double the offending ingredient ;)

  7. I think we are all growing a little tired AND bloated from people's pretendy food intolerances...
    Hugh: yes I expect you to arrive with full medical history ;)

    Lickedspoon: yes many people do grow out of it fortunately...

  8. As a lactose intolerant person myself, I have to say: hear hear!

    Lactose intolerance isn't a disease. It's a lack of an enzyme which happily, you can buy in handy pill form. So the solution is: buy the pills, eat as much cheese as you like, enjoy it and damned well stop moaning.

    Maybe you should buy some of the pills and offer them round with your cheese course at the supperclub - stop the moaners in their tracks!

  9. It's the main reason I ask when we take reservations for Casa SaltShaker about people's allergies, aversions, etc. Then I can simply reply, here's the menu, here's where I can accommodate you and here's where I can't. Leave it up to them. Amazing how many people who are "allergic" suddenly find the ability to, as you put it, suck it up, when confronted with the option of coming and eating what we serve, or, going somewhere else.

  10. Lickedspoon, i was on a bread making course recently and it was suggested that coeliac disease in the west of ireland may have arisen from eating much soda bread where the gluten has not been worked on by acids and other constituents generated in slow bread making with yeast especially sour dough yeast baking. I think many who deem themselves 'gluten intolerant' find that they digest sour dough and other slowly made breads quite well and comfortably. Whilst as a cook I find/found it interesting to invent alternatives for vegans, vegetarians, coeliacs etc. it worries me that more and more processed food with multiple 'chemical' ingredients is being promoted in supermarkets. I suppose I'm under the illusion that food intolerance/dietary persuasion e.g.veganism, an interest in real food, an interest in eating more healthily and a passion for flavour and cooking come from the same root in that I have experienced them all. Perhaps some people don't like food and feel that some of it makes them ill. But surely its better to eat simple real food than factory produced convenience wether you are intolerant or not.
    I thought I didn't have time to read the rant never mind rant myself, but there I go again!

  11. Brilliant post, as ever. While we're on the subject though, and from my own particularly blinkered and intolerant viewpoint, many of your arguments could be applied to vegans/vegetarians couldn't they?

    Vegetarianism is an eating disorder legitimised through promotion as a lifestyle choice.

    Discuss :)

  12. love your rant! i agree with everything, but i cant write too much about my take on it here in publis (a drink in London, soon, perhaps? ;) with re to halal meat, i might get hate mail after writing this, but a lot of Muslims believe that it's not really necessary as it is not written in the Qur'an anywhere that we must eat halal meat. my parents are very religious but they dont have eat halal meat only. (we draw the line at pork). anyway dont want to turn this into a religious discussion- bec i only came here to say how much i loved this write-up and i shall try the cheeseboard trick with one particular guest of mine! xxx shayma

  13. Great Post... I could not agree more. I think people do it more out of being fashionable then real medical reasons.

    I have to say it is a pain when you get someone that wants something different to the menu you have put together... why bother coming!!! I know it is usually said the cutomer is always right well in this case and circumstances I think not

    That's my rant over...

  14. Like everyone above, I couldn't agree more. I'm a Scot, currently living in South Florida and everyone is at it over here. Diets, food aversions, allergies, enough already!

  15. Chris: if you listen to the 'podcast' (does that work btw?) I admit to hypocrisy, as a non meat eater, I realise that I too am a pain in the butt!
    Shayma: would love to meet you if you come to London!
    Claire: that's very interesting, be great to score some of the pills...
    Boxthorne: I do find it interesting to make alternatives but if they don't warn you then you feel quite embarassed and also if you are cooking a complicated meal for 30 then it just becomes uneconomic to to a whole special meal for one person, especially if it's a theme night. (I explain this in the podcast)
    Hari: I think it's a weight issue for women. I mean look at Naomi Campbell and her maple syrup diet...nuts. Maybe if she ate more balanced food she wouldn't keep throwing her mobile phone at people's heads?
    Lindsay: allergies in Scotland? jeez now I know we are doomed.

  16. BOOM!! spot on spot on!

    Cooked for six this weekend specifically doing my first Bouilliabaise because two of the girls "don't eat meat" and I'm damned if I'm cooking chicken (yes they were that annoying type). They then proceeded to pick around all of the lovely prawns and mussells in there as well.

    More for me and no ivite back for them - plus they didn't drink which frustrates me no end arghh!

