Michael Ruhlman is a person who thinks about the whys and hows behind the food we eat, the methods we use to make it, and the sharing of it with others. He has given a TED talk. He has written many impressive cookbooks and books about cooking, with his most recent books exploring especially the fundamental components of cooking: Ratio and Twenty. And his recent post on Food Fascism has really struck a chord among the community of people who think about sharing food with each other.
The focus is on the decisions one person had to make in choosing the foods for a dinner that was part of her wedding celebrations – and whether it is reasonable for everyone to expect their preferences to be catered to, especially when that catering is expensive.
The whole post is not particularly long and worth reading completely for context. But his advice contained the following two paragraphs that will serve here as a summary:
“As you noted in a follow up email that no one in your party has any serious conditions (celiac disease, shellfish allergies), I would serve whatever the hell makes your daughter happy. I’m sure she’ll want a good variety, and so every normal person can enjoy his or her self.
But since you know that some of your relatives are a bit touched in the head with regard to their own diet, and that restaurants do charge by the head, I recommend including just what you elegantly wrote in your email on the invitation, politely. “I’m aware many in our big and diverse family may have diets they must adhere to, so if you suspect that our menu won’t suit you, please let me know so that we can let the restaurant know how many people will be attending the meal. If you won’t be attending do let me know, and also let me know if you will be joining us for the celebration following the meal.””
I’d say that a good 80% of the comments are in support of his positions, many of them with a wave of relief that they can admit to being unhappy about the sense of entitlement displayed by seeming-ubiquitous picky eaters.
There are even people with highly restrictive diets agreeing with his position because there are standards of behavior to be maintained:
The bottom line is that it’s never OK to rant and rave and make a scene about your food. Whether you’re at a party or a wedding, just remember that the event is not about you (unless of course it’s your own event). Even if you’re at a restaurant, the other diners don’t need to be subjected to your special dietary concerns. If you have a problem, quietly ask for a manager and pull them to the side to discuss it. Even better, write a letter to the management and don’t go back to the restaurant — both you and the restaurant will be better off. I’ve always appreciated a restaurant that will tell me up front that they can’t accommodate me as it means that nobody is wasting their time and even better, I’ve just increased my chances of not getting sick.
And I have to tell you that the whole discussion makes me wince. Because it’s the same discussion that you see in other venues – and it uses many of the same kyriarchal language that is used to refuse to examine privilege.
And I’m going to call BINGO
Who gets to be the “normal” eater and who gets the synonym for insanity? Well the picture right at the top of the post (which is held up as an ideal in the text) is meat and potatoes and a bit of vegetables. Ah, the golden era of nostalgia these days – the 50’s.
Also, there’s a generous accession that there are some people with real/medical needs to have restricted diets, and those are okay (but so inconvenient M I Rite?). And who are you to call the people eating fascists, when you are talking about asking for accreditation for food restrictions upon entry? Please may I have no ____, here’s my doctor’s note. Are you serious?
Why do we even care whether someone’s diet is restricted for health, ethical, or purely whimsical reasons? It’s restricted.
What reason do you have to want to feed people food they won’t enjoy? No matter that the reason!
Ruhlman says, “But foisting your diet on anyone or even talking about it in a way that even remotely self-serves or proselytizes, pisses me off.”
But by inviting people to eat your food and then serving people food they won’t enjoy eating is doing exactly that.
Making food for vegans and sneaking some butter in because you’re sure they’ll like it better that way if they don’t know – isn’t helping your guests. It’s helping you feel better about your own food choices. It’s betraying your guests’ trust that you are their friend and respect their ethics.
Making food for someone with an allergy and figuring that it’s not that severe, or probably faked, or just inconvenient to cater to, is risking their health. Even if they do not suffer for your choice, you are still the kind of host who is deliberately willing to compromise your guests’ health. Often times when this comes up, it’s discussed with a tone of spite – the cook getting back at the people who would dare make the person planning the menu think about the guests’ needs.
But even if it’s a fad diet. Even if it is just a food preference. Why are you calling them people who are important to you, if you don’t care what is important to them?
When I read the letter from the bride, I was pretty sure that the guests with the food restrictions were not just difficult to eat with, but also people who were generally unpleasant to be around. The answer there – don’t invite them. Don’t invite them and then test whether they’re willing to starve themselves for the pleasure of your company. Don’t invite them and expect a present when you are unwilling to offer food they can eat. Don’t invite people you know ahead of time you aren’t willing to have at your event. Because is slighting them on the invitation any less rude than slighting them on food? At least the former you can pretend was an oversight.
And what about more general cases? It’s important to ask yourself why you aren’t willing to accommodate the people you want to feed. What are you trying to prove to them? Why are you trying to normalize them?
And then once they are invited and you’ve undermined their needs and or values, don’t you dare say they aren’t being polite enough when they criticize you. (see also: tone argument)
And, yeah, it can be hard work to pay attention to what everyone will eat. It can take a certain amount of thought to pull together a meal with enough elements that people will enjoy that everyone will be pleased even if they can’t eat 100% of the meal. It’s much easier just to make a meal you’d like. But paying attention to other people’s wants and needs is one of the important steps in building friendships. It shows you give a damn.