A sensible dinner, by Michael Ruhlman/Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

I got an email last week that made my blood boil. Yes, seemingly to boil. Not simmer. A blanching-green-veg boil, a pressure cooker boil.

The kind of boil my blood gets when I’m at a restaurant and I hear a woman, grilling the server suspiciously, saying, “I’m allergic to lactose” and then later says, “Oooh, could you wheel that cheese cart over here? Gawd, I love Epoisse.”

I’m just minding my own business, a happy Bertie Wooster moment at my desk before work, dreaming of confiting turkey legs, and an email pops into my box and it’s like someone smacked me on the skull with a cricket bat.

It was from Heather Clayton, an expat living in southern Germany, trying to plan a meal here in the once sensible USA (West Coast, bien sûr), for a diverse group of FAMILY MEMBERS, for her beloved daughter. I’m  reprinting it with Heather’s permission (she asked only to be warned when it would be posted so that she could deal with in-law feedback). Suggestions for her?

Dear Michael,

I am the mother of the bride. My daughter is a third culture kid, having grown up outside the US for her teen years. Consequently, she has been exposed to a wide variety of cultures and cuisines.

Her one request for her wedding day was to have a small luncheon for close friends and family to celebrate the occasion.

We found a lovely Italian trattoria with a slow food, sustainable agriculture/local food philosophy that suits our needs perfectly.

Our problem is my husband’s siblings “special diet” issues. They embody the evangelical wacko dietary fads that consume a certain slice of the upper middle class. We have every variation of diet extremism from the paleo-diet to variations of the casein/gluten/lactose/sugar-free philosophies which means they are limited to brown rice, some grilled meats, and some fruits/veges. Apparently they are worried about leaky guts and fingers swelling from gluten exposure. To compound the problem, there are quite a number of them who follow variations of this extremism—10 to 12 people out of a party of 75 or so.

Since we are hosting our luncheon at an Italian restaurant, we will embrace cheese, pasta, gelato (and wedding cake) etc. with gusto. My husband wants to include his siblings in our celebration. However I have no desire to pay hundreds of dollars for meals that will be picked at, ignored or otherwise snubbed because of their food fascism. I will not have them ruin my daughter’s day by taking up space refusing to eat. If it were a matter of vegetarian vs. meat eating–that’s easy to accommodate. However this dietary demand goes beyond mere plant vs. animal.

The questions is this:

Is there a polite way to tell them that we are happy to include them, however we will not be custom ordering meals to suit paleothic metabolisms and if they insist on maintaining their gluten/lactose/sugar/casein/fat-free diets, we would be happy to see them AFTER lunch for toasts and speeches. I don’t want to be rude, but I’ve had enough family dinners ruined by their food proselyting that I have no interest to give them a forum at what should be a joyous time.

How does a modern bride and her family deal with this issue?  If you are aware of somewhere in the food etiquette world where someone has written on this topic, please send me to them.  I am looking for any input that might be out there.

Dear Heather,

Many thanks for your letter and calling attention to the good term “food fascism” that yes, does seem to reside mainly among the otherwise intelligent upper middle classes.

I do not believe in telling people what to eat. If you want to kill yourself with a raw food diet, go ahead. If you want to give up meat, good for you, seriously, I admire it (though have a hamburger or hot dog from a trusted source every now and then just so you can keep digesting; you did evolve this way after all).

But foisting your diet on anyone or even talking about it in a way that even remotely self-serves or proselytizes, pisses me off.

As you noted in a follow-up email that no one in your party has any serious conditions (celiac disease, shellfish allergies), I would serve whatever the hell makes your daughter happy. I’m sure she’ll want a good variety, and so every normal person can enjoy him- or herself.

But since you know that some of your relatives are a bit touched in the head with regard to their own diet, and that restaurants do charge by the head, I recommend including just what you elegantly wrote in your email on the invitation, politely. “I’m aware many in our big and diverse family may have diets they must adhere to, so if you suspect that our menu won’t suit you, please let me know so that we can let the restaurant know how many people will be attending the meal. If you won’t be attending do let me know, and also let me know if you will be joining us for the celebration following the meal.”

Something like that. Anyone else want to chime in?

We have reached such a pitch of food idiocy it makes me want to scream. Much of the idiocy is sparked by the media that seems to report on every study and trend that comes around the bend. That and an American population that simply cannot think for itself. People, you have six senses! The last one is common! Use it!

The photo above is a good, balanced everyday meal in our house. It makes sense. And I feel good after I eat it. Why has eating become so difficult for so many people?

