Dinner out always began the same way. The waiter approached the table, ready to take our order. My mother fixed her eyes on me, prompting me with a gentle but meaningful glance. And together we began our well-rehearsed explanation of my numerous food allergies. As we went over them all, milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts, shellfish, we watched him intently, searching his face for signs that he understood and could help me navigate the menu safely.
Even when I was very young, my parents insisted that I take part in this explanation, that I do some of the talking. Meal by meal, my mother taught me how to communicate about my food allergies, how to be firm without being alarmist, polite without being passive. I knew she was always there backing me up, keeping me safe in a potentially dangerous environment.
Each meal ended with another restaurant ritual. The waiter brought the check and I reached for it. My dad and I examined the total, discussing the bill in serious, hushed tones. Together, we calculated the tip and discussed an issue of utmost importance, a tradition that we called “the extra dollar.” The rule was this: those who made an extra effort to keep me safe, to help me negotiate the perils of an unfamiliar menu, got a 20 percent tip plus an extra dollar. It was a small, symbolic gesture of thanks, an expression of gratitude that was my decision alone. It gave me a sense of control at every restaurant, places that often felt alien and dangerous, each meal holding unknown risk.
These two rituals were a part of every breakfast, lunch and dinner my family ate at a restaurant. With these well-rehearsed customs on hand and my parents behind me, I knew I was safe and that nothing bad would happen. In this way, I was able to dine out without fear.
As I grew older, these traditions became more and more my responsibility. I took on the job of fending for myself as my parents observed, honing with a pointer here, a reminder there. Eventually,
I was able to strike out on my own.
Looking back, I realize that it was about more than just food allergies. Yes, my parents were concerned for my health and well-being. They were trying to instill habits that would let me live safely with my allergies and express my thanks to those who assisted along the way. But they were also teaching me how to be independent, empowering me to look out for myself. These rituals helped me grow as a person. They taught me the value of responsibility, respect and good communication.
My parents never wanted my food allergies to define me. Instead, by teaching me how to manage my allergies, they gave me the tools to succeed, not just in a restaurant—but in life.
Joshua Feblowitz, 24, recently earned a master’s degree from MIT. He is a research writer at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and plans to attend medical school this fall.