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Dr. Ruth Nemzoff Headshot

What In-Laws And Over-The-Top Food Have In Common

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Last week I was taken to a very elegant restaurant, The Fifth Floor, in San Francisco. I can only assume the restaurant was trying to make itself pleasing and worth the high sticker price in the hopes that I would return. However, the vocabulary on their menu was quite the opposite of pleasing -- it was beyond my comprehension. I would seem like the ideal candidate for their language: well educated and well travelled to wineries all over the world. I am used to tutti-frutti with tannins of oak and a hint of grapefruit and I can enjoy describing a liquid in flowery language. However, their use of rather obscure gastronomique words made me feel stupid and unwelcome. I reacted with paranoia. Do the owners want to make me feel stupid? Or unworthy? Or perhaps lucky to be included in their erudite world? The menu replayed in my mind my 1957 nightmare "I forgot to study for the SAT's." This restaurant was meant for foodies, not the likes of me -- a person who just eats. I felt out of place.

The "Beet and Ricotta Cappellacci" was described as including "pine nut butter, poultry glaze, oxalis, barilotto." Neither oxalis nor barilotto explained to me what this "cappellacci" was. When I asked a server to clarify, he used another series of words I'd never heard. The waiter missed his chance to put me at ease by saying, "Thank you for asking, many of our customers do the same." Or, he could have just said, "Oh that is just a fancy way of describing beets and cheese with some dressing." We could have laughed together about the new food snob scene. Instead, I wanted to walk out on the pretention.

The eatery, understandably, wanted to give an air of sophistication, but had they answered my questions in plain English instead of with little-known "in-the-know" food vocabulary, I might have been less put-off by the whole experience. Because I felt ignorant, I disliked the waiter, decided the restaurant was noisy, and was determined not to like the food even before it came.
This whole pompous presentation brought to mind the oft-described feelings of in-laws when they first meet the family of their child's or parent's intended. Just like this restaurant, families, in their desire to impress, actually can intimidate the other in-laws, setting up a hurdle to forming good relationships when they are trying to create a shared experience. Food and vocabulary can put one at ease or set up a barrier.

We are all nervous when we meet the in-laws. Families that find themselves under the stress of joining together usually intend to make a good impression, but instead they can make the new family members feel awkward. The in-laws might, as I did, become annoyed and decide to dislike the host rather than give them a chance. While no one can know in advance what makes another person feel uncomfortable, families can show sensitivity when they sense discomfort and tone down the whole charade. Or, when making their plans, they can ask the new in-law bride or groom what might make their family of origin comfortable.

There is no recipe for good taste; too often families focus on demonstrating their elegance and worth and forget that the real aim is to make everyone feel comfortable -- whether that means meeting at a pizza parlor or a fancy hotel. Sensitivity to strangers who will be family is what counts.

One of the suburban matriarchs I interviewed for my book, "Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family," famous for her lovely catered events, said, "I wanted to meet the new in-laws on neutral territory. I don't know much about them, so we opted to meet at a pizza parlor. Simple food, no pretentions."

Understanding that both families have made life choices that revolve around food is key to not setting up initial roadblocks. Some families like the casual, others the formal. In either case, politeness involves preparing for and noticing the discomfort of others. Just as my pleasant evening was almost turned into a shipwreck by the snobbishness of the menu, so too can family relationships sail onto stormy seas. Initial impressions can be made easier when families bear in mind the lifestyle of the newcomers. We can get over first impressions, but it's much easier if that first impression is more rooted in welcoming instead of impressing.

Food, vocabulary, and clothing are all expressions of who we are. Have your dream wedding, but plan it in advance for your guests' emotional and physical comfort. Remember that nobody likes to be a fish out of water. Even if your new family members don't know what piperade, sauce choron, or Wagyu steak is, they may be perfectly lovely people whose interests differ from yours. No one likes to feel judged for not understanding. You don't have to change yourselves to accommodate others. You do, however, have to demonstrate flexibility, sensitivity, and compromise if we want others to know your potential as friends and caring family members.