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”

  • Maureen Sanchez

    I had a very small wedding – very small – and the day before the big day a cousin decided she would come – and invite her then boyfriend. A vegan. Really? Too bad you don’t care for filet mignon and lobster. That’s what we’re serving. I’m sure there are crudites that will satisfy your palette. It’s her party. She can serve what she damn well pleases. If there are dietary restrictions, er, preferences among her guests, it’s their responsibility, not theirs, to take care of them. If there are newborns that are breastfed exclusively, is she planning on having a booby-fountain there for the wee one’s needs too? She’s trying too hard to please, and let’s face it. There is NO WAY to please everyone, particularly with crazy fad diets. Their issue. Not hers. I hope the wedding is fantastic, memorable, and filled with lovely memories.

    • Bethany Frissel

      I’m sorry, I’m with you on most of this, but veganism isn’t some fad diet. It’s an ethically chosen lifestyle. If he insisted on being fed something specific, that’d be another story, but no one should be mocked just for being vegan. Plus, omnivores actually eats tons of vegan food all the time – no need to act like this is some insane imposition on you.

      • Stumptown Savoury

        I call bullshit on this, Bethany. Veganism is not only horrible for the human body, it’s also horrible for the planet. There are virtually no vegans who live in a locality or bio-region that can support their diet, and it is impossible, I repeat, IMPOSSIBLE to get all the nutrients required by our bodies without consuming some animal products, unless, of course, you consider it “ethically chosen” to go blind; Please read “The Vegetarian Myth” for starters, and ignore those books written by vegans telling you that it’s healthful and ethical to be vegan.

      • Maureen Sanchez

        she didn’t have the common courtesy of responding by the rsvp date … and brought a letch of a date who was hitting on my single friends. He was a vegan. We accommodated him, because we could — not because we SHOULD have. As you state, it is a chosen lifestyle. That does not mean that your chosen lifestyle should dictate what is served at my (or in this case) someone else’s wedding or any other affair. Unless the bride and groom are vegans – then the whole room can eat beans, rice, and tofu … *your* choice shouldn’t become someone else’s responsibility.

        • Bethany Frissel

          Like I said, with you on most of what you said (I’m big on being being polite and quietly finding my own way whenever someone is being generous to me). I just take issue with the way you categorized all vegans with people following fad diets. I’m sorry he was a creepy jerk, but that has nothing to do with being vegan – just with him being a creep.

          • Maureen Sanchez

            seriously- did you read my response or are you bandstanding for all vegans ? I was referring to the guests at the luncheon described above — not to the vegan guest at my wedding. I think you are annoying because you infer by not reading, not because you are vegan. The fad diets are the diets of the family members originally discussed in the email to Mr. Ruhlman.

      • Missy

        They’re welcome to their “ethically chosen lifestyle”, if that’s what makes them happy. They should not, however, expect people to accommodate their restrictive food CHOICES.

        If you CHOOSE to be vegan, you don’t get to have a fit when everyone else around you eats omnivorously. Eat at home, or stay home altogether.

  • Malcolm

    I think the host’s suggestion that folks either eat what is being served or come later is reasonable. It’s NOT reasonable to think others must cater to your chosen diet/lifestyle when you are a guest. Don’t show up to the wedding in a speedo, and please eat the food we have or bring a brown paper sack for yourself. The problem I sense is not so much food fascism (great term!) as a general sense of entitlement to special treatment from guests. Be happy you’re invited, be gracious, and thank the hosts on your way out as they thank you for coming.

  • Heather Anne

    I agree wholeheartedly, and I DO have Celiac disease. I have been to several weddings already this year and I would NEVER expect the bride and groom to accommodate my dietary needs. In fact, I bring my own food or eat before I go so that they don’t have to.
    It’s these types of elective diets that cause me to be suspicious at restaurants. Chefs are being bombarded with people on fad diets and I worry that the chefs do not worry about cross contamination for those of us that actually have severe reactions. While pregnant, I do not dare go out to restaurants simply because I know too many places in my area that are so sick of these types of requests that they are no longer careful. Sad, but true, and I completely understand, unfortunately.

    • Dawn

      What she said. As someone who cannot eat wheat or soy (and would give anything to be able to again) – but loves a good party – I fully expect to contact the restaurant for a special meal that I will pay for myself in order to participate in the event. Life is too short to put up with relations who expect you to bend over for their culinary eccentricities on YOUR special day. I would never expect friends or family to make concessions for MY food allergies.

  • Jessica / Green Skies and Sugar Trips

    I am sitting here, and my first thought is “fuck them!” Tell them to fuck off. But being that we live in a world where using nice our nice words is key and constantly dropping the F-Bomb (as I am well known to do) is not socially acceptable (I really don’t care) I agree with Ruhlman’s suggestion. And deep down you know know they all REALLY do want to feed their inner food demons some pasta and actually TASTE some real freaking food again! Seriously folks, how can the smell of bacon not make them salivate? I don’t care how long they’ve been raw food “lovers” EVERYTHING tastes better than skinny feels!

    I also love this quote, perhaps you can put it on bottom of the menu ;-)
    “Esse nufesso qui dice male di macaroni” – Meaning: He who speaks badly of macaroni is a fool” So people on those “special” diets are just fools!

  • Larry Lootsteen

    Absolutely tell them there will be no special meals. You have every right to offer up that option to attend after. Also ask them to confirm if they will be eating or attending the after speeches. That way you don’t pay for extra meals – why should you.

    I’m not sure this qualifies as a blood boiling issue as anyone can make ridiculous and ill-informed food choices (turkey confit not withstanding!). If they were to come back at you with demands that you accommodate their special needs THEN I would get out caveman club and have at them.

