Food Allergies and Communal Meals, Rant 1: Hosts

A hot topic lately has been the role of the guest vs. the host in a communal meal, when the guest has dietary needs. The New York Times covered this issue in some respects in this article and there’s a great blog post about the perils of potlucking that I discovered in September’s Living with Food Allergies Blog Carnival.

That, and the never ending Jewish holidays that have been cycling through, has got me thinking about this issue – does the host need to accomodate the food allergic guest?

I honestly don’t know. I’m not much in the way of etiquette, and I believe “to each his own” and I’m always grateful to dine with others. I mean, keeping kosher in Hollywood essentially means I’m left out of meals half the time, and I’m totally cool with that. I don’t expect my friends to bring in kosher food (though it’s extra nice when they do) and I’m comfortable bringing my own food to restaurants, parties, and homes.

Why then, am I less comfortable doing so when the issue isn’t kosher, but rather my food allergies? To rephrase: I am comfortable bringing my own food places — and I had to until very recently, doctors orders, etc. — and I’m grateful for any invitations to co-dine, and grateful when people make food I can eat even if the entire menu isn’t suited to my needs. But I’ve been noticing an interesting trend lately, and it’s got me thinking about how people tend to host.

See, almost every communal meal I’ve participated in as of late has involved a host who has been super nice about my food allergies. BUT, the host almost always asks if he or she can make a dish I am allergic to and serve it as well, or the host agrees to cook food for me, but to cook other food for the rest of the diners.

That’s fine. That’s nice. But…I don’t quite get it. The reasoning is twofold: 1, will there be enough food, and 2, what if they make a mistake?

I sort of buy the first reason. My diet isn’t what people want to eat, but they enjoy my company, so they invite me over. It’s nice and I’m grateful, though I do sort of wish people would be more creative in their kitchens — it’s fun! And then I don’t have to be uncomfortable or scared but too polite to say anything!

I don’t really buy the second reason. If you’re scared you’ll make a mistake, wouldn’t it be better to only cook food I can eat? Making two separate meals is extra work, more expensive, and doubles the likelihood of cross contamination. So many people have opted to do this when hosting me, though, that I feel like I’m missing something. As Carre Bradshaw would say: I wonder, is the fear that you will make a mistake, or is the fear that the food I can eat won’t taste good enough for the rest of the guests?

Look, I’m totally fine eating special food, not sharing, and delighting in delicious food other people are too scared of. Good company is more important anyway. But I feel like there’s a disconnect. People think they can’t make the right food for people with food allergies. I don’t believe that. A friend of mine’s mother once said, “Look, there are a lot of things I say I can’t do that I know I could do. I just don’t want to. Do I think I could learn how to work the thermostat? Sure, I’m smart. But would I rather just put on a sweater? Yes. So I say I can’t use the thermostat. It’s just easier.”

I think hosts feel that way about food allergies. Trust me, it’s not that hard to cook differently. It’s annoying, it’s daunting, but it’s not hard. Making green beans isn’t any more difficult than tossing a salad — in fact, it takes less effort! But if you always make salads, branching out to green beans seems hard and intense. We’re creatures of habit. We don’t like to break molds.

People with food allergies — and I’d venture to say, especially parents of kids with food allergies — are good at adapting because we have to. We learn to cook for ourselves and for others. I try to accomodate every dietary need of anyone who comes to my home for a meal, even if it’s a diet for fun/weight loss/choice/etc. I’ve almost always succeeded, and in the cases where I haven’t been able to, it’s been the rare instance of my allergies mixed with a squash sensitivity mixed with Paleo. Maybe I could have done it, but considering this was back when I was on the super duper strict diet and basically only eating squash, I didn’t have enough foods to avoid corn for the paleo eater. But with allergies, sensitivities, diabetes, and new babies, I find I’m able to make a menu work. Yet, I can imagine that someone who isn’t used to making substitutions would find the task too difficult.

I don’t know whose responsibility it is to prep for the food allergic person — I think it is the food allergic person’s, because you can’t ever trust that someone isn’t going to make a mistake, and you always need to be prepared to a)get sick and b)avoid foods. It’s best to eat a little bit in advance if you’re attending a meal elsewhere, just in case you discover your host totally forgot about your onion powder allergy, or can’t quite remember the ingredients to the sauce but thinks they used the bottle in their trash and nothing else, maybe, but the ingredients in said bottle are cryptic and involve words like “spices.” Plus, if you don’t look out for you, you can’t expect others to.

However, I think it would be cool if hosts took on food allergies as a challenge and tried to make a meal that works. It’s not like the food allergic person is moving in and eating every. single. meal. with you. It’s one meal where you have to adjust your menu. Maybe you’ll find something cool. Maybe now isn’t the time to show off your really cool cod in mushroom sauce with praline topping dish that’s become your signature. Maybe now is the time to explore your kitchen and show off your creativity.

A friend recently had me over for a meal that only involved foods I could eat, except for a non-organic veggie platter and one kind of chicken (though she just happened to be making two kinds of chicken anyway and no one was going to eat both kinds). She appreciated that she got to play in the kitchen and make side dishes she would never have thought of. And they were delicious — everyone thought so. It would be cool to see more hosts try their hand at that exploration.

Though, I’m still grateful to be included, and still willing to bring my own food. Because ultimately, a meal isn’t about the food that’s served. It’s about the company that’s kept, the conversations around the table, and the joy of being together. Breaking bread — gluten free or otherwise — is just a way to keep our hands busy.