In Which Restrictions Aren’t Limitations

With my group of friends, hosting a dinner party can sometimes turn into an exercise like one of those logic puzzles on the GRE; if X, Y, Z, and H are coming to dinner and Y can’t eat gluten while Z is vegan, H avoids all starches, and X doesn’t like eggs, where is B going to sit? I keep a spreadsheet and keep it updated so I don’t have to ask every time I invite people to dinner, and I, like many people, am in the habit of asking about any dietary restrictions or preferences when I invite new people over.

‘I’m sorry,’ a friend of mine told me recently in an email as she proceeded to list her food restrictions. ‘I know this is a hassle.’

‘No really,’ I replied, ‘it’s fine. If it was a hassle, I wouldn’t invite you to dinner.’

(I am not always known for my tact.)

But my statement actually was true, because I don’t regard food restrictions as a hassle, and I do not think they are something people need to apologise for, whether we are talking allergies, sensitivities, religious or ethical restrictions, or simple preferences. I don’t really care if you’re allergic to eggplant, hate quinoa, don’t eat pork for religious reasons (although obviously my kitchen is not koshered, sorry), or are vegan because you are concerned for animals or the environment. All I need to know is that you can’t eat whatever the item in question is (in this case, ‘can’t’ versus ‘won’t’ is not relevant).

The net piece of information I need to have is that if everything on the table contains the offending food item, you will not be able to eat comfortably when you are a guest in my home, and that is a problem. Because from very young childhood, I was raised to regard guests as sacred, to accommodate them, to make sure they were nourished and happy, to treat them as honoured visitors for as long as they stayed. I regard this not just as something done between friends, as a rightness that you do when you invite people into your home, but as part of being in a community, and as a rightness for the world; I would be horrified if someone left my home feeling hungry, or unhappy, or uncomfortable, and I try to ensure that everyone feels welcomed as soon as they walk through my door.

So food restrictions really aren’t a problem for me, and in fact, I view them as kind of fun. Sometimes, it’s possible to serve an entire meal where everyone present can eat everything, and that’s really what I try to aim for, so that people don’t have to worry, double check, or have concerns about cross-contamination. At other times, I have to make a mix of things to accommodate people (without the dreaded ‘here, have a salad’ for the vegan or having an obviously singled-out dish for someone with particularly exacting needs).

As a host, these things should be second-nature to me. As a cook, these things delight me. Dietary restrictions are a chance for me to cook multiple dishes for the table, to have fun with recipes, to try working with ingredients and dishes I’ve never experienced before. I love experimenting, and to me, dietary restrictions create an ideal excuse. I’ve made all sorts of things I would never have made to accommodate the needs of guests as well as to give them a little taste of foods they’ve missed and are craving; gluten free tempura, duck egg lemon meringue pie, and more have all crossed my counters, and they’re all things I wouldn’t have thought to make, and wouldn’t have bothered to try making, if it hadn’t been for the people in my life who needed them.

Food is such a complex political and social thing, even when it’s just the food in your own home. Eating is a very loaded cultural act, and dietary restrictions are too, since many people are very invested in policing the contents of each other’s plates; people are told they’re faking allergies and sensitivities, using specialised diets to conceal eating disorders, and any number of other charming things, as though another person’s health and wellbeing is your personal concern. This kind of food concerntrolling drives people who really do need help even further from reaching out for assistance, and it creates a climate where people with dietary restrictions have to feel defensive and apologetic.

You don’t need to apologise for what you eat, and the way you eat it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, and a host who makes you feel that way is no friend of yours. And you don’t need to defend your dietary choices (or the choices that have been thrust upon you) to satisfy the prurient curiosity of a host or other people at table. If you like talking about what you eat and why, you can certainly answer polite questions, but you don’t have to respond to interrogation—just as you don’t need to evangelise your way of eating to other people at the table who have their own way of eating.

We live in a culture where it is very popular to mock and belittle eating restrictions, which sets up dangerous and frustrating precedents. And, of course, makes the people who live with restrictions feel even more marginalised, setting up restrictions as limitations, rather than what they really are. They’re opportunities for exploration, for freedom, for thinking outside the box, for living in a delicious and lively world filled with things you might not even have considered before.