    We all have to stop worrying about this political correctness around people’s weird choices. They have the option to join, with or without food. Do not give this a second thought.

  • Elmer

    Michael, you have pretty well covered it. The day isn’t about the family and their questionable needs, it is about the (hopefully) happy couple. When my wife and I got married (almost six years ago) we decided the goal was to throw a great party. Oh, and we’d be getting married that day too. The food was the important part. The rehearsal / feeding of the out of town guests the night before was handled the same way. Here’s the menu. We want you to join us, but this is our time. If it doesn’t work for you, then we’re sorry. We hope you can manage.

    And for the record, for several years before and still now, our families try to get together for Thanksgiving at a minimum. I handle the menu and most of the cooking. I will take suggestions, but I have final call. If you don’t like it, then bring your own food.

  • Kim Foster

    Michael –

    A mom at my kid’s school told me her son was allergic to milk that wasn’t…wait for it…organic. And I have a neighbor who swears her kid is actually allergic to milk…except for ice cream and chocolate milk. It’s insane and also impossible.

    This kind of craziness makes it harder for everyone to take it seriously when people have real allergies – celiac or severe nut allergies, for instance. This is great advice, Michael. The wedding is to celebrate her daughter and her partner and their new life, not cater to the diet issues of the extended family.

    Kim

  • Matt Novak

    I do understand this dillema. I just would like to point out one very gracious difference. My wife, a recent vegan convert, attended Baconfect in Chicago with me this past weekend. She’s not a militant meat is evil vegan, she just thinks it makes her feel more healthy. The restaurants and vendors at Baconfest were quite taken with her and even went out of their way to adapt their some dishes to be vegan for her when there was absolutely no expectation for them to do so. She would have been happy with a few vegan PBR’s and to watch me gorge on all things porky. I truly am a blessed man.

  • jeff wright

    It is the height of self absorption and narcissism to demand a Hostess accommodate the latest diet lunacy.Like you. my blood boils when I read this. Someone had to take a stand against this. She is doing exactly what I would do. We have invited you to share in the happiness of our daughters nuptials,NOT to hear about your various metabolic malfunctions that make you unable to enjoy our celebration.

  • allen

    I Negroni, therefore I no upset stomach.
    Is that a complete sentence? It’s the bitters man, no question about it. I made a dinner like the one pictured and had a negroni, it settles the stomach. Sheeesh! Focker out!

  • Peter - The Roaming GastroGnome

    Isn’t it always odd when relatives make demands about your wedding? I’m sure most who’ve done their own wedding planning can sympathize with Heather on this. The wedding day is supposed to be about the two getting married not everyone else. When my wife and I were planning ours we made sure we had what we wanted. We took advice from others with a (I’d like to think) a touch of diplomacy and said “thanks that’s a good idea, we’ll think about it” or “well we’re working on a budget and though we’d like to, we have to stay within the budget” Most people understood. We also found (happily) our fears were a bit overstated and most everyone just ended up being happy for us and enjoyed themselves. It’s different with every family of course but our feeling was “hey if you don’t like the party we’re offering you just say no and we’ll invite someone else who’ll be happy with it.” My two cents.

  • Ron

    I am an omnivore (had a beef tongue burrito yesterday) and my wife is vegetarian. She is not vegan but also not one of those pseudo-vegetarians who say that they eat fish and chicken sometimes. The thing is, she realizes that this is a lifestyle choice that she made and does not impose it on others. Whenever we are invited over to other’s houses for dinner, we do not request anything special and instead offer to bring something along. As for things like weddings…etc. she usually grabs a bite to eat before going so in case there are limited choices.

    We both dislike people who impose their diets on others…just as it is wrong to impose religious beliefs on others.

    I think it is perfectly acceptable to indicate that you cannot meet their special diet needs. If they are decent folk, they will understand. If they do not understand, then you probably don’t want to be celebrating with them in the first place.

    This all said, I do have an issue with restaurants who shove aside the vegetarian (true vegetarians). We love to eat out and if we are going to a special restaurant, we are certain to call ahead (days) to let them know that my wife is a vegetarian. When doing so, we expect some sort of effort by the kitchen. Nothing is worse than spending a large sum of money on a meal and having my wife get a plate that is only a selection of the vegetable side dishes they offer…with no special thought put into it.

    • Carri

      So, Ron…when you go to a vegetarian restaurant do you call days and days ahead to ask them to cook a special meat option just for you? Just curious…

      • Ron

        Not exactly apples and oranges here, is it. It is not as if it is ever difficult for omnivores to find things to eat. Vegetarian restaurants do not have the ingredients on-hand to cook a meat-eater a meal. Every conventional restaurant does not have to buy special products to cook something vegetarian. They do have produce on hand…so I am not sure what your are asking here or if you are just trying to be a smart ass.

        • apples and oranges

          And who would you be to expect special effort on the part of the kitchen?

          • Ron

            A paying customer who would expect the same effort that is put into making the other customers happy

        • Carri

          I’m not trying to be smart ass…you make the assumption that a resto that serves meat can easily come up with something vegetarian even though all their prep, etc has been thought out ahead of time…so suddenly that lovely risotto cannot have chicken stock in it and has to be made specially. Not every place has the staff or the means to make that happen and shouldn’t be expected to, just like a vegan restaurant shouldn’t be expected to accommodate someone paleo, just sayin.

          • Ron

            I not talking about 99% of the restaurants, but…If I were heading to the French Laundry, I don’t think it is unacceptable to call ahead. And…yes…I do think that restaurants of that calibre should be able to do more than just “come up with something vegetarian”. If, when calling ahead they say they cannot accommodate…that is cool…we wouldn’t go there. But, for instance, I remember going to Biba in Boston…calling ahead and then seeing my wife having side dishes slapped on a plate. if we had known that would happen, we wouldn’t have gone.

