Category Archives: Reflections

Life Goes On

I tried to delete this blog. I did. I didn’t know when I’d even eat again, let alone be able to cook or eat out without thinking of the now ex-chef.

But one day, I will cook and bake again. And when I have the money, I may eat out again.

Furthermore, I still like food. And I still like detailing my experiences eating out with allergies, making vegan baked foods, and reflecting on growing up while being allergic to half the food pyramid.

So, for now, I’m going to try and keep this going. But I probably won’t have another post for at least a month.

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Expectations pt. 3 – Cupcakes

I’ve been planning this post for a while, but it has to be posted now, because Bleeding Heart Bakery closed forever last Sunday. I guess I was expecting their controversies to continue on for a while, but that’s no longer the case, and I’d like this to be somewhat relevant.

I’m not gonna lie, for a long time I was confident that they would one day make my wedding cake.

See, I looooves my vegan baked goods. When I was growing up, I didn’t even think there were any sort of Bex-safe cupcakes or cakes or cookies out there that existed beyond my mom’s kitchen. Not until we discovered the bakery at Blind Faith Cafe did I learn the word vegan and its wonderful definition of “all you have to worry about now are nuts.”

I discovered Bleeding Heart’s existence in 2006 along with my brother, during Lollapalooza, when they were offering vegan ice cream sandwiches. I mean, it’s hard enough for me to find street/festival food I’m not allergic too, but desserts are nearly impossible. So I was a happy hippie camper. We went to their (first) storefront location on Chicago Ave. for brunch, and while I didn’t think the food was that memorable, I saw all the vegan pastries and it kinda solidified in my mind that, okay, this is a vegan-friendly bakery I can come back to once I move to the city (I was still in undergrad in CT at that point).

I’m not actually sure I ever went there during the first couple of years I lived in the city proper. They may have moved from Chicago Ave. to Belmont in that time, but I didn’t have a bike and I wasn’t going to take the bus from Broadway to Damen just to buy some cupcakes. But I knew the brand: Punk rock. Organic. Sustainable. Special-diet friendly. By the summer of 2010, I was spending a lot of my time with Jeremy in “West Bucktown,” so I went and retrieved my childhood bike from my parents garage in Evanston so I could get back and forth between East Lakeview and Hipsterville. And I could bike to Bleeding Heart. Cupcakes and cookies and scones for me and even some chocolate covered bacon for the chef.

At some point, they had some sort of cupcake-eating contest to draw publicity for a new location they were opening somewhere on Lincoln. In addition to having a contest for sheer numbers of cupcakes eaten, there was an additional contest for “most creative cupcake eating.” After making sure the cupcakes were, or could be vegan, I decided I’d compete in that one. One girl put a bunch of cupcakes on a stick and ate them. Another girl took ten minutes to take apart some cupcakes and arrange them into a skull face (she didn’t even eat any of it).

Here’s what I did:

I won some pretty cool stuff from that contest, including a private brewery tour and a discount at a tattoo parlor (not yet redeemed… need to make sure I’m not allergic to black tattoo ink). So I really have to thank them for that.

But the Lincoln Ave. location never actually opened, so that was kinda weird.

I was super excited when I learned that the BHB owners would be teaming up with the guys behind The Fifty/50 to open a bakery and 24-hr brunch spot. The couple of times we went there, the brunch was okay, but again, it’s a rare breed of restaurant that offers breakfast/brunch fixings I can actually eat. I’m pretty sure I can count the rest of them on one hand: Pick Me Up, Handlebar, Flying Saucer, Victory’s Banner, and maybe Chicago Diner (which also has a bakery). So any addition to that list is awesome. We like going to Roots a lot too, so it was excellent to have vegan desserts available next door after a night of drinking.

Then Bleeding Heart Sucks appeared.

I think I discovered the tumblr via Twitter. I followed the BHB twitter account at the time, and I remember the angry tweets directed at the tumblr creator. I checked it out and initially concluded it was just a bunch of whining, disgruntled ex-employees. But I had a couple of friends on Twitter whom I knew to be ex-employees, and they privately confirmed to me that they had similarly bad experiences. I still didn’t want to believe any of it, any of the horror stories about moldy tarts, old bacon, ingredients that weren’t at all “organic and sustainable,” long days and missing paychecks, etc.  I talked it over with the Chef, who suggested that maybe the ex-employees just weren’t cut out for the “industry”. But more and more posts came in suggesting the opposite, that these ex-employees had worked in food service before and that their experiences with BHB were unlike anything they’d ever experienced.

