The pandemic killed my career as a restaurant critic—but helped save my health

Restaurant lockdown was the extreme elimination diet I needed to discover severe food allergies.

In 1992, when I moved to Miami with my husband, I answered an ad for a food critic in the Miami New Times, the city’s counterculture weekly. It asked, “Do you have the stomach for this job?”

By virtue of experience—I’d been working in bakeries, cheese shops, bars, and restaurants since I was a teen—I thought I did. Having just graduated from a rigorous poetry program but never having written for a newspaper, I also yearned to try my journalism chops. After some back-and-forth, the newspaper’s editors agreed to let me satisfy that hunger.

As it turned out, I didn’t have the stomach for the job. Nor some of the other equipment. But I didn’t know that until recently.

For a dozen years, I roamed counties’ worth of restaurants. Those were the Sex and the City days, when freelance food-and-travel writing was higher paid and felt more stable than academia. All that crumbled with the Great Recession, and most of the magazines where I worked whipped closed like hurricane shutters. Finally, I landed at MIAMI Magazine.

Like most people in my position—those who have worked in a public and specific field for a long time—much of my identity had been wrapped up in my vocation.

I stayed a dozen years until the pandemic revved up like a distant engine overseas. In January 2020, I lost my job, and for the first time in 28 straight years, there was nowhere else to go. Any South Florida publications that still put out restaurant criticism—a rapidly dying art—already employed freelance critics who were gripping their jobs like tree frogs.

Like most people in my position—those who have worked in a public and specific field for a long time—much of my identity had been wrapped up in my vocation.

Watching restaurants lock down around the city a couple of months later, knowing that no one could go out, only made me feel worse. Yes, I may have spent the majority of my vocation critiquing the hospitality industry. But I love restaurants. I understand them. I also spent years in the back end of the house, prepping in kitchens, running food, taking orders, serving from my native New Jersey to Southern California. These days, I weep for everyone working in restaurants.

But a strange thing started to happen while we were in lockdown, cooking nightly with our college-age kids who had suddenly been returned to us. I started to feel better.

Once I was no longer sampling many different foods at one sitting, I realized that I was inadvertently on an elimination diet.

Physically, I’d been pretty miserable for the past few years. Several nights per week, always unpredictably, I’d be violently ill for hours. I dropped so much weight that it alarmed friends and family. Many people believed I had an eating disorder. Going out became a chore. I started refusing invitations to openings, winemaker dinners, and menu samplings.

These attacks were beyond my control. They felt like food poisoning. I’d gone through something very similar both times when I was pregnant, and the obstetrician advised that I remove my gallbladder after my second pregnancy. But because the attacks stopped briefly and then resumed after I had the babies, I figured out then they must have been food-related.

Jen Karetnick picking aji peppers

Courtesy of Jen Karetnick

Jen Karetnick picking aji peppers

Even though I wanted to remain in denial, I had to ask myself: Were these sudden bouts of illness not as random as they appeared? They almost always occurred after I ate out for work. Were food allergies rearing their heads?

The short answer is yes. Once I was no longer sampling many different foods at one sitting, I realized that I was inadvertently on an elimination diet. I made it a deliberate way of eating and discovered that I’m highly allergic to eggs, which are in everything from baked goods to frothy cocktails. I’m also extremely sensitive to the saponins (plant toxins) in quinoa, chickpeas, and kidney beans.

In hindsight, I understand how confusing it was for the physicians I consulted. For starters, other conditions have damaged the nerves in my digestive tract. I also didn’t have anaphylaxis—when your throat closes up—which is an outdated way that some physicians determine the difference between food allergies and intolerances. And because I take daily allergy pills to deal with my troop of cats and dogs, I failed to break out into hives when I consumed the offending substances. Only when I ran out of pills and ate something like aioli did I see those large, itchy welts start to form, hours before the more severe gastrointestinal reaction kicked in.

Somehow, I missed the obvious. My sister was allergic to eggs when we were young. She grew out of it, and I grew into it. Scientific evidence is increasingly suggesting that allergies are linked to genetic components. In fact, so many Jews like us are sensitive to these and other foods (dairy, gluten) that researchers are starting to consider allergy prevalence in our communities.

I don’t see reviewing restaurants as a viable future. This isn’t simply a decision I’m making based on my health, either. It reflects what I see happening in the hospitality sector and food media, which seem more interested in rebuilding than taking down.

My newfound personal knowledge causes me some distress—I grieve the ease of a varied diet— but also some joy. I’d previously thought that both gluten and cruciferous vegetables, which I adore, were at least partly the culprits. I’ve returned them to my meals, which are now more protein- and plant-based. I’ve also explored egg substitutes that work remarkably well for cooking and baking. As a result, I’ve gained a necessary 10 pounds. I shudder to think how I’d look if the pandemic hadn’t helped me figure this out.

Restaurants around me continue to reopen, operate, and even in some cases debut, thanks to the weather and a huge influx of investors in the South Florida real estate market. While visiting them (safely and now vaccinated), I’ve realized I can still write about them even though I have to be much more careful about what I put into my body. Freelancing is starting to pick back up after a year of mostly lost income; with one child back at college and another starting graduate school, I certainly can use it.

But I don’t see reviewing restaurants as a viable future. This isn’t simply a decision I’m making based on my health, either. It reflects what I see happening in the hospitality sector and food media, which seem more interested in rebuilding than taking down. Besides, even before the pandemic, I was one of the few critics left at the table, a tiny raft in an ocean of Instagram influencers.

Jen Karetnick and Betsy Karetnick at La Boite en Bois

Jen and her sister, Betsy Karetnick, launched a weekly garden-to-table newsletter, “Distillery,” in late June 2020. They include food poetry, recipes, gardening advice, and interviews with food and beverage makers and artisans.

Courtesy of Jen Karetnick

Instead, I continue to define and develop new opportunities. One of those is with my sister, Betsy. Ever since she had worked as the morning drive radio host for Martha Stewart’s Sirius satellite radio show, we had wanted to do something together in food. But how, when she lived in Ohio and I lived in Florida?

After some thought, we launched our weekly garden-to-table newsletter, “Dishtillery,” in late June 2020. We include food memoir and poetry; recipes that we develop or learned from our mother, a wonderful self-taught cook; gardening advice, which we can do year-round since we plant in near-opposite zones; and interviews with food and beverage makers and artisans who are women, marginalized, and/or underrepresented in their fields.

Putting together “Dishtillery” has not only brought us closer in spirit when we can’t be near each other physically, but it has led to freelance jobs, both solo and as our first paid co-byline. It also allowed us to master new programs and apps.

So while I still mourn my critic’s identity, the pain of losing it recedes along with the pandemic. In its place, other pieces of my self assemble. As long as I’ve been a critic, I’ve also been a poet, an essayist, an educator, and an editor of a literary magazine, as well as a mother, a sister, and a daughter. For the sake of my health, change has been crucial. Embracing it, and understanding that identity is about far more than my career, is what makes me whole.

Jen Karetnick is an award-winning author or co-author of 20 books of poetry, cooking, travel, and more. Her work appears recently in Allrecipes.com, Business Insider, Heated, NPR, and Shondaland. She is based in Miami, Florida. For more, see jkaretnick.com or follow her on Twitter @Kavetchnik.