            I am not talking about an “entitlement” here, but just an effort from rock-star chefs to see an opportunity. I am very much an omnivore. My wife is ova-lacto. If we can both go out and have a memorable meal, don’t you think we would be more likely to go back again and again…and even tell more people about the awesome experience. If a restaurant is not prepared to try and impress their customers, then just say…”you know what, our awesome chef and kitchen staff really can’t do something nice for someone who doesn’t eat meat. We plan on just giving you whatever is in the kitchen so deal with it”. That sort of candid response would be welcome, and appreciated by me.

            However, I do think that if a rising star chef is worth their weight in salt then they should be able to dazzle their customers without a meat protein. If they cannot, or if they just shove aside the vegetarian, then they may be missing the mark on customer service, repeat business and growing their business. If they choose not to accommodate other diets, then proudly claim it…don’t pretend.

            There is nothing worse than spending hundreds of dollars on a dinner and having your partner end up with Charlie Brown’s rock on her plate. Chefs can either try and impress the vegetarian or dismiss them. What I ask is that they be honest up front. It would save their customers from having a bad experience. If you scorn the vegetarian, then proudly print “we do not accommodate special diets” right on the menu. I can live with that fine.

            One of our favorite restaurants is Terroni (in Toronto). They print on their menu that the do not accommodate special requests and that there are no substitutes with any of their dishes (they won’t even allow you to put cheese on seafood). It is honest. There are limited vegetarian items…but that is okay, because they state it up front and we very much respect that.

            I don’t think that your vegan restaurant example it a good parable. I would not expect to even think about going to a steak house or some place that specializes in meat (like Animal in LA or The Black Hoof in Toronto) with my wife and get any sort of veg meal. just as I would not expect a vegan place to offer a meat dish. These are specialty places and are treated as such by customers.

            Apples to Apples.

    • john phipps

      Ron…. As to places accommodating veg’ers, I once took my nephew (omnivore) and his veg’er girlfriend to Michael Simon’s Lola for dinner. A VERY meat oriented place. I called ahead, spoke with the manager, and they kindly had menus on the table for the three of us that included the regular fare and had two superb vegan choices added. No fuss… No muss. Just unmitigated class! Sometimes I wish I lived a couple thousand miles closer so I could go there more often.

  • Brandon

    I think the response is reasonable. If I couldn’t eat, and the resto couldn’t accommodate me, I would gladly come afterword for the “fun” part anyway! Though I imagine this wedding food would be nicer than most.

  • Arlene

    I say this as someone who finds these diets maddening as well: I agree that now that people have the luxury of picking out specific diets at their whim, the job of a hostess is harder than ever. However I take exception to the idea of being insulted that one’s money will be wasted if their guests do not care for the food they are served. It is rude, yes, for guests to not try to enjoy what’s offered but it’s also equally rude to want to exclude people merely because their diet does not jibe with what you want to serve. Is this wedding about having friends and family around to celebrate the occasion or about teaching your relatives a lesson? I agree it’s frustrating when other people try to foist their lifestyles on you but I urge all hostesses to be the better person in this regard. Serve what will make the bride happy and let the pick-at-their-platers pick away and don’t bean count the amount wasted. This isn’t the time and you’re not going to change their ways either way.

    • Laura

      I agree with Arlene. I think maybe the hostesses’ real problem is that she’s worried about affording the wedding dinner and she’d like to save money by not spending on food she knows people won’t eat. I’d say she should just forget about it, spend the $$$ (who knows? maybe she will “corrupt” some people in the process) and stop worrying about it. She can’t fix them; she’s stuck.
      I’d LOVE to go to that dinner; maybe I could just sit outside the tent and they could pass the food they don’t want on to me.

  • Melissa D

    I have a son with a dairy allergy and would never dream of expecting others to accommodate that at a gathering. It’s their party, not ours. I might inquire about what is to be served, but if nothing was appropriate for my son I’d (gasp!) feed him beforehand and bring plenty of snacks. When he goes to a friend’s birthday party, do I request the host parent make dairy-free cupcakes to ensure my son is happy? No! I take him out for sorbet after the party!

    If the most important factor when going to a wedding is the food selection, maybe you shouldn’t be going in the first place?

  • Elliott N Papineau

    I agree with the media aspect of your post. The other problem is with the rampant celebrity narcissism that exists. Everyone wants to feel special, stand out, be catered to, etc. It is all about the manipulation of the people who surround us that makes this issue relevant.

    I would also like to throw out there that the notion of “slow food, sustainable agriculture/local food philosophy” is great, but don’t be an elitist. That is how food should be. The obsession with local/organic need to be the norm, not a way to separate yourself.

  • denise

    Thank you. I try to be aware of friends’ dietary needs, prioritizing the life-or-death allergy issues of course, but a lot of people I know exclude things based on fad diets. There’s audacity behind ingredient exclusion that could never exist in countries that don’t have the luxury of selection and resources we are blessed with. It’s fine to try new diets to improve health — I’ve totally done it — but when it comes to eating a communal meal, especially if a friend prepared it, I follow the best advice (Mom’s), which is eat what you’re given and be gracious. Treat every meal like it’s a gift, because for so many others, they go without.

  • Kasha

    I egree with what Malcolm said re: general sense of entitlement…. It’s a curse on our society and we brought it on ourselves. So sad it’s come to this.

    I’m a people-pleaser from way back but would never think that someone would alter a menu to suit me and my former vegetarian ways. My hang-up, my problem when dining out. End. Of. Story.

