I’m a nineteen-year-old college student with a teddy bear and severe food allergies to dairy and peanuts, both of which I’ve had since before I could remember. Bear is an international icon; he travels with me everywhere as a mascot and a pal. The allergies travel with me too, but as life-threatening hazards that haunt my every meal.
Food allergies make me seem different from everyone else, but I never feel that different. I love food and my food-obsessed family. I love talking about taste and texture and take-out. I love cake and bread and French toast and ice cream and all of those things. I just don’t share my snacks. I don’t eat at parties. I read ingredients compulsively and carry around auto-injectors.
Food has mostly been on the periphery of my worries for most of my life. I know what restaurants I like and what I can eat there. I’m from Los Angeles, where most restaurants are willing to cater to strange dietary needs of celebrities and average-allergy-ridden-girls alike. Allergies really only affect me if I’m invited to a dinner party, or if I’m on a date, or if I’m camping. For the most part, I prefer to focus on more sophisticated things than mastication, like music, and gymnastics, and literature. Life is pretty easy breezy like that, in California. But now I live in New York.
I left my cozy California comfort zone for Columbia University. I had emailed various Dining Services people over the summer before my big move. It was dangerous, for me to be moving so far away from home, but I loved—and still love—New York City. My dream of moving to the Big Apple hinged upon whether or not I would be able to eat at school. When I moved in on campus, everything seemed fine. The dining hall was very accommodating. It seemed safe.
On the fifth day of my first year of college and the first Friday in my first week of living in New York, the dining hall decided that the pesto was magically dairy-free for a moment. Yeah, it wasn’t. Fifteen minutes after I finished dinner, I stopped breathing.
My sister died from anaphylactic shock when I was eight years old. Every time I have that same allergic response, it’s physically and emotionally draining. I can’t talk; I can’t think. My skin swells up and hives spread like wildfire. I get weak and dizzy and desperate. Everything is hot and suffocating, and time moves much too slow. I feel so guilty for eating whatever it was that made me this way. So much for living life without regrets, right?
The person at the ResLife desk that evening phoned Public Safety and informed them that I was having a panic attack. I struggled to clarify the life-or-death situation when my first-year roommate happened to come downstairs with the girls from our hall. If she hadn’t shown up and threatened me into using the epiPen, and the other girls hadn’t called the ambulance themselves, ResLife would have just seen me collapse on the floor. And these words would never be written.
Commence seven excruciating hours of no food, no water, and no blankets! Seriously, why are Emergency Rooms always freezing? Not to mention, no fun on my first Friday night in New York. However, heads up, St. Luke’s Children’s hospital has some very nice EMTs and some Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper.
After some infuriating phone calls and meetings, Dining Services was apologetic and Health Services were concerned and the Office of Disability Services was sympathetic. The Administration told me that I’m the first student to come through with any sort of severe allergies, and they’re doing the best they can. I’m sorry, did the fact that I might have died before beginning my college career mean anything? Apparently not.
I wanted to institute allergen labels in the dining halls, maybe education for students and staff about food allergies and how to deal with them. Instead, I had to register as a disabled student. Not to say that disabilities are bad—in fact, they’re neutral—but I had never seen my food allergies as a disability. It’s more like an inability. Well, if food allergies weren’t a disability before, they sure were that year. My first year of college consisted of a dining contract with The Administration, in which I was only allowed to eat at specific on-campus locations. I could never choose my meals—they were made special for me without my input. Even then I had constant anxiety about everything I ever ate. Needless to say, the Freshman Fifteen was not an issue for me.
After that first Friday, I became afraid of the city. I didn’t want to go out and try all the amazing food that the city has to offer, because it was more dangerous than ever. There was no safety net, no understanding Administration, no one that would take care of me if I were to collapse on the floor of some cute café in Chelsea.
I’m a sophomore now, studying neuroscience and English and Classics. My roommate is studying sociology, and a few weeks ago, we talked about food allergies. She’s an avid blogger and she asked me about finding safe places in the city. Somewhere in the conversation, I said, “I should blog about allergies and eating out in New York!”
Let me explain my process of finding a safe restaurant in the city. I usually conduct a search with something like “dairy-free brunch” or “allergy friendly dining” and end up with some weird Yelp pages and a couple vegan options. The only problem is that I like eating meat, I enjoy my fair share of gluten, and I’m not a nut who only eats wheatgrass and drinks carrot juice.
So I used my dad’s tried-and-true “brute force” method. I Googled restaurants all day, and combed through PDF after PDF of menus, searching for that magical phrase, “Please let your server know if you have any food allergies.” After about a week or so of this, I realized that this blog needed to become a reality. There exists no resource for a girl like me—a girl who has food allergies but still wants to get a decent breakfast at a lunchtime hour.
I’ve always loved the city. I love the anonymity, the electricity, the people, the pace. I love theater and history and humanity. And I love food. So instead of waiting for dairy-free to become a celebrity trend, Brunch with Bear is my new project.
If you are like me, and you can only eat about half the things in this country, you probably want to be able to enjoy New York like a New Yorker, food included. You should be able to go get brunch without fretting over every bite. You should be able to order food that you actually like without having to pay the price (either for the dish or at the hospital). You should be able to go out and enjoy this beautiful city without having to carry around your own cart of snacks and medications. So here it is. Brunch with Bear is a blog dedicated to being brave and embracing the Big Apple for those of us that crave food created equal, food allergies or not.
My motto is “it’s safer to be braver.” Instead of being afraid of all the wonderful food out in the city, I’m going to take my Benadryl and my best friends and my bear, and eat my brunch. And if I don’t have to use the epiPen, I’ll let you know. (If I do have to use it, you’ll hear about that too.) Allergies are not going to stop me from getting my brunch and breakfast, lunch and dinner too! And now they won’t stop you either.