There's a pre-school lesson that I'm about to impose on my dinner guests from now on: You get what you get and you don't get upset.
Lately, I have had a spate of dinner guests who come with very specific dietary demands. I am not talking about folks with food allergies; I'm happy to leave the onions out for Steph, the papaya out for Ben and the shrimp out for Barbara, who doesn't wear hives well at all. I am also not talking about people who, for health reasons like diabetes, really hope I don't make pasta. No, I'm talking about those who decide that certain foods embody all things evil and overnight impose a zero-tolerance rule on their consumption. Their convictions vary in duration and are often quite fleeting. One day they are gluten-free and then someone passes them a chunk of freshly baked bread and their gluten-freeness goes out the window. And those are the people I am putting on notice: I'm not going to cater to you anymore.
There seems to be an epidemic of specialized diets going around. We can argue til the cows come home whether gluten-free or veganism makes you healthier or morally superior to me, but as a rule, I tend to dislike zealots of any stripe.
I know people who exist on carb-free diets, fat-free diets, diets that preclude anything that currently has or previously had eyes, and of course diets "free of anything that had a mother" as one dinner guest recently informed me. I think the no-mother diet is covered by the no-eyes diet unless there is a species with blind mothers I don't know about.
Food, for me, is central to a good life. I love food. I love good food. I love other people who share my love of good food. I accept that we all have different taste buds and hence, different foods that are our favorites, but at the end of the day, I like to eat, drink, taste new foods, try new ways to cook, and most of all share the culinary experience. Food that I prepare is a gift from my heart and my reward is that I see you enjoy it. When I entertain, I entertain around food.
And I fear that the extremists are making this a whole lot more difficult than it needs to be.
A co-worker says that half her suburban New Jersey neighborhood is now gluten-free. At my own Los Angeles neighborhood's recent progressive dinner, the invitation cautioned us to be mindful of the needs of our vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free neighbors. The soccer snack schedule wants us to steer clear of all nuts IN CASE someone on the team is allergic and of course all sugars should be kept to a minimum. We have one friend who won't eat anything with eggs because of the salmonella risk.
And while we are on the topic of salmonella, one recent dinner guest inquired whether I had rinsed off the chicken before cooking it because she had just heard a report on NPR about chicken-rinsing. I told her I had, as I have been rinsing off chicken my whole life. Fork down, she pushed back from the table. "Oh, you should never wash chicken," she advised with solemn conviction, quoting NPR. (Thorough cooking kills salmonella, but I don't make a habit of arguing with dinner guests who think I've poisoned them.) She filled up instead on bread (unlike her gluten-free husband who wouldn't touch the bread).
I agree that we all have food preferences and diets we follow because we believe they are good for us. But I say this: You are invited to dinner. Come, eat what you can, and enjoy yourself. I am trying to be a good hostess and always ask new dinner guests about food allergies and preferences. I learned my lesson the hard way after spending a small fortune on fresh halibut for my husband's I-never-touch-fish nephew. I am happy to try and accommodate. But things have gone overboard.
Look, I get it. I like some foods more than others (I prefer fish over red meat) and I don't eat pork except unknowingly. So if you ask me what I'd like you to cook when I come to your house for dinner, I will generally say precisely that: no pork and fish over red meat. But if you decide to grill up some burgers, I will eat them. I will eat them and I won't die. It's one meal of my life, not my steady diet and nothing bad will happen to me for eating a burger when I was actually hoping for some salmon.
And that's the point. What we eat doesn't have to be a political statement. It also doesn't have to be an absolute. When I followed Weight Watchers, I learned how to always find things to eat without expecting my host to jump through hoops. Push the hollandaise sauce over to the side, take a double portion of salad and lighten up.
So will I really draw my line in the sand and stop accommodating those who come for dinner? My husband says I'm all talk and unbleached flour. He reminded me of what I told a guest when she offered to take off her shoes rather than walk on our hardwood floors with shoes.
"Don't be silly," I told her. "My friends are more important than my floors." I suppose this applies to my kitchen as well.