Sometimes I think the most shocking thing I say in a restaurant is, “I’m allergic to garlic.”
The reaction of table mates is somewhere between disapproval and pity. Then the real trouble begins because everyone has to wait while the waiter and I negotiate what’s available for me to eat, often involving back and forth trips to the kitchen for a conference with the chef. It can become very embarrassing.
While I’m trying to find a suitable meal, everyone else seems to find special delight in discussing how much they like garlic. I can’t tell you how often someone, feigning great distress, says, “Oh, I just don’t know how you live without garlic.” I have to restrain myself from saying, “It sure beats dying with garlic.”
I end up feeling I should apologize as if my allergy is a character flaw, or at the very least un-American.
I try certain strategies to avoid the problem. One is to quietly ask the waiter, “What on the menu does not have garlic?” You’d be amazed how often I hear, “Nothing. Our chef puts garlic in almost everything.” (I have to restrain myself from asking, “Even the crème brûlée?”)
The waiter may try to reassure me that “there’s only a little garlic in …” (I then have to restrain my inclination to say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll only get a little sick.”)
In some restaurants, the chef may try to accommodate my culinary disability by apparently assuming that I have been deprived of taste buds altogether, thus leaving out not only the garlic but apparently every other seasoning so that the dish I’m served reminds me of those hospital meals they serve to people with ulcers.
Once in an Italian restaurant, the waiter became exasperated and said, with great indignation, “After all, this is an Italian restaurant.” This of course was a sure sign that the waiter had never been to Italy, where he would be amazed to learn that they do not put garlic in everything. (But I restrained myself from pointing that out because I didn’t want to sound elitist and I knew the waiter would not be convinced anyway.)
I was talking with an authentic Italian chef once and asked his take on the American approach to Italian food. He shook his head. “I don’t know where they learn it, but American chefs seem to be taught that garlic should be used indiscriminately like salt.”
When invited to a dinner party, I simply try to avoid the subject altogether and hope I can avoid the dishes with garlic. This of course is a sure way to starve at an American dinner party. And I fear that if I warn the hosts ahead of
time, I will no longer be invited. I can just hear the conversation about the guest list: “We simply can not invite Autry; he claims he’s allergic to garlic, you know.”
So, woe is me, I’m resolved to live a long-suffering life of garlic deprivation.
My wife has another view of this: She says my most boring subject is my garlic allergy and insists that the only thing worse than living with a garlic allergy is living with someone who has a garlic allergy.
Mississippi native James A. Autry (jamesaautry.com) of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 14 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood. His new book, “Everyday Virtues: Classic Tales to Read With Kids,” is co-authored with his son Rick Autry.