Perhaps not quite in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m about to alienate half the people I know: I don’t have much patience for openly picky eaters over the age of 20. The covert ones don’t bother me at all. But announcing to your host that you simply won’t eat mushrooms or mustard or millet is to revert to your 10 year-old self, brazenly acting on the assumption that anyone cooking for you will find your pig-headedness as endearing as your parent or guardian apparently did. I don’t particularly like pears or peas or plenty of other things, but if I learned anything from my time as an exchange student with the American Field Service, it’s that intellectually curious, culturally respectful, fully-grown adults eat whatever is set in front of them. Or at least try a few bites and then leave it to the side without advertising their distaste.
Unless, of course, it threatens their health. I recently hosted a friend who has celiac disease and who apologized several times in advance for the inconvenience. While the sincerity of his remorse was indeed helpful because it was convincing, I assured him there was no need for shame. I’ve had friends with juvenile diabetes and colitis and who need to be fed through tubes. At my wedding, where guests had been requested to bring cakes instead of presents, I chased down every single baker in order to mark any desserts containing traces of peanuts, oranges, or coconut. I never mind offering vegetarian options because they accommodate a wide array of dietary restrictions with both cultural and medical bases, just as alcohol-free beverages are helpful to kids, recovering alcoholics, devout Muslims, and pregnant women alike. But my tolerance generally ends there. Because beyond that boundary seems to be where stubborn intolerance for all sorts of food spreads like the plague.
According to the cover story of Die Zeit this week, less than 1% of Americans are gluten intolerant, yet 28% of Americans purchased gluten-free products last year. The percentage of Germans who purchase lactose-free products has tripled in just five years. Such sky-rocketing numbers sound much more like successful marketing trends than biological shifts in the population. Inordinate media attention to rare medical issues always inspires swathes of people to self-diagnose rather than check with their doctor. In response to what sometimes does seem like an epidemic of hypochondria, a kindergarten in Hamburg has recently taken to demanding medical documentation for any alleged food restrictions among its students. Die Zeit writes that parents were insisting their untested children had food allergies after the appearance of the slightest yucky face. Of course a child at risk for anaphylactic shock is better safe than sorry, but to teach a child to regularly cry wolf is to teach them to rely on their most narrow-minded instincts.
This is not a call to villainize health advocates or burn certain cookbooks. On the contrary, the greatest thing about the human culinary tradition is its diversity. When I grew up in the Eighties on Long Island, skim and lite and sugar-free products were in fashion, but anything organic or “foreign” or “ethnic” was scarce because what’s wrong with some good old American spray-on cheese? Sushi was gross (“It’s raw fish, you know!”), vegetarian dishes were for pansies, and escargot was what made the French so weird in the first place. (See this Indiana Jones clip.) Kids today are growing up more environmentally conscientious and more open to exploring new cultures, and I am glad to see the American tradition of grimacing at all the icky cuisine of the savages and the smelly Europeans go the way of the Twinkie. But there’s no progress in simply switching the grimace from the sight of imported cuisine to the sight of anything that isn’t in line with the latest imported health fad.
While it seems many finicky eaters think their aversion to certain foods resembles a disability (“Please don’t criticize me for something I can’t do!”), it often resembles ableism (“I refuse to budge on this issue!”). We cannot be open-minded and at the same time refuse to leave our comfort zone. As the Food Commander writes in his excellent Huffington Post article, “Unless you suffer from a disease or real (unlike imagined) food allergies, … kindly embrace the fact that your body is not all that fragile. Humans survive every day in conditions way worse than, say, a four-course dinner in an Upper East Side townhouse.”
Outside of a meal, it can be fun to explore cultural differences and personal preferences: why so many Chinese love meat but dislike butter, or why German senior citizens detest turnips. It’s also amusing to try to argue the illogic of taste. (One such argument culminated in one of my relatives bellowing, “I am not a fan of the bean!”) It is also imperative that we eventually discover which food restrictions have been caused by environmental changes and which have been encouraged by marketing trends. But the fun comes to a screeching halt when these discussions ooze onto the dinner table.
Such candidness often has innocent origins. In these rather unrepressed times, where dinner guests discuss everything from politics to polyamory, why not share our honest opinion of what’s on our plates? This approach, however, ignores two very important facts. Firstly, unlike in a restaurant or your own home, the meal laid out for you has been paid for by someone else. Secondly, unlike the selection of films or games or whatever else it is you don’t like about the home you’re in, the meal laid out for you is the result of someone else’s time and effort. To go so far as to scrutinize it (“Is it organic?”) or disparage it (“It’s too bad it has olives in it!”) is to spit on the dinner invitation that was extended to you out of sheer generosity.
I know what it’s like not being able to participate in communal activities. This blog is all about those who have no choice about being an exception to the rule. Those who have bona fide difficulties digesting certain foods—perhaps akin to my difficulty walking long stretches—should not feel ashamed. But shame should not be supplanted with complacency, either. As my friend with celiac disease said, it is usually regrettable to have to limit one’s range of experience, and it is always regrettable when it involves rejecting an offer of kindness.
Indeed, my proudest moment during my bout of stenosis last year was pulling off a Thanksgiving dinner with my partner that fed 17 people while I was still recovering from spinal surgery. If any of this year’s guests cannot stomach something, they will hopefully follow the example of my more gracious friends who keep things discreet, at least at the table. I don’t subject them to judgment by examining their plates for leftovers and threatening to deny them dessert because they spare me the insult of telling me exactly how my offering failed to satisfy them.
They also resist the temptation to dive into an unsolicited monologue of healthier-than-thou moralizing, a tendency that accompanies food more than any other health issue. I’m usually the last to squirm at medical stories, but I’ve been thinking lately that if I have to hear about the details of the latest nutritional research every time I put a spoon to my mouth, maybe I should start lecturing about my back problems every time I see someone wearing heels or sitting at a computer.
Eating is a necessity and a health issue and an environmental issue and a cultural tradition. I love learning from friends and researchers about the different ways we all eat, and the socio-political forces of the food industries are absolutely fascinating. But I won’t ever admire someone merely for eating homemade bread or fine delicacies or simple fare or whatever it is that the Paleo diet currently dictates. Those I do admire cook joyfully in their own homes and, when invited to someone else’s home, plunge their hands obligingly into whatever their host has set out for them, whether it’s okra or Oreos. As minority rights activist Andrew Solomon has pointed out, a truly tolerant culture celebrates additive social models, not subtractive ones.
Or, more simply, I will always care a lot more about your table manners than your diet.