  • Natalie

    She should let the restaurant know about “allergies,” I believe the EU is ahead on this issue, and tell the family to either eat ahead of time, or bring their own meal, with restaurants permission, if the restaurant doesn’t go for it, then I agree with her. I have a wheat intolerance, and I pick and choose the people and dinners that should accommodate me, based on our closeness and what type of dinner it is. Sometimes I bring my own meal, or just eat ahead of time, or if its a great meal I decide it’s worth suffering for and eat up. But it sounds like here, she is dealing with a bunch of control freaks that use food as a weapon and to that I say good luck and when in their presence drink a lot of wine!

  • Laurie Smith

    As a friend once said “It’s free, tastes good to me!” after receiving criticism on food (and wine) at a volunteer dinner. And watching my sister kowtow to my vegetarian nieces food demands each holiday (two separate sets of stuffing-really?) is pure insanity. The verbiage is perfect as what the focus should be on is the couple, plain and simple.

    • Linnea

      You really think it’s insane for your sister to want her daughters to enjoy a special meal just like everybody else? My mom makes two sets of stuffing at family meals so I (and my vegetarian aunt) can enjoy it too, and it’s this hard: Make a big batch of stuffing. Set some aside. Add meat to the rest. Cook. So crazy, right? Then there’s my cousin who is allergic to tomatoes – if there are going to be tomatoes in a salad, we put them on the side so she can eat too! Insane!

      I know it’s hard to accommodate a wide variety of diets, and even harder when some people have ever-changing dietary choices. But when a family member is a vegetarian (or has Celiac, etc.), and everybody in the family is aware of it, it’s good and kind to make sure they can enjoy the holiday meal just like everybody else. Not insane.

  • Mary aka The Culinary Librarian

    I’m with Heather for letting the family know they may opt out of attending the meal if they will be difficult about the food. As I read this I imagined guests pestering waiters at the restaurant asking if the roasted vegetables had been cooked in any butter/animal fat or if the calamari crust was made with wheat flour or not.

    As a food lover/person it is very very difficult for me to deal with people who set up all these dietary restrictions for themselves which have nothing direct to do with known health issues. I also think its insulting to the people who *do* have serious conditions for which they require a restricted diet. Sure, it increases awareness and availability of alternatives for those who need it when it becomes trendy, but to have someone say they can’t have something in a restaurant that they actually CAN handle is what I find to be insensitive. It is one thing to strive to be paleo, gluten free or vegan *most* of the time, it is another to have it create uncomfortable situations when celebrating life’s moments together with family and friends.

    I have some friends who have created these restrictions for themselves, again, without a doctor telling them they have a condition that requires them to eliminate certain foods, and I do my very best to avoid dining with them. It is always awful and embarrassing. Either they sit there and don’t eat or they ask way too many questions of the waiter to the point that they are insulting the restaurant when they don’t believe what the waiter tells them and refuses to eat the food they ordered because they think there is something that they don’t eat in it.

    I have no wedding in sight but this letter/post has now got me thinking about what I might do at my own someday and I think I’d have to take a similar route. If people don’t trust that the food I serve will be delicious, well-made and of high quality they shouldn’t really be my friends anyway! I will not serve a handful or more of special entrees for people (unless they truly have dietary restrictions) when there will be a perfectly enticing spread that everyone else will enjoy.

    • NoWheatPlease

      My doctor didn’t tell me to avoid wheat, but every time I eat it there is blood in my poop. Does that qualify me, in your eyes, to avoid eating it?

  • phrits

    I think she knows she could politely refuse to provide special food. All the ranting aside, she’s trying to avoid paying for food that won’t be eaten and tiresome conversation about it. Mr. Ruhlman’s note is spot on.

    Here’s another approach: What if you have all the toasting and celebrating before the meal? Then the folks that eat real food can just stay on, and all the boorish weirdos can go off and graze or whatever it is they do.

  • Jennifer Commins

    I agree with your approach Michael – and you too Melissa. After all, this is about Heather’s daughter’s wedding and celebrating one of life’s most beautiful moments over a memorable, beautiful meal… not the food extremist agenda.

    Extremism is unsavoury in all subjects. Extremism breeds conflict and war.

    Shame on these guests if they have a hissy fit over the menu or venue. They need to get over themselves.

    My advice – disclose the venue and a hint of the menu in advance and let them make their choice about whether or not they can attend. AND, instruct the venue that they are not to cater to unreasonable substitutions. You don’t want the day to be compromised with server eye-rolling and flustered management. Empower them to gently but firmly say “no” to these attention – seeking food killjoys.

  • hawaiianicolina

    To play the opposite end of the plate here, as the wife/cook of a celiac these types of issues plague those of us who need the special diet accomodations. I sit in restaurants and also hear these dabblers say that “oh a little gluten is fine”, pick out the croutons out of salads or eat the yummy cheesecake filling out of the crust ( none of which is OK for a celiac). While there are now recognized (or categorized) levels of gluten intolerance, I can only speak for myself that it just makes it so hard to educate servers/restaurants and puts an undo burden on busy kitchens to have faux allergic/immunocompromised diners hypocritically eating at their establishments.

    Even when we suspect there may be some cross contamination or issues after the fact, we trust that the restaurant did all it could to provide a safe meal. We suffer in silence because we chose the risk to eat out. However being sympathetic to busy kitchens, I always worry that someone back there is going CUE EYE ROLL at the next person who can’t eat gluten or dairy or casein or sugar or whatever and then just chooses to serve the food as is. It must drive them bat sh*t crazy! We used to have to explain what gluten was and now it’s the opposite. Everyone seems like they have a handle on doing it, yet I don’t feel comfortable with a lot of responses I get upon inquiry.

