Doctor, I’m allergic to fussy eaters

Image of Tyler Brûlé

If you’ve been following this column for the better part of a decade then you’ll be familiar with my travel patterns and the cities that show up with some degree of frequency. New York crops up on itineraries about once a quarter, Milan about five times a year, Hong Kong every two months and Tokyo roughly every five weeks.

Since January, Toronto has become a regular destination as we’ve opened up a shop and office. Bangkok is almost neck and neck with HK as my second most visited hub in Asia due to a spike in new clients and assignments. And if you’ve been following this column over the past few weeks you’ll also know there have been a few surprises – a 48-hour jaunt to Dallas was one trip I could never have predicted at the start of the year.

But where I’m currently penning this column from is even more random and as oddly exotic and energy-rich as Dallas – think rodeos, a recent royal visit, a Winter Olympics and Chinook winds. Yes, I’m in -19C Calgary with a wind-chill reading that’s saying it’s much closer to -30C. I could be more graphic and rude in my description of the conditions, but for the purpose of this column I’ll leave it at brrrrrrr!

Fortunately, I’ve just returned from a jolly dinner with my dear friend Lisa, her sister Susie and my colleague Tristan, and thanks to some wonderful food, excellent wines and hilarious conversation the wind chill hasn’t been much of an issue.

The past week has been a blur of Christmas parties that started last weekend with our Christmas market in London, jumped to Tokyo for client and subscriber parties on Tuesday and Wednesday, and moved on to Toronto for more of the same on Thursday and Saturday. Now my tour has almost wrapped with a more intimate gathering on Calgary’s south side.

As this tour has involved considerable planning on the catering front, it’s also raised questions that have been nagging me for some time. Who is responsible for the ridiculous dietary allergy wave that’s sweeping the planet? Who’s profiting? And when will it stop?

It may not have even come to my attention but for the total lack of special dietary planning (aside from choosing delicious things for all to enjoy) that went into our Tokyo trip. It was such a relief that I started to think about how ridiculous the art of hospitality has become in other parts of the world – it’s almost impossible to host a casual evening without having to specially tailor canapés and main courses to suit at least 10 special dietary regimes.

While this might be something of a generalisation, no one ever asks for special conditions to go with their food orders when dining in Japan. At lunch at a tonkatsu restaurant, friends and colleagues don’t ask for their pork cutlet to be bathed in gluten-free breadcrumbs; at a patisserie in Nishi-azabu, no one is threatening waiters with the ramifications of serving dairy anywhere near the assembled party; and at a café in Daikanyama, there are no complicated orders cataloguing various allergies to an unwitting barista.

It may well be that the Japanese possess a gene that makes them immune to all types of food or that their medical system is so unsophisticated that they’ve yet to identify the menacing consequences of wheat and dairy. (Please don’t write me a letter saying that these staples don’t feature in the modern Japanese diet, because they do.) But I’m inclined to think that it’s more a case of Japan’s medical community not having a laugh at the expense of peoples’ lifestyles.

Is it not time to draw a very clear line between allergies and dietary dislikes? I have friends and relatives who are allergic to various kinds of nuts and on occasion I’ve seen them turn purple while their eyes bulge and they scramble to find their syringe to inject themselves. I’ve known people to break out into rashes because of strawberries and I believe I once knew someone who was allergic to tomatoes, but they were so complicated to cook for that we’ve since drifted apart. As for traces of soy, swigs of beer, a dollop of cream on a cake and a bit of salmon on a cracker, do these really, really count as allergies? Really?

Why is it that seemingly 37 per cent of the English-speaking world can no longer go anywhere near gluten-based products or dairy since 2009, but oddly everything was fine before then? And who’s profiting from this? Is it rogue allergy specialists in collusion with diagnostic companies that are owned by gluten-free/dairy substitute food producers? Or is it that people need to find new ways to express themselves and stand out from the crowd so they decide to self-diagnose themselves as lactose intolerant after eating too much ice cream and sitting on the toilet all night?

Either way, it’s time for some to be a bit less precious about their tummies and learn to live a little – especially in this delightful season of fine drink and gluttony.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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