    Pity you couldn't make the Loft onn Friday - ALex mentioned that you'd been in touch when I saw him for a pint after they'd finished

  17. James: I'm in book writin' purdah. Although just realised have written way more than they ever wanted...

  18. Dan saltshaker: You know I'm feeling your pain bro...

  19. Good rant. I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest that "food allergy" is usually a control issue.

    Briefly stated, in modern society, where so much is beyond influence, what you put in your mouth remains a last bastion of freedom, and freedom is only freedom if it is exercised.

    Religion fulfilled this role for many centuries; now god is dead, a bastardised medical model serves the same psychological need.

    As a home restauranteur, your evident desire for autonomy and control bumps up against the countervailing force in your clientele. Hence the social conflict.

    I back you 100%, but from the fortunate position of being averse only to Norwegian brown cheese and poached brains.

  20. Good information in this rant! I enjoyed it! I do know a girl who is a coeliac and eating is a nightmare for her...she is so easily sick from it... I do agree with you that a lot of people probably put it

  21. Julius: Love your analysis of this problem.
    In fact as someone who desires autonomy from the system, loathes top down control by the establishment, I'm starting to wonder if I am in fact a closet anarcho-Tory... no no no perish the thought. I am an anarchist, I am an antichrist....

  22. Call me Nana knickers but I do think a lot of this "intolerance" business stems from old fashioned self indulgent bad manners. I ate dinner at a friends a few years back where she served up Fish Pie & peas, after a childhood of nightmare fish pie it was my worst possible supper, but of course I ate it,making her feel bad and everyone else uncomfortable wasnt an option....and I knew she had spent ages cooking it. Very unscientific evidence (me watching & listening) suggests the biggest complaining fuss pots are the ones who have no clue what it takes to feed a roomful of people, and how bloody hard that can be sometimes....true allergy suffers (I have several coeliac friends)have my deepest sympathy, but the rest, please just zip it, eat it, and say thank you afterwards.

  23. Sorry, also meant to comment on the excellent post, just got a tad carried away with the rant....manners indeed!

  24. Plum kitchen: absolutely! And this is a ranting free for all, don't hold back!

  25. I am surprised to see how much intolerance there is in the food community of people's individual needs. Surely the problem is when they rock up and expect to be catered for, rather than checking beforehand whether the menu is something they will want/be able to eat, whatever the reason (preference, neurosis, principle, medical, or trend)?

    I am shocked to hear vegetarianism referred to as an eating disorder by one of your readers! What a strange opinion!

    I fell Ms ML, the need to emphasise for your readers how very accommodating you have always been of my own dietary requirement (I am vegan). I have always been served delicious vegan meals by you, so people shouldn't feel nervous about being able to eat with you! But of course you have always known in advance and been able to discuss with me the suitability of the menu, so understanding on both sides is needed... I can acknowledge that there is a tendency to underestimate the impact on a chef if you 'spring' your needs on them at short notice!


  26. MsCE: I understand that veganism and vegetarianism is of a similar order to religious taboos on food: these are decisions based on moral and ethical reasons.
    What is difficult is all the other aversions... and I do think it's down to a kind of neurosis. In a society that values form over content, people struggle to remain slim. They develop all kinds of managing strategies to keep slim.
    There is also a tendency to blame their unhappiness and depression on food and drink.
    The problem for me as a cook is I do a fixed menu for a large amount of people. It's no problem to include a vegan or veggie option but when people can't eat dairy and wheat and olive oil ect, it leaves me with very little to cook with.
    I guess if I had an army of assistants then it'd be easier.
    One week a girl came who was genuinely coeliac.Her meal cost me double everybody elses and I must admit I was muttering under my breath resentfully.
    But when at the end she said, it's my birthday and normally it's difficult for me to go out to celebrate it at a meal, that was fantastic, it made it all worth it.

  27. I am frequently inspired to rant by commentary like this.

    Lactose intolerance, from which I suffer, can be extremely painful and results in symptoms much more serious that what you suggest. Before I was diagnosed they were sure I had Crohn's Disease - they being a series of consultant physicians that I had been visiting. It was earlier misdiagnosed as a severe stomach ulcer and I was prescribed proton pump inhibitors.

    I had an Inflammatory Eye Disorder, severe eczema and intense pain and bloating. It was depressing, difficult and painful for a very long time. Cutting dairy from my diet cleared all of these symtpoms. I can now occasionally indulge but with enzymes which don't entirely remove the reaction but do help. I do this very rarely and can assure you that I never cause a fuss.