    Specific to your issue, I recently was involved in a group wedding with preactivities. We chose to discreetly bring our own meal (twice) and cleared it with the restaurant ahead of time (or rather the bride did). Frankly the restaurant was happy to not worry about the cross contamination and were fine with bringing in the meal and even offered to heat it up (which we declined). It’s about the comraderie if it’s done right. And we got asked a few questions of course but it turned back to the bride/couples’ day.

    If people choose to put their food issues before participating in life’s activities then that’s their own choice and don’t feel guilty. Some people like to be special. True Celiacs or those with allergy issues know how polarizing and antisocial our lifestyle can be. It’s hard to eat out…people won’t invite you over because they are afraid they will poison you. you can’t go to a lot of restaurants with friends if you really have to eat…etc.etc. Most of us seek to be accomodating and blend in and be included. FYI That’s how you’ll know the difference!

  • Megh

    As someone who has been on one of those evangelical, wacko, fad diets for about fifteen months now, and who is finally finding that I can start eating, every once in a while, “normal” foods, based upon the normative standards of high quality, “good” food in American culture (I’m not talking McD here, but high class restaurant food) without feeling truly awful for several days afterwards, I have to say that I would have been very appreciative if I had received an invitation that was (courteously) sensitive to my dietary needs. As it was, during the period when I needed to be strictly adherent to my evangelical, wacko, fad, (and nonetheless highly effective diet), I took my own food to all of these sort of occasions anyway, and I ate it on the sly. I would have been thrilled if someone had said, “you know, I understand that you probably aren’t going to be eating any of the food that is being served, but we would still love to have your company.” I would be more than happy to spend time with folks with a glass of water and an already full belly — instead of horrible, after feeling pressured to eat something I shouldn’t have, for the rest of the wedding festivities!

  • Lisa

    Yeah, I have a few of these (one worse than the other) in my family as well. She’s continually coming up with new foods she simply must eliminate from her diet (for whatever reason). Between the foods she says she cannot eat and the ones she will not eat, she has basically become an annorexic, and very unheathy in the process. She is a close family member, therefore dinners with them happen throughout the year and I deal with it this way: I make a few suggestions on what I might cook and if those seem problematic to them, I politely suggest that they bring one dish for her. Oddly enough, they understand and either way it works out.

    In the case of the wedding, I agree….serve what you want. Let them know what you’re serving and if they don’t want to partake, they can meet up afterward. If they’re offended, so be it, it’s her daughter’s day. The extra cost notwithstanding, it’s rude to expect people to cater to such extreme whims (with the exception of true allergies to foods). Hopefully they will be gracious.

  • mattgmann

    Not too long ago I brought home a leg of lamb. Seeing as we are a family of two, I invited a few friends over for dinner that evening, explaining that I had a huge leg of lamb and we’d love some help eating it. Within an hour of guests arriving, I got not one, but two notices that their wives didn’t like lamb. One gentleman even proposed that he could bring over some frozen chicken he had and that I could cook that for his wife and anyone else that may not like the lamb (I could have reached through the phone and punched him).

    Luckily, for myself and everyone around me, I was in a tremendously good mood. I grabbed a chicken from the fridge (slated for another meal that week ) and threw it on the outdoor grill to smoke roast.

    I did however reserve the fabulous bottle of cab franc for those enjoying the lamb.

    At least the author of this letter knows where possible troubles lie. Too many times have I had guests notify me as their plate was presented as to what imagined food allergy they were claiming that day, or what exotic(to lame midwesterner) food they didn’t fancy.

    I agree with Ruhlman; politely tell them that you won’t be accommodating them.

  • Acasse

    Well, how badly does she want these 10-12 people to celebrate with her? Isn’t that the question?

    I have a vegan friend who is very dear to me and if I want her at an “event” I am planning, I try to make sure there is at least one to two dishes for her. She NEVER expects anything though and most often brings her own food or cooks alongside me. We’ve even done Thanksgiving like this and it’s fine.

    Having said that, I’d accommodate the bona fide allergies and let the others decide whether or not to come.

    You can include a menu in the invitation with a note that says special requests are not possible for this event. And wait for the RSVPs….no need to make a big statement. (you can let the ones with “real” issues know before hand)

    P.S. The meal in the picture looks divine. Can you point me in direction of the recipes for those potatoes? ;)

  • Mitch

    I think the polite addition to the invite sounds perfectly reasonable. But let’s not assume that anyone who has different dietary needs will necessarily impose that at the luncheon. I eat paleo, not as a fad but it’s what works best for me. But i certainly wouldn’t attend such an event demanding special treatment.

  • MissSlim

    I agree 100% with your point and your response. One small note however. I’m pretty sure most cheeses are lactose free – certainly hard and aged cheeses are. 90% of the lactose runs out with the whey and another 2% is lost in fermentation. So people who claim to be allergic to lactose can ask for that cheese cart!

    • Caroline

      I was thinking this too. I can’t drink a glass of milk or eat a scoop of ice cream, but cheeses and yogurts are not a problem. With lactose intolerances/allergies it’s usually not an all-or-nothing deal.

  • Stacey Ellen Ballis

    I agree with Michael, but also think…these are your husband’s SIBLINGS? It isn’t like it is some distant relative with whom you have no relationship. Can’t your husband just call them and say directly that you completely honor their eating and lifestyle choices, but as they can imagine, this is an expensive per-person cost, and that the restaurant is not in a position to honor any special requests beyond vegetarian, which will not be a gluten-free/paleo/grapefruit/cabbage soup diet option. I know if I was honest with my siblings about an issue like this, they would totally understand not wanting to lay out money for uneaten meals, and they wouldn’t be happy sitting around not eating either. I think the “join us later” gives them an oportunity to participate without incurring ridiculous costs.

