Get Rid of Tipping? Those with food allergies will suffer

When restaurant waitstaff answer my myriad questions and do everything in their power to ensure my food is allergy free and gluten safe, I always reward them with a handsome tip. The better the service, the higher the gratuity. So this morning’s Today Show’s discussion about whether restaurants should start paying waiters a living wage and stop the practice of tipping alarms me. Evidently, some high-end restaurants are already including service fees in menu prices and paying their staff higher wages.


My concern is this: Will waitstaff provide quality service to an allergic foodie like me if they aren’t relying on tips?

Based on my experience of dining in gratuity-free Italy, I don’t think they will. While I certainly had some superb meals in Italy and met some gregarious waiters, the service wasn’t all that great. In fact, more often than not, the service was bad.

Take my dinner in a small hotel in beautiful Positano for example.

Here we are on the beach of Positano

Here we are on the beach of Positano

Sitting down at the bistro table, I handed over my laminated translation card with highlighted food allergies (dairy, gluten, soy, corn, asparagus, capers, etc.). The gray-haired waiter with a pleasant smile barely glanced at it–yet he insisted he understood my special needs. Concerned, my husband reiterated my litany of allergies and went over every ingredient in the dish I ordered—a simple plate of vegetables and a plain piece of meat (at least that’s what I thought I was ordering).

Halfway through the meal, while the waiter filled our wine glasses, I gushed over the delicious food.

“It’s the cream that makes–” Stopping midsentence, the waiter turned as red as the tomato on my fork. He obviously knew cream was dairy and I couldn’t eat dairy–yet he served it to me!

This pretty dish made me sick!

This pretty dish made me sick!

We spent the next day walking up and down the steep cobblestone streets looking for the Italian version of Imodium. (By the way, anti-diarrhea medicine isn’t sold over-the-counter in Italy. You have to ask the pharmacist for it. How embarrassing.)

Of course, the system of tipping in America does not guarantee good service. We’ve all experienced difficult waitstaff. Still, I can’t help but think if I generously tip a waiter who took my allergies seriously, he or she will give me–and the next allergic foodie after me–good service again. Tipping is a reward system. Without a reward, there is little incentive for waitstaff to make sure my food won’t make me sick tomorrow.

A side note: My husband and I couldn’t get used to not tipping in Italy and we often added an extra 20 percent. We suspect that’s why waitstaff kept refilling our after-dinner Lemoncellos!

The Olive Oil Controversy

Soon after my extensive food allergies diagnosis, I visited a nutritionist.  At the time I was eating mostly fruits and vegetables and rice, but I was still sick.  Fearful I was developing even more allergies, I kept a food journal.  After reviewing the very short list, the nutritionist asked me what type of oil I was cooking the veggies in.  I assured her I was using olive oil (absolutely no soy, corn or vegetable).

Oil tasting, BAIA October 2006 Wine Tasting, C...

Turns out not every olive oil is created equal.  Who knew!

The one I was using contained soy oil (I consider soy to be my worst allergy).  According to the nutritionist and the research I later conducted, counterfeit extra virgin olive oil, fake EVOO, can be found on most grocery store shelves.  Read this July 2010 report by UC Davis Olive Center and this Natural News article.  I find it maddening that while I only buy 100 percent extra virgin olive oil, I might still be drizzling corn or soy oil on my salads–and getting sick!  Peanut, canola, sunflower, safflower, and hazelnut oils have also been found in olive oils.  While my reactions are not life-threatening, what about those who have anaphylaxis symptoms?

Of course there are many safe and tasty olive oils out there.  If I had read all the reports about adulterated olive oil before we travelled to Italy a few months ago, I would have been wary of tasting the olive oil and I would have missed some wonderful meals, like this one:

Fortunately, at that time of our trip, I assumed all olive oil in Italy would come just from olives (and most probably do).  While my husband tasted the wine, I tasted the olive oil, usually dipping my fingers into the bowls since I couldn’t eat the bread.  Oh my!  The taste of real Italian olive oil is incredible.

Our trip to Italy introduced me to the variety of olives and how the earth and processing of the oil creates its flavor.

We came home with a case from Casa Emma Winery (the winery is in the photo above).  I’m not sure how to describe this oil, but it tastes natural and green and a tiny bit spicy.  Guests often ask me for my salad dressing recipe, and I tell them it’s the olive oil that makes the difference.

So how do you know if you are getting the real thing when the label “100 percent olive oil” isn’t foolproof?  Paying more isn’t always necessary;  I’ve never gotten sick from Costco’s Kirkland brand and use it regularly for cooking.  But I have to say whenever I’ve bought a more expensive bottle of olive oil, my stomach hasn’t paid the price.

Some experts say real olive oil will solidify after a couple of days in the refrigerator, so you can give that a try.  Most good olive oils come in dark glass, so steer away from clear bottles.  You can also go to tastings at one of the many olive oil stores; bring your own gluten-free bread.  Ask the staff to help you identify the taste of true olive oil.  If you are a connoisseur like me, research olive oils that have won competitions.  As an allergic foodie, I’ve given up a lot, but I refuse to give up my olive oil!


Preparing for Italy

Spaghetti all' arrabbiata

Image via Wikipedia

Wondering how I would communicate my food allergies to servers in Italy, I did what all Americans do in a quandary: I turned to google.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a long list of websites offering translation cards in many languages and at low-cost.  The one I chose was actually free at Allergy Free Passport.

Within seconds I had a pocket-sized dining card listing the most common allergies in both English and Italian.  Now some other websites offer customized cards, but for my purposes the top allergies were sufficient.  I simply drew a line through the allergies that didn’t apply to me. Then I took one of the cards to the office supply store and had it laminated for about a dollar.  How easy was that!

The other cool thing I found at Allergy Free Passport was an e-book, Allergen Free Dining In Italian Restaurants, which I quickly bought and downloaded on my iPad to take with me.

Now I feel prepared to eat out in Italy!  Do any of you have a suggestion for traveling with celiac and allergies?