    Sadly, I am far from concave in the stomach area, but that's all part of being a committed food blogger and cook.

  28. Nice rant. I agree with pretty much all you've said, but also take Niamh's point that some intolerances can't just be sucked up, however much a person might want to. I have a close friend who has a dairy intolerance which can often lead to an urgent need to use the bathroom. She knows eating cheese won't kill her but the consequences can be
    embarrassing and humiliating if she's in a restaurant or at someone else's house, so she goes out of her way to avoid dairy and often brings her own desserts to parties rather than expecting the host to cook something separate. She's not a fussy eater in any other sense.

    As for Chris' comment, I became a vegetarian as a student when money was tight and the thought of eating no meat made more sense to me than eating cheap meat. It's a habit that's stuck. I know my diet is limited and this limitation is self-imposed, but to term it an eating disorder seems a little excessive.

  29. Sorry Niamh it sounds awful. Of course I'm not talking about people with real allergies.
    But the above statistics seem to show that more people claim to have allergies than actually have them.
    Natasha: I say I have no allergies but yes eating lots of chilli makes me go to the loo. Well worth it though!

  30. Hi Ms Marmite,
    I am in two minds about this here rant. I have always been pretty unsympathetic towards friends with 'intolerances' and can totally understand the view that an intolerance is not going to kill you so shut up and get on with it. However, I'd been having breathing problems and severe migraines recently which turned out to be down to an allergy to Marmite (truly devastating!) and a yeast intolerance.

    By excluding about a trillion things from my diet for a few weeks I should be able to get rid of the problem but it's not for certain. A life without bread and sugary desserts would be my worst nightmare therefore I'm praying this is not permanent but I have a new sympathy for people with lifetime intolerances.

    I can see the rolling of the eyes every time I refuse a piece of cake or slice of bread but the fact is I would be awful, stuffy nosed, light averse company if I ate those things so I may as well just refuse.

    I have no understanding of people who might turn up at your house without informing you of their dietary requirements. Personally, I just wouldn't eat the food I am allergic to/intolerant of and not ask for an alternative through pure embarassment!

  31. Erin: oh dear! an allergy to Marmite?
    I have heard that Marmite, cheese and chocolate can all give migraines..

  32. Love the rant - tried many times to download the audio but couldn't so glad you posted a written form. Nothing further to add as so many well-reasoned comments already, but really like the research you put into the piece to include history, inheritance and religious influences. I think you touched a nerve with anyone who regularly cooks for groups of friends - it's so demoralising to plan a menu, then adapt it again and again so that it becomes a compromise or people tell you as you serve the food that they can't eat it ("sorry, I should've have mentioned..."). It puts the seriously allergic people in the same group as the fussies.

  33. Ha! The doctor actually prescribed Bovril for my Marmite withdrawal symptoms.
    My advice to anyone with a serious Marmite habit is cherish it and use sparingly. My habit of having it on toast twice a day and in stews and pies resulted in 6 months of flu-like symptoms and now I can never have it again!
    On the plus side, this has taught me to eat something other than toast as a snack and find more adventurous ways of flavouring my food.
    I do miss it though!

  34. I loved this rant - great stuff! As someone who looked after children for a large part of my career I have one statement to make - I blame the parents.

    So many parents / carers / whatevers have indulged in the practice of supplying a running buffet all day, with optional extras and treats at the drop of a hat. This created new generations of children (under-developed adult) who see food as an area of control and manipulation. And then they leave home and carry on. Bad manners indeed. Maybe they should be sent home without any supper?!

  35. Green drawers: I'm not sure what it is...but there are constant food scares, we are told that food gives us cancer...I'm sure that contributes to people trying to attibute various malaises, tiredness, sadness to food.
    It's an urban thing:we don't spend enough time outside, in nature, which puts things into perspective.
    Now to be clear I'm not talking about people who have serious allergies: I've always been sympathetic to them.
    But already I don't cook meat, remove wheat and dairy and I'm not left with much to cook with.
    At first I took people seriously: then realised 'vegans' were eating fish, dairy free people were eating cheese...often people wouldn't warn me.
    Erin: sod anaphylactic shock, a Marmite allergy is very serious. You have my sympathies. (Actually my sister had candida and has to be careful of yeasty foods)

  36. Sally: how is your red wine vinegar getting on?
    Mine is fab, very pleased.

  37. Excellent rant, I suppose it must make these types feel 'special' or something.


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