Monday, September 12, 2011

Straight Food Allergy Talk from an Allergic Adult (and Culinary Insider): Ari from "Food for Dorks"

Today I am so excited to share my interview with Ari of "Food for Dorks." Ari is a New York-based recent culinary student (she just graduated, congrats!) who has adult-onset food allergies. She is also funny, adorable and very well-versed on the ups and downs of living with food allergies.

I first found out about Ari and her website/blog when reading her interview at Allergic Child. Once I learned that Ari is in the culinary field with food allergies, of course I wanted to ask her about that. I know that many parents are concerned about how their allergic kids will handle adulthood with allergies. I also have some adult readers who look to this blog for tips and advice as well (turns out Ari was one of them. Cool!) So I'm really happy to share Ari's insights here with you today. Thanks to her for answering my questions despite her dealing with a recent earthquake, tropical storm and culinary school graduation! Besides the website, you can also follow Food for Dorks at Facebook and Twitter!

Nut-Free Mom: What is your experience with food allergies? For example, when did you get diagnosed, what are you allergic to, what reactions have you had?

Ari: Well, it all started underground with a raw bar. A raw bar, which is very tasty, but also comprised solely of nuts and fruit. I had been eating them every day for some time. Since I had recently discovered a gluten intolerance, raw bars became my go-to breakfasts. Anyways, I was munching on one as usual, waiting for the subway. About halfway under the East River, I realized I couldn't really breathe. I got out at the first stop and took a cab to my doctor's office, where they deemed me as having an allergic reaction. Benadryl, epi-pen, whole bit. That's when it all started. All because of a raw bar.

From there, I discovered my peanut allergy. That seemed inevitable after the whole shebang with the tree nuts. Next came soy, which I figured out after consuming a pile of tofu pad thai. At the time, I lived in a loft that shared space with a Thai restaurant, and they'd give me leftover food all the time.

Now, I had to start saying no.

The next summer, while eating a perfectly perfect Dean and Deluca shrimp roll, I suddenly discovered I couldn't breathe...and threw up all over my co-worker's lap. Not my proudest moment! I decided to stop with fish too--I couldn't be too sure about another anaphylactic fit. And a day in school--I go to culinary school-- working with fish confirmed that I did indeed have some issues with fishies.

The latest allergies I have discovered are sesame seed and mustard seed. Halvah and dijon mustard respectively, along with a big pancake tongue and hive-y wrists are how I figured out those. I'm still not sure about egg, it seems be more of an intolerance. Needless to say, I've got some experience with food allergies.

I've learned about most of them through ingestion. RAST tests and prick tests have been inconclusive, and I'm a little sketched by food trials. I'm just gonna stick to not having a swollen tongue and avoid peanuts, tree nuts, soy, sesame, mustard, shellfish and fish!

NMF: Was a culinary career always a goal of yours or did becoming food-allergic prompt you to want to get into this field?

Ari: Hm. Good question. I've had a culinary, gourmet lifestyle since I can remember, and I studied sociology and film in school. I knew from day 1 I wanted to do something in media, but I never would have guessed food media to it. Not until that fateful almond croissant! I remember in the hospital, a man visiting his sick wife in the bed next to mine struck up a conversation with me. Not that I remember too much--after all, I was pretty loopy from the Benadryl--but I do remember him saying something to me. After I told him that I was there for an allergic reaction, and calling it a curse, he said, "you must turn your curse into a blessing for all those around you". And so, I did. The next day, I started Food for Dorks.

So, uh, yeah, I guess an old man and becoming food-allergic prompted me to get into this field.

NMF: Since you see what goes on behind the scenes, what is your best advice to food-allergic diners?

Ari: Ah! So many tips. Warn your waiter before you ask questions, or better yet, call the restaurant ahead of time and ask to speak with the manager about your dining experience. Here are a few questions to ask:

•What kind of oil are you using? Is it walnut oil? Is it sesame oil? Is it vegetable oil? Does that vegetable oil contain soy?
•Are you sauteing or saucing in butter?
•Do you use a roux* for thickening the sauce? Are you mounting** the sauce with a slurry* or butter?
•Are the desserts made in close proximity or stored near those containing nuts?
•Is your deep fryer also used for frying seafood? Dairy?
•Do you dredge*** your fried items in egg?
•Is Worcestershire**** sauce used in the marinade?
The others should come pretty easy to you. You can always google the restaurant's menu if you want a better idea of what you're getting into. And, a glossary of the terms I used:
*A roux is a combination of butter and flour cooked together. Typically a classic sauce base, but also used even in tomato sauces.
** Mounting is a process used for thickening a pan sauce, usually with butter.
***Dredging is what's done to bread items that are fried. More than likely, the restaurant coats the protein in flour, dips it in egg and covers it in breadcrumbs.
****Worcestershire sauce is made from anchovies and soy. Yowza, diner beware!

NMF: What are your culinary career goals?

Ari: My immediate answer is this: I would love to write children's books about food allergies, articles for food magazines and a few cookbooks as well. I also plan to one day open up a vegan, allergy free sweets and baked goods shop for kids and grown-ups alike here in New York. And of course, I would love to teach cooking lessons to food allergic families. As you can see, my culinary career goals are wide and varied.

The end goal for me, however, is to become a respected figure in the food world, to gain exposure to the public in order to present my hopes and dreams for the food allergic community. I want to be a chef--not a parent, not a doctor, not a health freak-- that all food dorks can look up to. I want to show the world that more respect needs to be paid to the food allergic, and that better food handling and labeling practices should become the norm. I would LOVE to speak in front of congress, advise a medical board or even talk to groups of adults and children about how to be awesome and allergic. The rush I get from being an advocate for dorks like us is what keeps me pushing on in all that I do in my career.

NMF: What is it like to be a young adult with food allergies? Is it as hard as some parents worry it will be?

Ari: Most times, I don't even notice it. But...sometimes, it sucks. It's not hard to stay safe. What's hard to deal with is, for example having to leave a clam bake because you're starting to get itchy, or say no to a birthday cake because it's got peanut butter frosting. Or having to ask your date if they've eaten nuts recently, because you'd rather not have an allergic reaction from a good-night kiss.

Honestly, it's the social part that's kind of lame sometimes. But at this age, we've got the whole safety part down pat: Ask questions. Carry an epi-pen. When in doubt, don't eat that. Wash hands. Et cetera, et cetera. We've got it down. We just wish we could go to the clam bake and eat our friends' peanut butter birthday cake and kiss our date good night after he or she ate ice cream.

That's when we notice it.


Linda Fargo said...

Thank you for introducing Ali! As a recently diagnosed adult with food allergies I need all the help I can get coping! My food allergy reactions are triggered by mere exposure to my allergens. This makes being in a group of people, shopping and driving past a Thai restaurant very unpleasant experiences/activities. I will definitely look up "Food for Dorks"! A sense of humor and shared experiences will help me build my "tool box".
Thank you, again! Linda F.

Renata said...

Excellent interview, Jenny and Ali!
I stumbled upon Ali's blog a while back and really liked her upbeat attitude and sense of humor. I wish her luck in all her endeavors!

Renata said...

Ari I mean! :) Sorry for the typo!