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Serving only water to your guests

Posted Feb 06 2011 8:09am

“We were given the strangest meal,” wrote a friend after attending a “picnic” reception in a city warm enough to host such an event. “The meal was packed in a large white container but there was more empty space than food inside the box. The main course was a 6-inch roll filled with one lettuce leaf and a layer of diced cooked vegetables that may have been eggplant or celery. They were too mushy to have an identity. A tiny container of chicken salad and another of fruit salad were tucked into the bottom of the box, along with a gigantic cookie and a napkin and plastic fork and spoon. My spouse decided that the meal was planned so there was something for almost everyone to eat. The vegans and kosher guests could eat the sandwich and fruit, the chicken salad added to the roll made a relatively filling sandwich for the others and the cookie was a reward for those who were expecting roast beef.”
Obviously the caterer wanted to make sure that the meal was compatible with the dietary limitations and restrictions of the guests even if it meant a main course of anonymous vegetables . Have you noticed for the past several years invitations to catered events usually include a card with meal options so if you are a vegetarian or eat only fish, you will be served a meal that you can eat ( assuming the food is edible). And now that Chelsea Clinton has had a gluten-free wedding reception we may find gluten-free rolls and desserts as an additional option on future invitations.
But are we going too far in our attempt to satisfy the dietary demands of our guests? Last fall,when I was putting together a Thanksgiving menu that would satisfy the dietary needs of my guests, I began to wonder if dinner parties are becoming a classroom exercise for student dieticians.. How does one plan a menu when guests are known to restrict salt and fat, are garlic or lactose intolerant, or on a vegan diet? At least I knew ahead of time that my guests (mostly family) were limited in what they could eat and could plan an admittedly rather bland, boring meal.
But what is the social etiquette these days when you, the hostess, must plan a meal for guests with seemingly unlimited food limitations or conversely when you are a guest and can’t eat the food? The latter happened to another friend a few weeks ago. He keeps kosher so he doesn’t eat pork, non-kosher meat or chicken, or shellfish. The hostess served scallops. They look somewhat like fish but unfortunately for my friend come packaged in a scallop shell. He assured his hostess that he was comfortable sticking to the side dishes but then discovered that he couldn’t eat the vegetables as the sauce contained bacon bits. Fortunately there was rice.
Obviously we are not going to turn our kitchens into a cafeteria where each guest can find a meal that meets his or her particular dietary needs. But what are we going to serve when our favorite recipes contain ingredients that are incompatible with the diets of our guests? When inviting guests should we send out a form ahead of time, similar to those given to hospital patients, so they can cross off the foods they can’t eat? Should we give everyone take-out menus and ask them to order the food they can eat and provide napkins and forks? Perhaps we ought to limit our home entertaining to people who share our own dietary peculiarities or invite at the same time only guests who share a particular food ideology , such as eating only raw vegetables or locally grown rutabagas.
If invited to someone’s home, should we eat beforehand? That seems to undercut the purpose of going over to someone else’s house for a meal but does ensure that you don’t leave hungry.
Perhaps we are reaching a dead end when it comes to sharing a communal meal. When we have to worry that a potluck supper may conceal ingredients that may be contrary to someone’s dietary practices, cause food allergies or go against plans to protect the planet, we may have to restrict our sharing of food to bread and water and, for carbo-phobics, to water alone.
Of course there is nothing wrong with enjoying a meal or social occasion not because of the food but because we are with people whose company we enjoy. Our stomachs may be empty but if we are able to fill ourselves with talk, stories, the joy of celebrating a birthday or achievement, or even the comfort of sharing together the loss of a friend or family member, does it really matter what we do or don’t eat?
Think, for example, of how much food a bride and groom eat at their wedding. The amount is usually next to nothing, even though they may have spent months agonizing over menus and whether the filling for the wedding cake should be chocolate or raspberry. To them the celebration of their marriage with their family and friends makes the occasion memorable, and not whether there were onions in the salad.
But what is worrisome is that our idiosyncratic attitudes toward food may be dividing or separating us. People don’t have food fights when waiting at a buffet line but they can become vehement defending their current dietary preferences. As someone who defends the importance of eating carbohydrates I have been verbally lambasted by people extolling the virtues of eating only protein. Will we end up having tables set aside for vegans so they aren’t forced to look at someone eating a rare steak? Will people who enjoy a fluffy baked potato be exiled to a side room so as not to worry those who believe breathing near a carbohydrate will cause weight gain? Imagine the anxiety of a parent meeting a potential son or daughter-in-law, or vice versa, over what to serve.
So far I have not yet decided whether to skip the food at my next gathering, but I will serve water. Now the question is: still or sparkling?

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