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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

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273 Wonderful responses to “Food Fascism”

  • Kay

    If someone will truly be sick from eating a certain food, I go above and beyond to accommodate. Otherwise, what they eat is their choice, and their responsibility.

    As someone whose husband is lactose-intolerant, I feel compelled to point out that those who are lactose-intolerant eat cheese with no problems. The lactose in milk is converted to something else (sorry, I don’t remember the scientific bit) when the milk becomes cheese.

  • Stacy

    Thanks so much for acknowledging that severe food allergies (i.e. shellfish) were not at stake here. Often times true allergy issues are lumped in with crazy food extremism. I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the subject!

  • Melissa

    I honestly don’t think she should have a problem, even if her relatives are crazy. My experience working in food in Sweden is that knowledge, awareness, and accommodation of various food allergies and even minor dietary whims is quite common. However, the Swedish style of serving and eating is easy to adapt to that (Smorgasbord, where there are lots of different dishes). But I’ve never been to a country in Europe where food allergies or even just asking for something to be omitted is a big deal. People don’t get offended by it or argue with you about it like in the US.

    As an aside, the person who said they are allergic to lactose probably was just mis-educated (not a surprise since I find most doctors here in the US are more poorly educated on food allergies and intolerances than the average Swedish waitress) and actually had lactose intolerance, which IS dose-dependent and therefore most people with the condition can have some cheese, but not a lot.

  • Marlin Rivira

    I just learned dogs can’t never ever swallow lemons `cause the seeds can hurt them. There are actually a big list of things I found out this morning about what your dog can and cant eat. Some bones can actually KILL your dog !

  • MarkR

    Blood boil? When I read that header I thought you were talking about the pink slime “controversy,” or something important like that.

    Picky eaters at a wedding isn’t worth getting your blood boiling over. #FirstWorldProblems.

    • Melody

      Being a picky eater is a first world problem. Evangelizing your own preferences and insisting on special treatment based on a fad diet, regardless of its relation to an actual issue, is incredibly rude and would never fly in a place food is scarce. Meanwhile, wanting to have a wedding day that is a celebration uninterrupted by that kind of rudeness is a pretty universal thing. People all over the world get offended when someone totally breaks the rules of their culture when eating as a group.

      Some examples: in Thai culture, cleaning your plate is rude because it implies you haven’t been given enough food; in Chinese culture, making negative comments about the cooking (e.g., “this could use more salt”), especially that of an older and respected family member, is considered extremely disrespectful.

      And in American culture, interfering with someone’s “big day” – or even just the company luncheon – because you’re on a diet and want to feel special is rude.

      (I’m saying this from the perspective of an actual celiac who gets major physical and psychological symptoms if I consume gluten. People like Heather’s siblings-in-law aren’t just rude, they make those of us who have legit medical reasons for our food preferences look bad. The relatives in question should shut up and eat a salad with vinaigrette and a chunk of meat on top.)

      • MarkR

        And having your wedding “ruined”, and I use that word in quotes, because of picky eaters– also a first world problem. If picky and rude eaters are a problem, I can’t imagine what they call it when the best man gets drunk and starts telling tales out of school, or Aunt Maisy gets drunk and takes out a tables-worth of food.

        A wedding is a half hour ceremony followed by a two hour party. (insert your own preferred time amounts.) It really doesn’t deserve the status that bridezillas and mother-of-bridezillas have given it.

        Seriously, is a wedding ruined because someone won’t eat the pasta, either due to dietary restrictions or preference?

  • Chris P

    I think the response is perfect. Other than allergies, food preferences should be set aside for a celebration. I would never demand that anyone cater to whatever wacko diet I may be following. That being said I often make alternative choices when entertaining. I have a friend that is currently wheat & dairy free, so I’ll make small substitutions (like almond flour for regular flour) and she leaves off the whipped cream everyone else is enjoying. My daughter was married last year and trying to get a handle on every possible food allergy/preference …..it made the planning complicated. We did a tapas style menu because she was married late in the day and ended up with at least one or two things that could accommodate ever food allergy/ food fad known to man. Even the woman with the severe allergy to seafood- so she couldn’t eat sea salt (the only type I use) was able to find 2 things that she could eat.

  • MaryLynne

    Two years ago I was diagnosed with MS and was told that I should go on a gluten free diet. Studies showed that is slowed the progression. When I was on the diet, I just ate around the gluten or provided my own gluten items when I went to an event. I would not have any reaction to what I ate so I took it upon myself to deal with my decision not to eat gluten. Then just a few months ago I said, fk it I really want a Big Mac. Point being if it is a choice and not medical you should take it upon yourself to accommodate your own dining options.