And then I saw this post.

Now that sucks. Especially since, according to one ex-employee, BHB charged extra for special orders from people with allergy issues, to the tune of around $40 (a “sanitizing fee”). Forget all the promises of being organic and sustainable, if you’re paying extra to ensure that a bakery can produce you a special cake free of allergens, that money is like a deposit on your life. That was probably the nail in the coffin for me, that this bakery, still beloved by many, could build up people’s expectations to have an organic and allergen-free dessert and then possibly endanger their lives. For a nice extra fee. I swore off Bleeding Heart forever.

For a little while, I told myself that I didn’t need a storefront bakery to supply myself with cute boutique-styled vegan cupcakes in fancy flavors. I could just make them myself.

Sloppycakes

That didn’t turn out too well. I’m sure I could do a better job, but we don’t even have any pastry tools or anything to make them even look as good as, say, Sprinkles or Swirlz or any of the other myriad of cupcake places that sprang up over the past couple years.

But, in my quest to find a new place for vegan cupcakes, I did discover The Mixing Bowl, which isn’t a storefront, but a lovely lady who hawks delicious vegan goods just a few blocks away.

These are some of her donuts.

Yum.

The 24-hr brunch spot, now entirely owned by Greg and Scott of The Fifty/50, has since reformed itself into the West Town Bakery & Diner, and I’ve been told they are still vegan-friendly. I haven’t checked them out since the switchover, but I plan on it. Also, I know of Fritz Pastry, which makes equally excellent vegan donuts. And the news recently broke that the Chicago Diner is opening a new location in Logan Square, much closer to me!

So, while I don’t really have a go-to vegan bakery anymore, the options are there for me. And it’s probably good that I don’t have a go-to anymore… I mean I’d want to support any bakery that is making dairy-free and egg-free delicacies. As long as you aren’t straight-up lying about your practices, I’m more than willing to have multiple favorites 🙂

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Expectations pt. 2

It’s a series!
So the incident at Starbucks kind of reminded me of the time we went to the beloved, much-lauded Girl & The Goat. I wrote about the experience in a Yelp review shortly after:

“We experienced some CLUELESS servers. They knew about my many allergies before we came in and attempted to pare down the menu accordingly (NB: and when I wrote “pare down,” I meant that they brought me a menu with a bunch of dishes crossed out. I initially took that as a good sign), but didn’t seem to know what was in the dishes at all.

Thus I would order something, and it would be coated in butter when brought out. So I’d have to explain my allergies again and they’d pare down the menu further, only to have the same thing happen again when I ordered a second time. ‘Ooooh yea, this has BOTH dairy and eggs! Sorry, we’re not trying to kill you, we promise!’ said in the most disingenuous way possible. I actually put something in my mouth and chewed before the server came rushing back to tell me it had aioli.

A note: I am severely (read: deathly) allergic to dairy and eggs. I KNOW it’s hard to try and accommodate people like me, but I’m not asking you to make all the dishes safe for me. Just point me to a dish (or I’ll find one myself) that’s relatively easy to modify and I’ll go with that. But that all goes to sh** if your servers don’t know what’s in the menu items!”

This was a few months after G&G had opened, so I’m sure the waitstaff has more of a handle on the dish components now. But one “Santi M.” read my review on Yelp and decided to write me a snarky message:

“You shouldn’t give a restaurant a bad review because of your food allergies.  It’s obviously not a vegan restaurant.  That’s the lamest thing i have ever seen and extremely unfair to the business operator.”

Ah, the old “people with allergies shouldn’t be allowed to complain because that is lame” yarn. I wrote him back:

“Hey, guess what? I’m not vegan! And NO, it’s unfair to me for them to come out and say, HEY, we can absolutely accommodate you and fix things that are safe for you, and then due to the silly servers, come out and present me, not once, but 2-3 times with things that I’m allergic to.