  • KCG

    Michael, that does look like a wonderful and reasonable meal – except for the potatoes. ;-) Really, there are diets and there are diets. I’m diabetic and sugar, flour and to a lesser extent root veg and fruit are literally poison to my body. This makes it difficult to eat out either at restaurants or with friends. We went to Passover a couple of weeks ago. Was I not going to have matzo? It’s actually not a hard choice for me. But that said, I would never ask my hosts to cater to my special needs. And since I know how to cook, I can almost always pick my way through a menu or a dish. But that, can be awkward for my host – as I leave the matzo balls in the bowl.

  • Jeannie

    I realize I am being picky, but really I would love to see far more vegetables and less meat in your “perfectly balanced” meal picture otherwise I completely agree with your sentiments.

  • michelle

    First I would like to say that I agree with the solution. It is not the hosts job, especially in such a big group, to account for every little dietary need. The gracious thing to do would be for the guest to decline attendance to the meal, and join their loved ones later for the true celebration. That said, some of the intolerances listed are not necessarily “philosophies” or “extremist diets”. One doesn’t have to be a celiac to get sick from eating gluten or diabetic to get sick from eating sugar, etc. Yes, there are those who jump on every dietary bandwagon, but to paint everyone with the same brush is incredibly close minded. Yes, take a stand but don’t be insulting about it. (now if the guests are boorish, all bets are off!)

  • Sam

    That description of the woman in the restaurant–that was my entire week last week. My boyfriend’s aunt and uncle were visiting from out of town. Every restaurant we went to: “Is that made with cream? I’m allergic to dairy–except for butter. Butter’s fine.” By the end of the week my head was about to explode.

    On the other hand, excellent advice.

    • LouisatheLast

      Actually, that’s totally reasonable. Different dairy products have different levels of lactose, because of aging or fermentation. Milk and cream are only tolerable in small amounts for me, while butter, good-quality yogurt, and cheese are fine. Butter is almost all fat, yogurt has had most lactose removed through fermentation, and cheese is made by lactose-eating cultures.

  • Kenneth

    1. You serve what your daughter wants, with whatever accommodations for diets you’re willing to provide (since the expense seems to be a major concern).
    2. You invite the people who fall within your “close friends and family” category, NO MATTER WHAT THEIR DIETARY PREFERENCES.
    3. You DO NOT invite them not to come while making snide remarks about their food choices.
    4. You don’t have to make nice if they are nasty about their food choices and your lack of accommodation of them.
    5. You don’t get to complain publicly about whether people eat the food you provide or how much it costs.

    I’m horrified that someone would even consider telling a close relative that if they aren’t going to eat the meal you don’t want them at the intimate event for family and friends at a wedding. HORRIFIED.

  • Terri

    I think letting the family know that you can’t possibly accommodate every trendy food phobia, in the entirely polite and reasoned way she’s already phrased it, is perfectly fine. I may copy the way she’s phrased it for future use, since I’ve been known to host a party or two. (Though, thankfully, most of my friends are foodies and just want to eat things that taste good.) This is the sort of unnecessary drama that sets my teeth on edge. I’ve worked in restaurants and have had people tell me they’re allergic to garlic simply because they don’t like it–really, you’re going to pretend to have an autoimmune disorder because you don’t LIKE something? I do have a shellfish allergy and I haaaaate feeling like I have to be demanding. (I mean, I am when I have to be, but most restaurants will happily work with a reasonable person.) My boyfriend is a vegetarian (not vegan, but no seafood, either) and in situations where a vegetarian choice isn’t provided, I’ve watched him choose the lowest rung on the food chain available, without making the host feel terrible or drawing attention to how his “special needs” weren’t met. Get over yourselves, people.

  • Shelly

    I think it’s quite interesting that the people in my life who have a genuine food intolerance are the most gracious about their dietary needs, whereas I find my family members who are prone to picky eating and fad diets are usually the most difficult to please (regardless of whether or not I plan around their food preferences, actually).
    However, I’m sensing some extra venom to these comments directed at the fact that these prospective guests are excluding foods based on a dietary fad. Would there be less hard feelings if they were simply picky eaters who only liked brown rice, meat, and some fruits/veggies?
    Would that be less annoying?

  • Jason Sandeman

    There are two schools of thought here Michael:
    1) If there are serious dietary concerns, then it makes sense to bring them up for the reception. That way a smart bride/groom/mother/father or whoever are arranging the reception can let the chef know. It is common practice to have allergies/special requests and if the chef knows in advance, then the operation will go smoothly.

    2) As for Paleo/Primal/Gluten free- Michael, despite what your feelings are on this matter, get used to it. There is a wave coming your way, a tsunami. You may not see it for the small waves coming now, but you will see more of it. People are turning to these “wacky” diets because they are tired of the processed crap thrown at them, from CAFO operations, not being able to get raw milk, and the general politicking over the USDA recommendations of what people should eat. People are getting sicker on the pyramid plan, and are tired of being told it’s because they are gluttons and are lazy, and need to move more, and eat less.

    For me, I have no problem eating at an Italian restaurant. I love the food. However, I am a T1D, and I’ll be damned if someone thinks that it’s not important enough to care about. I will mention my dietary needs to them, and if they get pissy about it, it’s okay. I don’t really have to come after all. In terms of the Paleo/Primal people, well – they can have a pass for one night, as the lifestyle builds that in. My advice for the letter writer is to remind the people that the lifestyle is an 80/20 affair. The wedding reception is a feast, a celebration, something that surely fits into the 20% camp.

