This is the second year at my daughter’s elementary school that I have been co-chair of an arts program/competition called Reflections that is sponsored by the national PTA. The part involves coordinating judging of the art, literature or media pieces from our elementary school students, and then shepherding the top selections on to the unified school district for another round of judging. The theme this year was ‘Diversity means____’ and the students at our K – 5 school who participated did a splendid job expressing the theme. When we went into classrooms to explain the program to the kids, we weren’t surprised to be asked at each visit, ‘Diversity? what’s that?’ We explained it and they got it, because diversity reigned among the more than 200 submissions. It wasn’t just ethnic diversity that got covered, but flora, fauna, marine life, food, planets & city landmarks too.
When the art and essays started rolling in, I kinda wished that adults could have participated too. I know I would have liked to write or visually riff about the sort of diversity that I think about a lot: feeding people at the dinner table. Of the nine figures in the drawing above, let’s just imagine a random sampling of special food needs: one is allergic to dairy and chicken, another needs to be on a gluten-free diet, two are vegetarians and another is allergic to soy, only one will eat fish and let’s not forget to throw in a nut allergy. It’s not easy to have all that come over for dinner. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the lively negotiations at a Chinese restaurants about level of spice and meeting the various needs and preferences of the crowd – but in that scenario at least someone else is in the kitchen cooking everything to order!
These days you just can’t get around dietary restrictions, and it does beg the question of where did all these special allergies and intolerances come from? (I’m not going to try to cover that question here because there are too many articles speculating about this already. I’m just thinking about the fallout.) But the lack of unity, diet-wise, among my loved ones causes me to now think of a side dish as the separate entree that I will make for my dad, who is allergic to chicken, or my mom, who honors kosher tradition by not eating pork or my husband who dislikes fish, when I have the extended family over for dinner. We do all agree on turkey or beef, but we also agree that we’re not supposed to have so much of the latter and my hub and I are trying to only eat the grass fed variety now. Oh, and did I mention that I’m terribly allergic to eggplant?
My cousin in Massachusetts shared with me that she put together a dinner party where the following food restrictions applied to her guests:
gluten free (some) no beef or poultry (me and one other), hate fish (two guests), will only eat seafood (1 guest) will not eat seafood (2 guests, not me), dairy sensitive (one of the guests).
Her solution was to make soup (could add bread and cheese or not), an asparagus risotto (gluten-free), and a roasted squash dish of her invention. For dessert she served baked apples and those that wanted it could have frozen vanilla yogurt on it, and hot caramel sauce. When it was over she felt she’d successfully cracked the code, though she said she put more energy into figuring out what people could or couldn’t eat than in doing the dishes! Nonetheless, it worked, it was fun, and people were very appreciative of her thoughtfulness.
Given that I have my share of ‘special needs’ I don’t want to seem ungracious about special orders. The host/guest exchange of hospitality is meant to express care for and consideration of one another, and literally catering to a friend or relatives’ dietary restrictions may be a loving gesture if figuring out what to make everyone is not too anxiety-producing. It can certainly be gratifying to sort through the rubric of analytics to find the ideal menu as if solving one of those tough GRE questions of old. Over time I’ve also found some strategies to lessen the wear and tear on the cook and make serving dinner for company a little easier too:
- Ask guests if they have any allergies or strong dislikes in advance of the dinner date. I know that I don’t want to find out that I’ve made something with a chicken stock base or with pine nuts and then have a guest politely explain, after avoiding the main dish, that they are allergic to one of its basic ingredients. They should appreciate your asking, and should be allowed to bring an appetizer that fits their dietary needs if they offer to do so.
- Try for toppings. Keeping controversial ingredients (bacon, anchovies, pine nuts) separated out for meals like a big entree salad or tacos works very well, with guests assembling the amount of what they want themselves. Toppings for pasta or rice work especially well when there are kids involved and tend to prefer things very plain. This works with dessert too: à la mode or whipped cream optional.
- Make meat more peripheral. I like putting energy into the vegetable dishes and homemade breads or rolls when my vegetarian niece is a dinner guest, letting the meat ‘side dish’ available to those who will want it be more of the afterthought as far as cooking effort goes. In a perfect world, meat is supposed to be more like a garnish anyway.
- Don’t over-salt in the kitchen. Everyone has different tolerances of salt and it is very easy for guests to add it individually from a shaker. Speak up and let people know that you are limiting salt intake when you prepare foods and will not be insulted by guests reaching for the salt.
- Leverage the leftovers. My mom feels that hosting two events close together can be an energy saver in some respects, especially if you can take advantage of your bounty to provide alternatives for people you know with diverse diets. I know I feel wise when I make a dish for a school function or community pot luck that will use nice ingredients that might otherwise go begging in my fridge. A leftover main attraction from a brunch could be an appetizer at dinner the next day.
- Be a good guest too. If you are bringing a child who only drinks guava nectar or almond milk with you to someone’s house, bring some along and offer that the child wants her peer to try one of her favorite things. This may seem too obvious to mention, but I know that when I bring a young child to a person’s home who has not had children there for years, they won’t always know what items the child might relate to, and accommodation shouldn’t necessarily be a one way street. And as guests, we should go with the flow. Don’t be so entrenched in your sustainable preferences that you make wry comments about the political incorrectness of the table grapes in the fruit bowl or inquire if the coffee is fair trade. If I have ever inadvertently done something like that at a friend or relative’s house, I hope I will be forgiven for my sins.
I believe that people generally don’t like to be fussy about their dietary needs, especially when they are guests in someone’s home; but if there is a medical necessity, as there is for people with ciliac disease, they need to alert people about their condition. We invited some friends to Thanksgiving dinner who we hadn’t seen in years and were visiting from out of town. Since we’d last seen them, the mom and daughter had moved to a gluten-free diet and I could sense that she had been suggesting restaurants for days other than Thanksgiving because she didn’t want to put me out. Actually, it is surprisingly easy to lay on a gluten-free Thanksgiving feast, especially since it’s a meal that figures on bounty and variety. We still had rolls at the table, skipped the stuffing (I’m the only one who likes it in my house and I made some the next night to go with leftovers. Instead of pie, we did ice cream, sorbet and cookies for dessert. I actually like separating the stuffing out til the next day because that meant I could pay more attention to the mashed potatoes!
While I suspect our ancestors did not have all these special diet sensitivities (nor do I think they ‘toughed it out’) there are still so many old adages about taste, and there being no accounting for it, that I have to suspect that it has never really been possible to please all of the people most of the time. And what a dull world it would be without the many cuisines of the world and the tastes and preferences within them. If having our own favorites is ‘what makes the horses run,’ then diversity means never having to say you’re sorry.
Artists’ images used with permission.