Like I said, I’m not expecting them to try and make the entire menu safe for me. I’ve lived with this for 24 years, I know it’s hard. Just don’t tell me that this particular item is safe for me to eat and then bring it out and have it be covered in butter. That’s baaaad customer service.  But hey, the wine and the drinks were very good.”

No response from Mr. M, so I assume he got my point.  And it’s not a very complicated point, is it? I don’t generally have high expectations when I walk into a restaurant, which is why my go-to at any place is the meat & potatoes entree (burger –  sans bun – with fries, non-butter-cooked steak frites, etc). I want to make my dining experience as easy for the kitchen staff as possible because I am well-aware of the fact that I’m allergic to nearly half the food pyramid. I don’t need, nor expect any restaurant to completely accommodate me to the point where any dish could be made Bex-friendly. As long as there’s something on the menu I can eat, even a house salad, I’ll be good. I’ve sat with people and watched them eat foods that would send me to the hospital countless times, and trust me, it’s not a big deal.

But I do expect restaurant staff to know what’s in the food. I mean, don’t they teach you that when you’re hired?

No, I’m not on the Atkins diet… (Photo credit: CC/Flickr/chriscoyier)

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Expectations pt. 1

I meant to write about this after it actually happened, but I am nothing if not a top-notch procrastinator. A few weeks ago I went to a downtown Starbucks and had a very stupid experience.

See, occasionally at Starbucks I need to remind staff to use the soy pitcher instead of the dairy pitcher for my soy frappucinos, since I have a serious dairy allergy – and I do it very politely. Every single time they have been happy to comply and switch the pitchers or reassure me that the soy pitcher will be used, and this is why I love Starbucks.

Not this time. The young lady behind the counter rolled her eyes and said “That’s the way we always do it.” When I said that I had seen some people using the dairy pitcher for soy drinks, she snapped back “Just because that’s the way they do it at other stores doesn’t mean that’s how we do it here.” Taken aback, I said that I was concerned because it was a life or death issue. Undeterred, she continued “Yes, and that’s the way employees are taught.” Then she turned to her coworker and muttered under her breath “It’s gonna be a looong day.”

Aaand I took my frappucino and went on my way. As soon as I left I realized I should’ve told this bitchy barista I didn’t want her attitude-laced beverage, but I am not at all confrontational. I hate causing a scene – this is something the chef wished I could get over because occasionally, to broach allergy concerns, you need to cause a scene.

Anyway, I called Starbucks customer service and they were very nice and sympathetic and gave me some free drink coupons and told me they would contact the regional/district managers about it. Then I called that Starbucks back and told Miss Attitude that if she couldn’t show the least bit of empathy toward her customers’ requests, she probably shouldn’t be a barista.

Hey. I get it. People with nutritional/allergy concerns can be kind of annoying to you. You need to double-check things. You need to make substitutions or leave something off or make sure something is extra clean. But it has so much more to do with the actual customer service aspect of it… Just be friendly. Reassure me that you will talk with the chef or double-check that you’re using the right pitcher. If you can’t accommodate me, that’s really okay, just let me know (tip: it’s much worse if you pretend you can accommodate me when, in reality, you can’t). I don’t need a lecture on your company policy; just tell me how you plan to make my frappucino safe. It doesn’t take much, honestly.

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Why I Love Asian Food

When I was 7 or 8 or 9, I had one of my first gigantic allergic reactions after eating with my parents and extended family at an Italian resto downtown. After that I hardly had any restaurant food except for from Cross-Rhodes and The Wiener and Still Champion in Evanston, both trusted by my parents. If we did eat out at a restaurant, it was something American. Burger, no bun. Steak. Big hunks of USDA-approved beef were safe. McDonald’s was okay for a while (now their fries have dairy). And when I went on my college roadtrip, I found out I could eat Subway, wooo! But anything else – Asian, Mexican, French, and ESPECIALLY Italian – was suspicious, and thus avoided.

This changed when I went to college. Middletown, CT is not really a mecca of culture by any means, but there were solid Thai and Japanese restaurants that many students frequented. I went to Typhoon Thai and Mikado Sushi a couple of times with my group of friends during my first year, but I only ordered edamame or plain steamed rice out of caution. I was that girl that just ate rice. Whatevs.

