On a hot summer night, in the basement of a friend’s cottage, I was lying in bed with my eyes wide open, gazing at the ceiling. What was keeping me up, you ask? The logistics of my morning coffee.
As people with food allergies we have our rules; the little things that we do or don’t do to stay within our comfort zones. If I see a sponge used to wash buttery dishes, for example, I will never touch that sponge again, and I especially will not use it to wash anything I intend to eat from. We might fixate on our rules, as I am about to describe to you, but only because we know we need them to stay safe.
This brings me to the cottage weekend in question. It was our first time staying at this couple’s place on a beautiful lake. While we were friends and they knew of my multiple food allergies, they had no experience with navigating them. I had brought my own meals, a bunch of snacks, my usual two epinephrine auto-injectors, along with two backups to make myself feel secure.
After a day of fun and libations we went into the kitchen to start on dinner. It’s difficult to explain the whole allergy cross-contamination thing to the uninitiated at the best of times. But add drinks on top of that, and it becomes far more challenging. Fortunately, I had prepared my own meals and was able to bow out of the communal dinner.
The Coffee Conundrum
My mind began to drift to the morning. A strong coffee first thing is something I cannot do without, or I become a horribly miserable person. I wasn’t ready to let these friends see that side of me.
As I looked around the kitchen, I took note of all potential threats to my morning coffee. Butter from the pan was misting onto the electric kettle, which was nestled by the stove, the spout now coated in a layer of contaminant. The mugs sitting out to dry had been handwashed with the dreaded sink sponge. I could get a new sponge and discreetly toss the old one, but I didn’t know where they kept them.
There were allergens all over the counter now from the dinner prep. The roll of paper towel had been contaminated with cheese. The coffee percolator might have been acceptable however, I had not brought my own grinds and I didn’t see any of my safe brands in their cupboard. I had to move to Plan B – the instant coffee I had tossed into my bag just in case. But what to brew it in?
At the end of dinner (yes, I fixated on this throughout the evening), I asked about the morning coffee situation. The kettle and the percolator were offered. I rationalized to myself that I could wash out the kettle with soap before anyone woke up, making it safe for me. So I asked if the tap water was drinkable.
“The kettle is already full, so why would you need to fill it up?” Blasted! Not the response I wanted.
Later in bed, I hashed out the options in my head. Wake up early and re-wash a mug myself, then use really hot sink water to dilute my instant coffee. But that would taste like garbage. Wash the kettle quickly and hope that I got all the butter residue off. Run my instant coffee through the percolator. Use the percolator as a kettle and hope that they’d never used nutty coffees in the past. Develop a recipe for a coffee bar, like a chocolate bar, so that in future situations like this I could simply eat my morning cup.
In each of my scenarios, the answer was to wake up before everyone else and sort the coffee situation out in peace, alone.
The Husband for the Win!
You might wonder why I went to such lengths to conceal this whole charade. But the reality is that when people are new to food allergy life, it’s easy to feel insulted. Your kitchen might seem clean, then along comes this guest point out that nothing in it is clean enough for them. Plus, I was in the middle of enjoying a weekend where I’d supplied my own food and didn’t have to explain my allergies at length, or feel like the allergy police. This was a rarity for me.
So at 5:45 I awoke, ready to conquer this situation. My husband’s sleep, unfortunately, was a casualty of the cause. I dragged him upstairs with me, his eyes barely open, and planted him in a comfortable chair. I explained the whole coffee debacle, and how I was going to wash the kettle now.
He replied: “Why don’t you just use the instant hot water dispenser in the pantry?”
Bless this man! I didn’t even know it existed. So I dumped our instant coffees into two freshly washed mugs from the dishwasher, topped them up with instant hot water, and sank into a chair next to him to enjoy the brew.
After about 15 minutes, our coffees drained, we went back to bed. He dozed off within minutes. And I slept peacefully knowing I had dealt with that situation and could cross it off my list.
We all have our rules, and while they might seem absolutely ridiculous from the outside, and sometimes they are, we are our own safe-keepers and should always trust in ourselves and what our gut says is right.
It’s our job to take note of all allergy-related minutiae and determine our course of action. We have backup plans, and we come prepared.
So next time you find yourself eating a sandwich quietly in the bathroom at a party, sterilizing someone else’s fridge handle when they aren’t in the room, or throwing out a sponge and pretending to have no idea what happened to it, know that you are not alone. Somewhere across the country, I’ll be out there, doing the exact same thing.
Amanda Orlando is the Toronto-based author of two food allergy-aware cookbooks, the latest of which is Everyone’s Welcome. Also visit her blog, Everyday Allergen-Free, where she writes about the realities of life with allergies and shares many of her recipes.