  • Cristina

    Excellent post — I’m tired of all the fads and hypochondriacs. Please, can’t we all just eat real food? No cool whip. No margarine. Just real cream, real butter….

    Aside from my idealistic wishes, I teach my kids to “eat what’s put before you”, so that they are kind and considerate in another’s home. Perhaps these adults should adopt the practice of being a gracious guest. It is the height of rudeness to impose your dietary whim on others when you are the guest, unless, of course, it is a true anaphylactic allergy.

    I read this post shortly after it was posted, and just today ran into this cartoon in a doctor’s waiting room:

    http://www.newyorker.com/humor/issuecartoons/2010/11/22/cartoons#slide=1

    Great timing!

  • Sharzad

    I developed a gluten allergy after my second pregnancy. Never had problems with it before then, and once found out through allergy test and eliminated it from my diet all the symptoms went away. True allergy means an immune reaction, which can be mild, moderate, or severe. Not all true allergic reactions are severe, but symptoms last 2 to 3 weeks as opposed to symptoms of intolerance or sensitivity which go away after a few hours or a couple of days. Also, different individuals react differently depending on which system in their body is effected. For example, one of my daughters tends to get eczema and perpetual runny nose when exposed to the many things she is allergic to, while my other daughter tends to get stomach aches and constipation and congestion, while I get nausea and dizziness and headaches and runny nose and congestion and would end up with breathing difficulties and fainting and sleeping problems such as disturbed sleep and snoring. Don’t knock food allergies please, as they have resulted in 3 emergency room visits for us without any anaphylactic shock.

    However, with all that said, I never expect others to accommodate my food allergies or the food allergies of my children. We go to birthday parties armed with pizza and cupcake that they can eat, we look at restaurant menus in advance and call if necessary to make sure there is something we can eat, and we offer to bring food when we go to someone’s house for a meal, so they don’t have to worry about accommodating us and we don’t have to worry about accidental exposure. People often offer to make something that my kids can eat, but honestly they are allergic to so many things (and have sensitivities on top of those) that I feel worried and embarrassed to ask others to partake in manic label reading or spending money buying whatever-free versions of ingredients they already have at home.

    By the way, if you want to, you can accommodate 90 percent of people with food allergies, most people with food sensitivities and intolerance, vegans, vegetarians, Kosher eaters, and people with Celiacs disease with any of the following: plain white or brown rice, cut fruit (except strawberries), steamed vegetables (except soy beans), field greens or mixed greens salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and gluten free pasta. Most Italian restaurants serve most or all of these.

  • Felix Lutterbeck

    food fascism? seriously??
    maybe choose a more appropriate title next time instead of going for such an eye-catching yet cheap headline.
    oh and look up fascism.

  • Andreas

    A fair number of food sensitivities are likely not caused by the food itself, but by the ways the food is processed.

    For example, there’s now strong evidence that peanut allergies are caused by a mould living on the peanuts, not by peanuts themselves.

    Similarly there is evidence that lactose intolerance might not be caused by milk, but by the consumption of certain modified milk ingredients.

    There will always be people with genuine food allergies, which are life threatening and need to be respected. In the meantime, as far as I can tell, a good way to remain free of allergies and sensitivities is to make sure that the food we eat is as natural as possible.

  • Bill Haydon

    Growing up, I never knew a single person who was allergic to bread, and let’s be honest that is exactly what we’re talking about regarding “gluten free” diets.

    Here is my solution. We, as a society and a species, will take your gluten allergy at face value. We will appease and accommodate it with only one condition……that you accept and admit that you are the carrier of a severe genetic disorder that should not be passed down to future generations and contribute to the continued erosion of the human genome. That’s right. If you agree to undergo voluntary sterilization to ensure that your genetic defect is not allowed to contaminate and weaken future generations, we will accommodate that defect for the remainder of your natural born life.

    Fairly simple, I think.

  • Elvira Hurst

    Wonderful blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article? I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get feed-back from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

  • Mom24@4evermom

    I am soooo grumpy about this issue right now. My family has no health issues with food. That being said, I’m trying to plan a mother’s day brunch that accommodates my adult son who is a vegetarian, my father who eats no carbs and another family member who stays away from gluten (again, not because of a dietary reason). Driving me crazy. Suck it up and deal for one meal…well, all except for my son, vegetarianism is different. I guess.

  • Susan

    I just came across this article and can only say I heartily agree… I hate food fascism and the self-righteousness that goes with it. Although I have diabetes (and so my diet is largely ‘sugar-free’ – oh, and I am lactose-intolerant as well), I do not, if I am fortunate enough to be asked to dine at someone else’s table, or at a restaurant, expect my host(ess) or chef to go out of the way to accommodate me.

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