    Michael, I have always respected you, I just feel like your anger is a bit misdirected. Yes, people get annoying with all the requests, and seem to be from Mars with their diets. I can only sum it up like this: I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes a little over 2 years ago. I need insulin in order to live, and I need to be like a hawk over my diet so I can control my sugar level – and avoid going to high, or too low. Both can result in a coma.

    Before my diagnosis, I didn’t have to THINK about what I ate. I didn’t need to count carbohydrates, count and compare to my insulin ratio to correct with insulin. Eating was so much easier… into the trap it went. I feel like maybe with a little understanding about the challenges people are facing today with their food, you will be less quick to anger over what I feel you incorrectly view (and incorrectly spell) as “food fascism.”

  • Dave Nadal

    Accommodating people who have chosen a particularly occult dietary plan has certainly gotten out of hand…but please take a look at things from the other side: disease. MR alluded to it very briefly in his response—celiac, shellfish allergies…and I’d also like to add my own condition, diabetes. Most of you have NO idea what it’s like to have to monitor what and how much of every dam’ thing that goes down your gullet…to open a menu and immediately have to (not choose to—have to) mentally X out whole sections.

    In a situation like the MIL-to-be describes above, I can usually find a salad or something that won’t spike my blood glucose levels, but it’s not always easy, and it’s yet another one of the things that reminds people with disease-related dietary restrictions that they’re on the outside looking in. Things like work parties where all that’s served is full-sugar soda…no diet, not even any water. And if you feel you have to continually justify what a pain in the ass your diet makes you to your host or your server, over and over and over again, sometimes you may start sounding a bit defensive, or pushy.

    But when someone planning an event chooses to include ALL of their friends and family—not by making everybody live up to the strictures a few choose to live by, but by providing a few simple options for those who require accommodation—man, you can’t believe how good a little thing like that feels.

  • Lisa

    I am one of those annoying jerks who makes crazy food choices. I take full responsibility for my douchebaggery. My latest thing is sticking to unprocessed foods as much as possible. So no refined sugar or white flour etc. I understand this is MY crazy. I would NEVER expect a bride and groom to adjust their menus because I am choosing to be a picky eater. What would I do… ask them to make the cake with wheat pastry flour and applesauce? I would just eat before I went. OR (more realistically for me) say “F it” because it’s a wedding and just enjoy myself and eat whatever they serve. One awesome meal full of white flour and sugar won’t hurt anyone (save people with real allergies.) Elective food choices are not the bride or groom’s problem. I love that her mother cares enough to check, but just order what you want and let them take care of themselves.

  • homer

    What’s the point of inviting people if you are going to belittle them behind their backs? I’m sorry but this woman is just looking to punish some relatives she doesn’t really like, all the while expecting them to show up with gifts for her daughter.

    I’d really be interested in hearing the daughter’s perspective. And how hard is it to offer a SALAD for those guests with picky tastebuds. A nice, organic salad with some delicious heritage tomatoes?

  • Leo

    Right — “I can eat all this food and feel great, therefore everybody must be exactly like me, screw anyone who disagrees.” Look up the definition of fascism, Michael, you tool.

  • Matt K

    Outstanding post on all counts but one — it’s “fascism,” not “facism.” #grammarfascism

  • Jill from First Comes Health

    I don’t know why I’m surprised by people’s food elitism and snobbery anymore, but I am.
    I eat paleo (mostly) only because it makes me feel good. I also would never ever ever expect anyone to dance around my choices for any reason. If someone is going to be generous enough and gracious enough to provide me with a meal (or even snacks!) I will graciously and gratefully eat it. Period.
    As a holistic health coach I can assuredly say that if the guests do not have Celiac disease or other such allergy or intolerance, one meal will not render their guts permanently leaky, and destroy gut flora beyond repair.
    Great response, Michael Ruhlman! All class! I hope you have permission from the emailer to let us know how the event goes and how the picky guest reacted.

  • Elizabeth

    I’m a private chef who deals with many of these unique dietary requests on a daily basis, so it’s not so uncommon in my world. That said, I am compensated to pay such close attention to all these obscure food nuances. For such a special event, it seems most important to focus on the bride and groom and allow everyone else to simply take care of themselves — like it or not.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    I don’t get worked up over this! There are too many other food related things to get worked up over! LOL
    Here’s what’s for dinner!! Take it or leave it!!

  • Justin Ross

    First, I think some of us are getting a little too worked up over this. Reread the letter. The relatives haven’t yet “demanded” anything. Heather is just planning ahead, expecting them to.

    That said, if they do start demanding things, they’re jerks.

    As a firm proponent of the paleo way of eating (over a year now, and couldn’t be happier), I go well out of my way to try and make sure I’m not inconveniencing others. It’s pretty tough for me to find a restaurant where I can’t eat SOMETHING with only very minor modifications (burger with no bun, replace a side of rice with extra vegetables, etc).

    Heather, for your paleo-eating guests, feel free to remind them that intermittent fasting is an important part of the paleo way of life. :)

    Also, regarding gluten-free dilettantes: As somebody mentioned previously, there are different levels of gluten intolerance. It’s now quite often seen as a spectrum, rather than just “celiac/no celiac”. Personally, before trying the paleo diet, I’d eat reasonably-sized meals, and have stomach bloating/cramping. It wasn’t until I cut gluten out of my diet for a while (then tried it again) that I realized those problems were caused by gluten.

    A little here and there doesn’t cause me any noticeable issues, but if I were to, say, eat a slice of bread, I’d be hating life for a day or two. No, it’s not life-threatening, but it’s more than just a trendy choice. While it’s clearly a biased source of info, looking around the paleo/GF blogsphere/forums/etc, there are countless other similar anecdotes from those that have gone gluten-free.