I think I actually tried sushi my first year too, but it was the prepackaged kind they sold at the campus grocery store and the ingredients were all there. The first time I went to a sushi-proper restaurant I only had edamame. But I looked at the menu and asked some questions, discovering that sushi is essentially pretty simple: raw fish, rice, seaweed. Wasabi and ginger if you like. What could be easier to eat than that?

I’ve been a fan for life forever after.  I know to avoid anything “spicy” and anything with a tempura batter. Only once have I been to a sushi bar (Hama Matsu in Andersonville) that added random things to their rolls not disclosed on the menu, and I spotted it immediately.

Early in my Junior or Senior year of college I took another risk. I tried some Thai food from Typhoon. I worked for the student health office at the time and we were always ordering thai food for our events in order to entice people to come. There was a stir fry that we ordered – it looked fine, and according to the menu it had nothing I was allergic to. The only thing I was worried about was peanut contamination.

Don’t get me wrong, peanut contamination is a big issue. Peanuts are used in several Thai and Chinese dishes. See my previous post on this poor girl.

But when I was young, my parents and I developed a plan for new foods. Take a bite and wait 15 minutes. So that’s what I did.

And I was fine. And pretty much have been with Thai ever since, except for the time I tried curry (I have an oral allergy to coconut – it won’t cause anaphylaxis but makes my tongue itch like mad).

A few years ago I found I could also have the wide rice noodles in pad khee mao, drunken/crazy noodles and that has since become my absolute favorite Thai dish. The best that I’ve had in Chicago so far is at Thai Classic in Wrigleyville.

I eat from Asian restaurants frequently now, and not just Thai and sushi places. Bon Bon is a Vietnamese sandwich and noodle joint down the street that has delicious vegan tofu banh mi and vegan pho. We also live by Bill Kim’s uhh-mazing Belly Shack, which has a number of plates that I’m not allergic to. At this point, Asian cuisine is almost a go-to when we’re looking for a place to eat.

Except for Chinese food.

I will never eat Chinese food.

Part of my reliance on Asian food comes from the fact that it’s so traditional – 90% of the time a dish you see on one menu will be exactly the same on another. Even so, I always alert any restaurant about my allergies.

The culmination in my experience with Asian cuisine was on my most recent birthday, when I went to Union Sushi & BBQ Bar and sat at the chef’s table.

So how horrified would my mom be if she knew I went to a restaurant without a clue as to what I’d be eating? Extremely horrified, so let’s hope she never reads this. Given my allergies, I’ve understandably never experienced any sort of chef’s tasting or omakase before. But after looking at the chef’s table form on Union’s website (there’s an allergy section), I thought, “well maybe I could be accommodated.”
And accommodated I was, to my delight and everlasting gratitude. I went over my allergies with a couple of hostesses before we came in, and then again with Chef Chao. I think he may have been a little annoyed at how paranoid I was, but everything that he placed in front of me was perfectly fine for me to eat, even the fried stuff (they used tempura breading without the eggs). He also made some dishes separately and without alterations for Jeremy, so he could enjoy his oyster shooter with a quail egg.

We felt like royalty, dining on quail, kangaroo, fatty and super white tuna, and all sorts of fried crustacean delights, even fried oyster, which I have never had before and never thought I could have.
I literally left my life in Chao’s hands, and boy was I ever rewarded. I could not thank him enough for taking care of us, and I think at some point during the meal I almost cried.

I think it’s the characteristics of Asian cuisine that make it more easily adaptable to my dietary restrictions – except for Chinese, the fast food nature of which I’ve never trusted. Italian? Cheese and eggs abound. Mexican? Cheese or sour cream in many dishes, unless you go out of your way to find a less “gringo” joint. French? Butter butter butter. And  American? Cheese, sour cream, ranch, eggs, butter, mayo…etc. Asian? Rice, chilies, lime, soy, and some form of fish are the hallmarks  of most dishes. Peanuts and eggs are usually more of a topping or a part of a sauce rather than a main element. It’s spicy, salty, sour, simple and delicious.

And that’s why I love Asian food.

