When I was perhaps 11 or 12, a friend of my father’s came to visit. My father had just made a big batch of spaghetti sauce, so he served spaghetti and sauce for dinner. I remember being alive with tingling anticipation; my father makes really good spaghetti sauce, and it was always one of my favourite things. I set the table and laid out all of the accouterments and eagerly sat down when my father brought the spaghetti to the table and ladled out servings, and I started my ritual. A pat of butter, a generous heaping of sauce, a spritz of olive oil, all topped with parmesan.
‘What do you think you’re doing?!‘ the houseguest said. He turned to my father in indignation. ‘Butter! ON PASTA! With red sauce?!’
‘I like it,’ I said, because I did.
‘Pasta is never eaten with butter when you serve red sauce,’ the guest said pompously. ‘Only olive oil. I can’t believe no one taught you that.’
‘I can’t believe no one taught you any manners,’ my father said mildly.
I’ve never forgotten this incident, not least because I later learned that, in fact, there is a whole family of recipes for red sauce that call for adding butter to the sauce. I am often reminded of it, too often, perhaps, when I am around people and food at the same time because many people seem to think that they have a moral obligation to harass people not just about what they are eating, but about how they are eating it.
People are scolded for using forks with Chinese food instead of chopsticks. They are mocked for the condiments they are using. They are constantly, overwhelmingly, all the time, informed that they are doing it wrong by self-appointed food police who want to make sure that everyone knows just how very educated about food they are. Things are ‘never’ done one way or another. This isn’t ‘authentic.’ ‘No one’ would eat something this way. ‘Everyone’ knows this.
Aside from often being flat out wrong about these pronouncements, these people are fucking annoying as all hell. Let me tell you something about the way my father taught me to eat: He taught me to eat what I want, when I want it, how I want it. If that means drowning food in condiments or putting butter on pasta with red sauce or refusing to add sour cream to my borscht, so be it. My father taught me to trust my instincts when it comes to food, and to not allow the judgments of others to influence me. He taught me that it was ok to ask for the salt.
This particular type of food policing, the ‘you’re doing it wrong’ kind, makes me seethe, because there is really no call for it. Not on any level. Why the fuck should anyone care what’s on my plate? Unless I am forcing someone to eat off my plate, what I choose to do, or not do, to my food is my business. If I choose to pick out the fatty cuts of meat because I don’t like them, that’s my business. If I choose not to use the condiment that I am ‘supposed’ to use because I prefer to taste the pure flavour, that’s my business.
This all plays into the politics of revulsion that I was talking about the other day. The idea that not only must Everyone Have Opinions, but that these opinions must be shared and imposed. As though eating butter with red sauce is a personal offense that can only be corrected by preventing someone from ever doing it again.
My father’s houseguest tried to take my plate from me.
Because I was ‘doing it wrong.’ He tried to say that I was an ‘ungrateful brat’ for ‘ruining’ my father’s homemade pasta sauce. He tried to berate my father for ‘spoiling’ me by allowing me to prepare my own food to my own taste. My father, who is normally a pretty mild-mannered guy, can occasionally explode with temper. This was one of those times. My father stood up for my right to eat food how I wanted it, and pointed out to the houseguest that if my very consumption of the food I had prepared for myself was so horrible, the houseguest was welcome to eat out on the back deck so that his delicate sensibilities would not be offended.
My father shouldn’t have had to do that, because this houseguest should never have done what he did. People. It is never ok to tell people how they should prepare their food, to tell them that they are doing something wrong. Who cares if it’s ‘not authentic’ or if someone is eating something that is not personally to your taste? How does it impact your life in any way? If I want to eat squid ink pasta over here and you hate squid, well, that’s your problem, not mine. Likewise, if you eat something that I personally find really disgusting, I don’t see how my sharing that fact with you really contributes to the dinner conversation or improves your dining experience.
We could all benefit from a little more minding our own business, if you ask me. Not just about food, but about so many things in life. What happened to ‘if you don’t like [it], then don’t have [one]’? Seems pretty clear if you ask me.