I knew I had chosen a bad restaurant for my son's dairy allergy: an italian dump that makes Olive Garden look gourmet. But it has memories attached. Sometimes, after picking Claire up from preschool, she (a cheese freak) and I walked across the street and gorged ourselves on pasta.
Since Claire wanted to visit her old teachers who were working today, and we were in the neighborhood, I took both Max and Claire to the Italian place, thinking Max could eat pasta with meatballs and garlic bread sans butter. It'd all be good.
I asked the waitress (who is going to look exactly like Donatella Versace in 20 years and speaks, at best, broken English) about the meatballs, telling her that Max is allergic to eggs, nuts, and dairy. "No, no eggs in meatballs," she insisted, making a face like, who the hell would put in eggs in meatballs? Nevermind that most every meatball recipe I've seen or used calls for egg.
Claire and I had had this waitress several times in the past and I didn't trust her knowledge of food allergies, so I nixed the meatballs and ordered Max spaghetti with meat sauce.
Very politely and quietly, Max said, "But I don't want the meat sauce."
"I'm sorry, hon, but I think that's the only thing safe for you here," I said, maintaining a neutral expression. All while resisting the pulls of my heart against the crusty Scotch tape holding it together.
He surrendered with a meek, "Okay."
Spaghetti with meat sauce and bread without butter. I ordered spaghetti too, and since I am also, for the most part, dairy free, requested no cheese be scattered across the top.
Quickly, she brought out bread. Soaked with garlicky butter. "We need bread with no butter," I said.
"Yes, please. Plain bread."
Next came my salad, an anemic iceberg lettuce affair that I forgot was always buried under a mountain of mozzarella. It would've been nice if Donatella had been a little proactive and thought, Hm, the customer requested no cheese on her pasta, so maybe I should ask if she wants it on her salad? But, whatever. I was the one who hadn't mentioned it specifically.
Next came Max's spaghetti. Sprinkled with cheese. Shit.
As fast as I could, before the little strands melted into the pasta completely, I started picking it off.
Max said, "I don't think I should eat that."
"No, it's okay," I said. "Look, look. I'll scrape off the whole top layer of spaghetti."
He still wasn't satisfied. And part of raising a kid with food allergies means honoring his instincts and not forcing him to eat something he doesn't feel is safe for his own body. I agreed that we'd just put his whole meal in a box and take it home for J.
Finally, my spaghetti came. Cheeseless! At first Max was wary of it, but finally agreed to take a few bites. So, we shared it, me shoveling food into his mouth like a toddler.
Despite it all, I left the waitress a decent tip and had fun with the kids. Next time it's all three of us though, I think we'll just go home and gnaw on celery sticks.
Caveat: Max's dairy allergies are relatively mild and, though enough milk could cause him to go anaphylactic, I'm comfortable with the level of dairy exposure he sustained today. Many other kids with dairy allergies have it much worse and would still have a reaction if you simply picked the cheese off their meal. Also, we would never do this with nuts.