As someone with a severe nut allergy, I have learned to be vigilant about what I eat and where I eat it. It can be particularly challenging to indulge in ice cream, though I do love a good frozen scoop.
Ice cream is often made with a variety of allergens, and cross-contact with nuts can easily occur during the scooping and topping process. (Think of some popular flavors: Pistachio, Nutella, and Rocky Road). This can make it difficult for people like me to enjoy this beloved treat without fear of an allergic reaction.
That’s why it’s so important for ice cream shops to take food allergies seriously and put measures in place to ensure the safety of every customer. Simple accommodations like separate utensils, gloves, and toppings go a long way in preventing cross-contact.
My family was fortunate to have found a local ice cream shop that implemented such measures almost 17 years ago. Their staff was well-trained in handling food allergies and took great care to ensure that my ice cream was prepared safely nut-free. Each of the many times I ordered, I was clear about my allergy. A staff member would prominently display the warning “Allergen Alert,” so the scoopers couldn’t miss it on my order.
These precautions made my experience safe and enjoyable for many years, without any reactions. But earlier this year, it happened: an employee made a grave mistake and botched my order. One big error was all it took to shatter years of trust.
Cookies and Cream in a Sugar Cone
For my entire childhood, every accomplishment was synonymous with a trip to this special ice cream shop in Chicago. Whether it be starting a new semester in school, earning a 4.0 GPA for the quarter, scoring a soccer goal, or performing in a piano recital – all came with a coveted trip to this ice cream chain.
In February, I was gearing up to start my first job after college. I was moving to New York City and my parents wanted to celebrate in the fashion they knew best: ice cream. As usual, we went to the drive-through window and ordered a “small scoop of cookies of cream in a sugar cone.” We confirmed with the window attendant that my scoop would have an “Allergen Alert” attached.
My mom asked me if I had brought my epinephrine auto-injector. I didn’t have it with me. Because we had been to this ice-cream innumerable times as a family, I thought I would be safe. I trusted, when I shouldn’t have.
When I accepted my (supposedly safe) ice cream from the window, I had a passing thought that it didn’t look quite right. I pushed down this warning signal and took a small bite.
My lips started tingling and I tasted coconut. Neither of those tastes or feelings should have accompanied my regular order of 17 years.
Ice Cream Order Gone Wrong
I asked my dad to pull into the parking lot so I could go into the store to talk to a shop employee. Once we had stopped, I quickly jumped out of the car and rushed to the counter. I needed to find out what flavor of ice cream contained coconut!
To the nearest employee, I asked, “Excuse me, but what flavor of ice cream has coconut in it? I ordered cookies and cream.”
The employee automatically responded, “Coconut Almond Chocolate.”
My stomach dropped suddenly. I didn’t have antihistamines, or epinephrine with me. I rushed back into the car and had to make the decision whether to head home or to the hospital.
We chose to go home that evening, and I took a dose of antihistamine. Fortunately, since I’d stopped at just one small bite, the symptoms abated.
But still, I couldn’t believe my favorite ice cream shop had let me down after all this time.
Allergy Lessons & Ice Cream Shops
I learned some lessons that day. First, even if you are a regular customer for 17 years, cross-contact and order mix-ups can happen. As much as one may want to live without food allergy fear, the reality is that every time you patronize an ice cream shop, you are taking a health risk.
I tried to follow up with the ice cream shop, to no avail. Surely, after 17 years of patronage, they would at least let me know what had happened? Well, I got an apology from the assistant manager, but not much else. Frankly, I think they thought I was going to sue!
The second takeaway is the importance of always carrying lifesaving medications. It can be easy to drop your guard, but with food allergies, always resist the impulse. You can’t assume that, because you’ve been somewhere countless times without incident, you’re safe.
My story demonstrates that this is not the case! Not bringing your medication like me is a terrible, terrible idea.
So what to do if you just want a small scoop of celebratory ice cream for your next big accomplishment? My advice from this experience is to buy your own tub of ice cream from the grocery store. Just bring it home for safe, allergy-free enjoyment.
Alexa Jordan is a graduate of Harvard University and incoming student at Oxford University. She can be found at @alexa.jordan on Instagram.