You’ll eat it and you’ll like it! - said nobody in the twenty-first century.
Times have changed. If you’re planning any gathering that includes food, you’re going to hear all about it. Everyone wants or needs to eat something custom-tailored to a highly specific diet. Having been both the beleaguered hostess and the sad, hungry dinner guest, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to plan a party where everyone can have fun, or at least pretend to for a few hours.
First off, what’s your goal for the gathering? People tend to lean toward certain beliefs about hospitality. On one extreme is that it is the host’s duty and pleasure to roll out the red carpet for guests, making them feel like the most splendid people who ever lived. On the other extreme is that guests must earn their keep and sing for their supper, helping clean up and trying to disguise any and all needs or preferences. I remember staying at a friend’s house in my late twenties and battling his mom as we both insisted on washing up after dinner. I couldn’t bear for her to do all the work alone, and she couldn’t bear to allow me to help. The only right answer that night was to defer to my gracious hostess.
So what’s it going to be? Who’s right?
Culturally we’re in a weird place, where individual preferences come before group harmony. That’s because we haven’t figured out a way to reconfigure how food works now. In the Star Trek future, we can each dial up whatever we like on the food replicator. For today, we’re stuck. There are no restaurants where all of us are going to find something to our taste, and we certainly can’t expect any individual home cook to manage it all.
The obvious answer is to have a potluck, where everyone brings a dish. This could work beautifully, except that people will still insist on making snarky remarks about one another’s choices.
As a cook, I enjoy learning my friends’ tastes and preferences. I know who refuses to eat tomato, onion, gluten, canola oil, potatoes, fructose, garlic, eggplant, squash, cauliflower, sweet potato, pumpkin, green pepper, curry, and all sorts of other foods. (Almost 100% vegetables). It truly doesn’t matter to me WHY my friend won’t eat a food. It is a pleasure to me to solve the puzzle and provide something that follows all the rules. Welcome to my table, where nobody walks away hungry.
It can be pretty annoying when someone claims to have a “food allergy” and then, after eating a full meal carefully designed around that issue, goes on to have a helping of any carefully labeled unacceptable dish made for the other guests. Only two percent of the population has an allergy to anything, whether bees or shellfish or whatever. The rest of us have diagnosed ourselves or discovered the secret code to make restaurant kitchens pay attention to our requests. It’s okay, though. My goal is gracious behavior, and if I want my guests to feel like the treasured friends they are, then I’m going to give them what they asked. Who cares why?
As a side note, diagnosing yourself with anything is a wretchedly bad idea. It’s a bad idea because we’re almost always incorrect. I had a friend who delayed seeing a doctor for chronic shoulder pain for several years because she “knew” she would need to go straight to surgery. It turned out she was wrong about the specific problem, and all she needed was an injection. Likewise, none of my friends or clients who have been lab tested for food sensitivities have come away (so far) with a diagnosis of gluten intolerance. They’ve been hearing yeast, fructose, garlic, and other surprises that could masquerade as something else. Go to a doctor and get a printout of your lab work that you can show to people who question you.
Question, they will. Everyone believes in freedom and liberty until it’s time to choose dishes at the buffet. Then suddenly someone is a villain for not eating exactly what everyone else is eating. Ask me how I know.
I’ve been a vegan for over twenty years, and a vegetarian for nearly twenty-five at this point. People have thrust meat in my face, lied to me, and tried to trick me into eating things. They think it’s funny to hassle me. This is the reason why I will always bend over backwards to accommodate my guests’ idiosyncratic food choices. It’s because, when anyone does it for me, I feel cherished. I feel like someone wanted my company enough to go to extravagant lengths. That’s how I want you to feel when you sit at my table: that you’re beloved and most welcome, that the pleasure of your company is worth any amount of my time. Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you.
As a guest, I’d never ask. I simply assume that there won’t be anything for me to eat. If it’s someone I know, and there’s an informal gathering like a game night or book club, I just bring something like a frozen burrito and ask to use the microwave. If it’s someone I don’t know well, I hide an emergency sandwich in my bag. More than once I’ve been met at the door by a hostess who greets me, in front of everyone: “I didn’t make anything for you.” Oh, well thanks for letting me know! I didn’t ask you to. If you’d asked what I wanted, I would have said I’d prefer to keep a low profile. I’d prefer to be treated like everyone else. I’d prefer if you could have pretended you were glad to see me.
So this is how I break it down. If I’m the guest, I take care of myself and try to be as discreet as possible. I do have close friends who cook for me, and I love them and I’d do anything for them. Never, though, would I expect anyone else to cook around my special needs. If I’m the hostess, I go out of my way to learn the preferences of my guests. Even my homemade soup stock and my soy sauce are gluten-free, because it’s such a common issue now. I want to make sure that, whether I’m the guest or the host, my presence is, if not a pure delight, at least not totally obnoxious.
I tell people I’m “hard to feed.” It’s only fair. This is also true for children who are picky eaters (read: almost all of them), adults who have medical issues, and amateur foodies who don’t cook but are nonetheless highly demanding. We should just own our complications and set our expectations realistically.
There are no requirements of hospitality that force the host to do all the cooking. The host is the organizer, the one who gathers everyone together, the one who sets the tone for the conversation. You don’t have to hold a party in your home, you don’t have to cook, you don’t have to hire a caterer. It’s your responsibility simply to make people feel welcome and try to orchestrate a good time for all. If that means a potluck or a non-food-oriented event of some kind, that’s fair. Whatever it takes so that nobody comes away feeling dissatisfaction or resentment - host included.
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.