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THE Apple Pie

I’m not sure why I was looking, but at the beginning of November, I came across this recipe by Kathy Patalsky (vegan cooking blogger, also stellar food photographer) :

http://kblog.lunchboxbunch.com/2011/01/vegan-caramel-apple-pie-recipe.html

My mom usually makes every component of our Thanksgiving dinner and makes a great vegan apple pie. I love baking vegan treats, and I wanted to make up for the fact that two years prior I had attempted to make vegan fried fruit pies, which came apart when I tried to fry them – also my mom was not pleased about the oil spattering everywhere. This recipe looked like a good way to start a new tradition.

I’ll put it out there: I have an aversion to mixers and food processors and the like. I would prefer to literally handle my dishes from start to finish, especially when making dough or batter (though I like whipping up smoothies in our blender). The chef was always espousing the values of using the KitchenAid, but I think that’s just because he’s used to working in a restaurant kitchen where everything has to move at double speed. I more enjoy kneading the dough myself.

So the chef was nice enough to get me a pastry dough cutter, and my mom provided me with instructions on how to mix the dough by hand. I used cold Bob’s Mill all-purpose white flour, 2 cut-up and well-chilled sticks of Earth Balance, and salt.

Added extremely cold water, a little bit at a time as needed to get the dough to come together –

I separated the dough into two even blobs, wrapped them in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge overnight.

Thanksgiving morning, I got the chef to cut me up some apples – very thin!

Then we whipped up the filling seasonings and the accompanying caramel sauce. We made the addition Calvados to the filling mixture 😉 I think at this point in the recipe, when I make this again, I would cook the apples a bit in the skillet to soften them up as well.

Rolled out the dough…

I didn’t roll the dough out enough =(

So the chef re-rolled it for me. He also arranged the apples into the pie.

He cut the lattice strips and I attempted to arrange them. I started weaving them and then kinda gave up. But it doesn’t look too bad!

Baked it for 15 mins at 425° and then about 25 mins at 350°.  Some of the filling dribbled out while it was in the oven (you can see it at the bottom of the picture here), but it still came out wonderfully! I can’t wait to make it again next year!

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Viva Mexico!

And we’re back! Unhappily. We had a wonderful little tropical vacation in Cabo San Lucas the past few days. Despite leaving on the day after Osama got kill’t, nothing ever went wrong on the planes. And the closest thing I had to an allergic reaction was acid reflux.

Our hotel, Villa Del Arco was cheesy, but nice. Probably the best thing about it was that it was in a compound with two other hotels in the Villa group, one with a mercadito where we could buy groceries, alcohol and souvenirs. They had SILK SOYMILK which meant I wouldn’t have to eat dry cereal with black coffee for breakfast. We also bought some sandwich and drinky stuff there, so it was very useful to us. You could trolley over to the other hotels any time. For breakfast, there was a buffet where I could eat the aforementioned cereal (Kellogg’s, in a box with Spanish ingredients) and fruit. For lunch I could make myself a sandwich or have some chips and guac from the FAKE BOAT IN THE POOL. For dinner, I could again make myself a sandwich, or there was El Faro, the sushi and oyster bar which was also in the All-Inclusive package. Once, I thought it would be a good idea to check out dinner at one of the included theme nights (BBQ) at the neighbor hotel. In reality, had I been by myself I  wouldn’t have eaten anything but dry salad and fruit, but the chef was able to talk with the staff and the chef (all in easy, conversational Spanish), and get them to cook me a plain burger.

I was extremely grateful (UPDATE: 2 years later, still am, despite everything) for being there with me. Even if I didn’t have allergies, when a majority of the people you are around speak Spanish, it’s nice not just to know the language, but to be able to speak it smoothly and conversationally. It put the staff at ease, even when most of them knew English. I was practicing some myself: Muy serioso. Allergico MUERTE de leche, de queso y mantequilla y crema, huevos, cacahuates…

Anyway, here are some pictures!

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Mexico pt. II

Okay so I believe we are still officially on for Mexico.

Now comes the extensive planning to make it not so risky/reckless. I’ll chronicle how we navigate this.

My dad insinuated that a lot of my actions (this blog, even, since I talk about eating out, of which they don’t approve) are in direct rebellion to their protectiveness over my allergies. Whoooo, well I certainly hope not! I like to think that my actions are my own, thank ya very much. But it’s an interesting question. I have definitely been more of the impulsive risk-taker than my brother… would I be any different if I didn’t have allergies? Is everything I’ve been doing just to prove that allergies can’t stop me?

