I was picking up my library holds when the librarian noticed that I had some vegan cookbooks. “I have some vegans and vegetarians coming over for Thanksgiving,” she told me. I didn’t know what to make of her; she had a somewhat dour expression and spoke slowly. “It’s such a relief,” she continued, “I hate having to cook a turkey!” It was the first time I saw her smile.
While there are undoubtedly at least a few relieved cooks and hosts out there, many of us may be alarmed or annoyed that an alternative guest is coming. A refusenik! An ingrate! Like we don’t have enough to do. What a burden, how rude and selfish and unfair.
As if everyone else around the table wasn’t holding out an empty plate, expecting to be fed like so many gaping chicks in a nest.
We tolerate picky eaters as long as they only make horrid faces, call everything ICKY and YUCKY and GROSS, and rant at length about The Texture and every other detail of a perfectly fine meal. It’s fine if you’re merely picky; that’s a personality trait. But if you choose to do it on purpose!
Like from a food sensitivity!
Geez man, just choke it down and go to the hospital later. That’s what I’d do.
We’re alienated by each other’s demands around the table. We don’t see our own needs or preferences in that light, those of us who refuse to eat, let’s see, what have I heard from supposed omnivores?
Any kind of sauce
Anything with a speck in it, like whole-grain pasta
Anything that touches something from another part of the plate
Raw carrots, although cooked are fine
Onions, only raw or only cooked
Soup, any kind, or just chunky soup, or just a bisque
Individually: eggplant, mushrooms, squash, cabbage, pumpkin, cauliflower, sweet potato, et cetera
I’ve cooked for groups including all kinds of sensitivities and weird preferences, and weird preferences masked as sensitivities. From my perspective, everyone has at least one food that they absolutely will not eat, under any circumstances. No sense blaming anyone for it. We have a historically unprecedented access to a vast array of foods from every region on the earth, from every culture, with spices that used to cost a king’s ransom.
Salt! Black pepper! Lemons! Oranges! Cinnamon! Saffron even!
The fact that we feel perfectly free to reject food, shove it around the plate, leave it to be scraped into the trash, is an extravagance of abundance. We aren’t fighting each other over the last withered turnip and that is magnificent.
BTW if you’ve never tried turnips, you totally should. They’re fantastic, much nicer than ordinary potatoes, especially baked in the oven.
Anyway. In this year of grace two thousand nineteen, there is no way that any holiday table is going to have a standard set of completely standard diets. Someone is going to have a special need, and those of us who like to cook and play the host are going to have to learn how to accommodate it. Consider it next-level hospitality, an opportunity to experiment.
How do we manage? How do we avoid putting our friends in to anaphylaxis or violating their spiritual principles?
The first thing is that there must be no trickery. We must agree not to lie to anyone about what is or is not in a dish. That is against the concept of free will.
I admit that I did this once, when I was making the pies and everyone else was running errands and the cat jumped on the table and started licking the pie crust. I chased him off, but I couldn’t remember which pie he had his face in, and there was no time to make another one and the store was already closed for the day. I figured the heat of the oven would destroy any cat germs in the pie, shrugged, and carried on like it hadn’t happened. Everyone ate the pie and nobody got ill. It was years before I confessed.
If you don’t think someone should trick you into eating cat-lick pie, then don’t trick other people about their food either.
Second thing: avoid cross-contamination. Each dish gets its own serving utensil. Each pot and pan has its own ladle or its own flipper or whatever.
Next, a lot of dishes can be made in such a way that a taboo ingredient can be left out for one serving, then added in for everyone else. Shredded cheese, butter, or breadcrumbs are a few examples. My mom used to save a raw carrot for me when she made candied carrots, and the same with the yams from the candied yams. (Not raw but not covered in brown sugar and marshmallows, either). It’s a simple yet unforgettable gesture of love, an act of service as well as a gift.
As a cook and a foodie, I love to experiment with new recipes. I tend to favor the exotic, with complicated spice blends and fruity sauces and tons of condiments. I married a man who likes foods to be simple. Why make wasabi mashed potatoes when you can just have regular mashed potatoes? It remains hard for me to fathom, but most people gravitate to the simple and unadorned, the exact foods that I find bland, boring, and sometimes completely inedible. I’ve learned to keep the sauces in a bowl, to leave most of my sides predictable and standard. This is also the way to make it easy for guests with special needs to know what they can and can’t put on their plate.
Interestingly, most standard dishes can easily be made both vegan and gluten-free. (Salads, potatoes, certain grains, all side vegetables, drinks, some desserts). I’ve done plenty of five-course meals that are corn-free, yeast-free, canola-free, or whatever the need is for that day. It’s only hard when we feel martyred, that it is not fair for this person to “refuse” to shut up and eat what everyone else is eating. When we see it as a chance to be magnanimous, to lavish generosity on someone, to show that ours is a welcoming home, well then, it turns out not to be such a big deal.
Ultimately, it can be the most hospitable just to allow our guests with special needs to bring their own food. We can set aside a clean dish and a clean serving utensil. We can lay it out and label it in such a way that it isn’t accidentally consumed by those who can eat everything. We can smooth the process and carry on with the party, making it a non-issue.
The social problem of incompatible diets is not going to go away. If anything, this is the tip of the iceberg. More people are going to get laboratory testing and find out that they shouldn’t be eating certain specific things. Next it might be our own turn. As hosts and cooks, we may as well start adapting now, knowing we are learning vital skills that our own families and closest friends may need. We can show ourselves to be generous and hospitable, our homes warm and welcoming, our tables the places to be. We can laugh it off and everyone can have a good time.
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.
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