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Picky, picky, picky

October 21, 2007

Q: I am throwing a dinner party for my husband's 40th in less than a week, and I have hired a private chef to cook an amazing five-course meal in our home. The menu is set, and each dish is one of my husband's favorites. Yesterday, a friend's wife e-mailed me to say that she is allergic to cow's milk and nuts. She also claims that she is intolerant to gluten and wheat. I know that she's lying because I saw her eating a Gruyere grilled cheese at Campanile last month! Do I really have to change the menu we planned three months ago for her?

-- M.K., West Hollywood

Dear M.K.,

Why not hire a private investigator to trail her at Gelson's? Or, better yet, invite her over for coffee this week, and spike the nondairy creamer with a shot of 2% milk? I understand your frustration with this woman's severe immunity to decent etiquette, but you can't very well put a polygraph next to her plate.

Now, on to those purported allergies. She's not alone. According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, about 12 million Americans -- or one in 25 -- say they suffer from food allergies, a figure that has doubled in the last decade. But some folks are conveniently confusing an aversion with an allergy.

"Only 3% to 4% of people who claim to have food allergies have actually undergone diagnostic testing to be sure, so it's mostly self-reported," says Dr. Marc Riedl, assistant professor of clinical immunology and allergy at UCLA. I can't imagine how -- short of administering a blood test during cocktails -- you might determine whether or not this woman is a big faker.

"People are afraid of sounding picky, so they pretend to have an allergy when they order," says Phoebe Damrosch, author of "Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter." In her just published debut, this former captain at New York restaurant Per Se advises readers to own up to their personal tastes and be honest about hating an ingredient or sauce.

Such candor is acceptable in a restaurant, but being a food bigot at a private dinner is just bratty behavior. I recently sat next to a woman at a luncheon who swore off all white food (except for halibut) in 2005, and she glared at my bread plate with nostril-flared revulsion. She told me that she was "intolerant to white food." If I had had a breadstick, I would have poked her with it.

For the record: Someone who ingests a food to which she is allergic will have an overreaction in the immune system within a few minutes to an hour of eating the offensive food. In rare cases, reactions can be lethal. Those with an intolerance usually suffer later on, as digestion is hampered by a lack of enzyme or the offending food irritates the digestive tract. "People who say that they are allergic or intolerant sometimes bring in tests or evaluations that make no sense," says Riedl. "It's fringe medicine or junk science."

Unfortunately, you can't be the one to debunk your pesky guest's questionable claims. Yes, she breached decorum by e-mailing you a laundry list of her food prejudices. But unless you're willing to serve her a dish that could turn your fete into murder-mystery dinner theater, you have to come up with an alternative.

Don't change your menu. Rather, work with the chef to devise a few very easy offerings for your picky guest. "A simple salad, roasted vegetables and any protein except tofu will work for her," says Stephanie Goldfarb, a private chef with Salt Kitchen and Fine Foods who has cooked for Tom Cruise, and just happens to be sugar-, soy-, wheat-, gluten- and dairy- intolerant.

Oh, and during dessert, you might want to ask her when was the last time she ate at Campanile. With a knowing wink.


The Mannerist


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