She scarcely glanced at the menu. When the server arrived, she took a neon pink sheet from her purse and handed it over.
At the top: "I have food allergies. Peanuts are fatal."
It went on to list everything else Linda McIlroy, 69, was allergic to. Milk, eggs, shellfish, mushrooms and peas.
The waitress at Buya, a hot new ramen house in St. Petersburg, blanched a bit but kept a cool poker face.
"Let me consult with my manager and chef."
Meanwhile, McIlroy leaned toward me.
"It has to be on neon paper. No white, no beige or it gets lost in the kitchen. You've got to shock them."
• • •
Things for McIlroy got weird on Thanksgiving 1991. She got up early and put the turkey in the oven and started throwing up. The flu, she thought. Two weeks later she got sick again. Got better again, got sick again. Time to go to the doctor.
"They thought I had something wrong with my stomach or bowel," the Redington Beach Realtor said as we waited for the verdict from the kitchen. "Specialists couldn't find anything. One doctor said I should see a psychologist."
Starting with poultry, she and doctors eventually identified her allergens. These days, McIlroy has a nonprofit called Food Allergy Actions. And everyone knows someone with a food allergy. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Overall, an estimated 15 million Americans have a food allergy, and that number is rising.
And there is no clear answer as to why.
McIlroy can't go to a Rays game or Cody's or Five Guys because of all the peanuts and peanut shells. She has to alert flight attendants for fear of those little bags of nuts. If she goes to a party and there are lots of allergens on a buffet, she will walk back out. At Subway, she asks the counter folks to change their gloves and to cut her sandwich with a fresh knife for fear of cross-contamination. She reads every ingredient of the foods she buys at the grocery store.
"I have a silent disease and a handicap," she said a bit wryly as we sipped our drinks.
• • •
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen at Buya, things were getting hairy. That server had gone to owner Mike Sponaugle, who in turn sought out chef Sean Squires.
I went into the back and said we're going to put something together. Sean wasn't 'sigh, grumble grumble,' " Sponaugle said. "We came up with what we thought would represent our menu and something that we could be proud of."
The proposal? Wagyu brisket with ramen noodles, asparagus and other veggies. McIlroy green-lighted it.
But things weren't exactly simple in the kitchen.
"Our noodles are in the clear, no egg," Sponaugle said. "But I got on the phone to Sun (the noodle producer in New York) to make sure there was no risk of egg. And then we went into kitchen-quarantine mode."
In a tiny kitchen, maybe 300 square feet, there is limited work space. Those bean sprouts used to garnish dishes? Squires and crew wanted no risk of them coming in contact with McIlroy's dinner. The only way they felt confident that there would be no unintentional cross-contamination was to shut it all down.
"We're in the middle of dinner rush and have to take a part of the kitchen and wipe everything down. It was the only way we felt comfortable."
Thirty tickets hanging, the dining room packed, and chef Squires is focused solely on McIlroy's dish. When it emerged in the dining room, none of this kitchen pandemonium was conveyed. Smiles all around.
"At the end of the day, we're in the service industry," Sponaugle said simply. "We're there to provide the best product without being discriminatory."
This is not universally the case, McIlroy said. Plenty of places have turned her away, not comfortable with the associated risks of feeding her.
For some restaurateurs, the "greatest good for the greatest number" is the prevailing modus operandi. Shutting down a kitchen to serve one customer may not be realistic. For Tampa restaurateurs like Suzanne Perry (Datz, Dough, Roux), the risks outweigh the benefits. There have been legal tussles and allergic reactions in the dining room that have left Perry gun-shy about taking on the responsibility. For patrons with allergies as severe as McIlroy's, she may respectfully decline to prepare food.
"It takes one line cook with a packet of peanut M&M's in their pocket to cause a diner to have a life-threatening reaction," she said. "It's too scary."
• • •
At Buya, when the server went to pack up McIlroy's leftovers in a to-go container, she washed her hands to be extra safe.
"I would give this place a 9 (out of 10)," McIlroy said appreciatively. Other places that she has given high marks: Square 1 Burgers, Carrabba's, Macaroni Grill, Ruby Tuesday and the Frog Pond in North Redington Beach. But there have been wipeouts, too.
"I've been in anaphylactic shock a lot. I've used my EpiPen a couple times," she said.
Restaurants where the marinara had undisclosed cheese in it. Secret chicken broth. Eggs that the server forgot about. At home, she eats MorningStar black bean burgers with Tofutti cream cheese and Bays English muffins (the only brand she has found with no milk). She craves the cakes and pies her mother used to make; she misses eating french fries. (Most restaurants cook fries in the same oil that has fried poultry or shrimp.)
Some might wonder why McIlroy eats out at all. In fact, she dines out frequently, equipped with her neon sheets, and spent 11 days in Hong Kong some years back.
"I don't want it to control my life."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.