And if that’s true, so what? I mean do I want to live my life in a bubble, not doing not only what I want to do, but what I really believe I CAN do, and safely? I don’t want to go to Cabo because everyone else goes to Cabo, I want to because… well, I want to, and I think that I can.

Isn’t the point to try and do what I believe I can do?

Anyway, there’s a bunch of stuff we need to do beforehand: Speak with an actual doctor at the American hospital down there, call the Walmart, and speak to more of the hotel staff, specifically those in the restaurants and at the bar.

If worse comes to worse I’ll drink some boiled water and eat whatever I brought on the plane. 😉

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Parents picket girl with peanut allergy, ask her to withdraw from school – American Morning – CNN.com Blogs

Parents picket girl with peanut allergy, ask her to withdraw from school – American Morning – CNN.com Blogs.

Oh jeez. Of course they are picketing her, how dare their kids be forced to wash their hands and mouths?

This is a tough one for me. This girl has a right to be able to go to school and learn like everyone else. Her disability does not affect the classroom nearly enough as some disruptive kids with social-related disorders would, but the kids being “forced” or “punished” with washing their hands is just tooooo much.

As a side note, according to school data, the number of kids out sick has definitely declined since this was instituted.

What if this kid was one of these parents’ daughters? They’d have the pleasure of watching their daughter break out in hives, slowly becoming unable to speak, swallow, or even breathe due to the peanut-confronted histamines going crazy inside her.

But unless you really know what serious food allergies can do to a person, it’s easy to assume that this girl’s parents are over-protective and over-reacting.

On the other hand, if your allergies are really that serious, it’s going to be very hard to eliminate all allergy concerns, even with the mandatory hand-washing and mouth-rinsing.

The other sad thing here is this: Growing up as a kid with severe allergies, ALL you want to do is fit in. Having to be restricted, isolated, monitored constantly will make you feel like you will never be the same as other kids. This girl probably isn’t home schooled because her parents wanted to let her play and interact with other children, despite her serious allergies.

But she eats her lunch alone. And the fact that kids and parents are in an uproar about the hand-washing rule, well… she’s probably not the most popular girl in her grade. In fact, I’m fairly sure she gets picked on every day, who knows how badly. If I had a daughter like that, I really don’t know if I’d be able to subject her to such daily torment, even if I wanted her to have the school experience that most other kids have.

Here’s more in-depth stuff on this story:

http://www.clickorlando.com/education/27139755/detail.html

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Takashi

We went to Takashi for my birthday tonight. Very good! The chef and waitstaff were great with the allergies– actually none of the things I ordered had to be modified in the slightest. It was a nice vibe. Good decor, soft ambient techno jazz oriental streamlined feel and although the tables were close together, that wasn’t necessary a bad thing.

We started with the ceviche, oysters and beef tartare plates, and some ginger lime and honey pomegranate martinis. The ceviche was delicious. I loved the combination of seafood they use, big hunks of squid and shrimp and octopus and slices of scallop. The flavor on the dressing was good, similar to what was on the oysters – julienned vegetables in a citrus vinaigrette. The chef enjoyed the beef tartare with the quail egg on top.

We both ate pretty fast. I don’t know if it’s because we were hungry or because the food was so delicious. I had roasted duck and confit of leg with some similarly citrus-tanged beets, and chef dived into some pheasant with chestnut and mushroom risotto.The portions aren’t that big, but you can always ask for more bread. It’s all tasty.

The proximity of the tables actually led to me overhearing a dude at the table next to us talk about being allergic to tree nuts. For some reason I felt compelled to flash him my epi-pen in benadryl – a moment of empathy and common understanding!

In truth, I went to ER last week. Takashi is a restaurant that naturally has a lot of dairy, egg and nut free dishes, but last week I was honestly just really silly – I went to a bar and grill I’d been to before and did not ask what the pineapple I wanted on top of my burger (ordered with no bun) was grilled in.

I ended up in the ER 30 minutes later.

I’m still pissed about that experience, but I guess any experience you learn from is worth something.  Ambulance rides are expensive though. And sucky. It felt good to eat somewhere that had dishes that were totally fine for me to begin with.

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