Times have changed, am I right? At some point twenty years into the future, everyone will have a precision individually calibrated dial-up 3D-printed custom food puck to accommodate every possible food intolerance. Either that, or the food itself will be genetically modified to eliminate allergies, and those who are afraid of GMOs will be reduced to foraging for acorns in the forest. (Acorns, because no strategy will ever stop squirrels from interfering with the propagation process. Except - GMO squirrels?). Today, though, we have the era we have. That’s an era when food isn’t food, it’s a symbol. When nutrition isn’t a science, it’s an ideology. When a menu isn’t a menu, it’s a minefield. Food is the new secular faith, and if you’re doing any kind of holiday meal, you’ve surely become aware of this trend. It’s time to feed your weirdos.
Cards on the table. I’ve been vegan for over twenty years and vegetarian for twenty-five. Back in the early Nineties, there weren’t really any other major dietary trends that reached pop culture awareness. At that time, the only people who had really ever heard the word ‘vegan’ tended to be waiters or cooks. I’d get stuff like, “Oh, you should have told me you were veggie, I would have made you a tuna fish sandwich.” I found myself on the front lines of food trends, because people would ask me if I [ate wheat, read X book, had heard of Dr. So-and-So, knew their auntie]. These days, I can barely keep track of it all, and I’m only one of many.
One year, I had to redo my entire menu because someone in my circle wasn’t eating potatoes.
POTATOES, I am a person of Irish heritage, so I ask of you...
I’ve worked around people who will not or cannot eat:
Gluten, of course
Fruit and sugar together
Naturally, dairy, eggs, fish, other meats
It’s funny when the lightbulb goes on over the head of an otherwise-omnivore who has a serious food allergy to a food that I avoid as a matter of course. Suddenly they realize that if I’m eating it, it’s safe for them. If I brought it, they can trust that it’s dairy-free. (My husband is one of these, someone who is just tired of being brought to his knees by conventional food that makes him ill). I try to build trust with my friends that I get it. I get what it’s like to have to scour every ingredient list, to check the ingredients OF the ingredients. I get what it’s like to feel embattled and alone, pressured by people who truly don’t care what I eat, but simply enjoy teasing and poking and prodding at anyone who stands out for any reason.
There are separate and distinct groups out there. I don’t just mean the Paleo crowd, the gluten-free crowd, that sort of thing. I mean there is a group of people who have been driven to the fringes by mysterious health issues. Then there’s a group of people who are natural optimizers, who like to experiment and collect data. Then there are ideologues like myself and some of the Paleo peeps. We do what we do for different reasons, different internal motivations. What we have in common is that we are done with the societal expectation that everyone should eat the same thing at group meals.
This is rough on everyone else.
It’s rough for a lot of reasons. One, every deviation from a standard group menu takes extra time and concentration. It is an imposition on the host, on the cook, on the resources of the kitchen. I say that with love because I AM that imposition and I am also that cook and that hostess. Two, these diets have complicated guidelines, to the point that it can feel like a graduate-level seminar just to understand the ground rules. Three, every single one of our beloved and cherished alternative diets is more expensive than the standard. Nobody says, “Oh, I’m on the ramen and spotty bananas diet.” Not everyone can afford to cover it! It’s very awkward to bring up. Four, the more of us there are, the more complex it gets.
Another thing that I hesitate to bring up is that we’re on the overlap between food taboos and lifestyle, between purity and preference.
What I mean by that is that all it takes is one individual who is still in the learning or experimental stage, who occasionally takes a bite of something off-plan, to spoil the image of that group’s requirements for everyone.
I’ve (more than once, I tell you I have) put together a complete gluten-free menu, from main course to dessert, for a single guest who has clinical dietary requirements. Off to the side, a separate main course and a loaf of conventional wheat bread for everyone else, because hey, GF is expensive and sometimes not thrilling for the rest of us. Then we sit there and watch as the GF person, who has just eaten a full four-course meal, goes in and starts eating the totally not-okay clearly labeled bread off the other counter. But that makes you sick! Don’t do it! “Oh, sometimes I give in.”
Look, I tried. I’ll continue to try. Because it’s not a matter of personal perfection or religious compliance or scientific consistency. It’s a matter of choice and taste. Even if the person does have a serious health issue, it still falls under the category of “my friend likes it this way.” Why would I not do what I can for someone I like, a guest at my table?
My niece complained that I put onions in the Mexican casserole. Normally I would tell the parent of a whiny six-year-old to make the kid a sandwich and we’ll try again when they’re a year older. That time, I considered her question and made the executive decision to quit putting the onions in that dish. The rest of us can just add chunky salsa. Less work for me.
A pair of squirrels live in the tree outside our front door. They’re habituated, chubby city squirrels and they come up and ask for handouts. They have let us know in no uncertain terms that they appreciate almonds, walnuts, and unsweetened dried cranberries, but they do not care for pumpkin seeds. The nerve of these chubsters, I tell ya. Guess what. I give them the walnuts. I do it because it’s more fun as a host to smile over a satisfied guest who plans to come back.
As a guest, I’m out to make friends. True, I’m not going to have a very strong friendship with someone who mocks my choices, tries to trick or pressure me into eating stuff, or questions my lifestyle. I’m like this every day, you know. I’m not pretending just to annoy you tonight. When I go to a social occasion with people I don’t already know, my goal is to be as low-maintenance as possible. I usually bring an emergency sandwich in my bag, and it’s my job not to be famished or fainting with hunger when I arrive. I will change the subject if it comes up, because a party is not the place to talk about my weird lifestyle. It’s not about me, or if it is, my diet is the very least part of me that I’d want to share with new friends. I hate being remembered as “that person.”
On the other hand, I want my guests to feel, when they come to my home, that they’ve been taken care of. That I paid attention and anticipated their needs. That I take them seriously. That if they want their name spelled out in pine nuts, I tried to use the right font. If someone ever got sick from eating at my table, I’d throw myself off a bridge. With this one lifetime that I have, I aspire to magnanimity as a host, to an elevated level of welcome that might transform a few hours of life for my guests and friends.
Feed your weirdos. If nothing else, it’s a chance to learn something new, an experience that makes for a good story. If I’m right, it’s also the wave of the future.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.