    The point I’m trying to make is this: whether it’s a fad diet or not, sometimes an elimination diet can show people what sensitivities they actually have. When you’ve had an issue with something for most/all of your life, it’s hard to notice until it goes away.

    Oh, and for Sam: there’s almost no lactose in butter. Most lactose-intolerant people can eat it without incident.

    The “allergic to milk that isn’t organic” is a riot, though. Along that same vein, I just went to a wedding, and one of the guests insisted that she couldn’t drink “new world” wine.

    Still haven’t figured that one out. :)

  • Joel

    I have a theory the humans desire a certain amount of drama, uncertainty, & anxiety to feel normal. How do you spot the bright moments in life without a dark background?

    This drives both extremes: base jumping, Japanese Fugu, & affairs. Banning playground games, fake food allergies, and Facebook drama queens.

    Some of it is narcissism, some of it is a need to feel something about your food when you don’t have to worry when you’re getting your next meal.

    Some of it is ignorance, i.e. Alton Brown’s tweet this week that his audience was outrages about pink slime, but nobody could tell him what it is.

    Your advice is spot on. It’s factual, non-judgmental, and fair. If anyone is offended, well, Lincoln said “”Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

  • Babette

    Like so many others, I think Heather’s response is diplomatic and generous.

    Some years ago, I noticed a trend in manners amongst many in our 30ish circles, namely, to see every social invitation as the starting point to a negotiation. “I can’t make to dinner next Saturday, could you move it to the following week?” , or “I know your invite says “adults only” but you didn’t mean my kids, right?”, or even “I might be able to come, what are you cooking?”

    It ain’t about the food, it’s about seeing everything as a transaction.

  • Eleanor

    I took from Michael’s post that the core issue was the prosyletizing and unpleasantness; the fact that it was around which foods they did/did not eat was secondary to the attitude that came with it. As most of the respondants here have pointed out, graciousness is key when you are an invited guest. Unfortunately it’s hard to dictate graciousness, even harder when it’s family. Good luck to all at the wedding feast!

  • Deb Dobbins

    The days of graciousness, as a guest, have disappeared only to be replaced by the “me, me, me”, but it is just this dilemma that drives me to recommend that my customers avoid sit down dinners and opt for elegant buffets that allow their guest to pick and chose for themselves. I appreciated your response, Michael, and those of your followers

  • Monte Mathews

    I will never forget getting a phone call at 4:30 pm the night my dinner guests were to arrive at 7:00 telling me that the both husband and wife had become vegetarians. This is all very well but to only allow 2 and half hours between this pronouncement and my having to put dinner on the table was so rude, in my opinion, that I seem to remember that all they had to eat that night was a baked potato and some greens.

  • Annie

    That’s a very gracious way to handle it.

    Myself, I’d probably try harder to have the restaurant come up with a menu to accommodate the food wackos. But that’s because my husband and many of my friends are vegetarian/vegan/gluten “intolerant”/paleo dieting/low carbing….etc. There’s truly no way to please everyone but I suppose some kind of buffet arrangement would let people pick and choose if the restaurant could arrange it. These days, I would think the restaurant would be used to dealing with this and have some suggestions.

  • Mantonat

    My wife (who has celiac disease) and I recently discovered a wonderful local product – fresh gluten-free pasta – while at a grocery store. The creator of the new product was giving out samples and we walked up to his table just as he was being chewed out by a woman who was furious that he had not made the pasta vegan friendly as well (it has eggs in it). He tried to explain that he and his partner had created the product primarily for those who can’t eat gluten and that he did not want to compromise the quality of the pasta by using egg substitutes. She walked off in a huff while my wife thanked him profusely for making such tasty pasta and gnocchi. As someone who must avoid gluten, my wife tries her hardest to not ruffle feathers or make a fuss about her dietary needs. But it’s also infuriating to see people who make dietary choices act with rudeness or self-entitlement rather than grace and gratitude.

  • Alison

    This makes me really sad. When you host an event like this, you realize that there is an expense involved. You’re paying for people’s company. Nobody went around my wedding reception ensuring that everyone ate the meal that was served and drank the champagne that was poured for them, on our dime.

  • Bricktop Polford

    At our wedding there were three choices: Veal, grouper, and F.O.

    Good job that was more than 20 years ago, or we would have also been inundated with not only the narcissist/trendy diet questions, but also the sustainable, cruelty-free locabores. Luckily none of them existed back then.

  • Julie

    I’m conflicted. My daughter (& I) have Celiac Disease. It made her quite ill before we knew what it was and were able to change her diet. When attending functions where we know there will be a meal, we try to eat beforehand and bring snacks for afterward if we are unable to make other arrangements. I never expect the hosts to make special arrangements for us.

    However… if it is a close family member who is the host, I would be hurt if they did not at least offer an alternative for us — for my daughter especially since she is still young and feels any exclusion quite painfully.

    Of course, this is a medical issue — I would not advise anyone giving up gluten if they did not need to do so as I do not find it to be intrinsically healthier. If you are on a special diet for personal reasons, you should make your own arrangements and the host should not give it a second thought.

  • Jan

    My husband and I are those who are “touched in the head” with our diet – we mostly follow a paleo/WAPF sort of diet. We eat cleanly at home. We don’t eat out often, and are careful about where we DO dine outside of home. When we find a restaurant that serves grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, AND listens when I tell them absolutely, positiviely NO GLUTEN WHATSOEVER (I have celiac), we rejoice and gladly give them repeat business.

    Now, having said that, I would NEVER EVER EVER impose my dietary restrictions on such a special occasion, and that woman’s family is full of assholes. If I’d been invited to this lovely function, I’d tell them, “You know, I can’t eat wheat, so I’ll skip the bread and pasta, but you know – I’d just love some polenta or risotto!” Hell, I’d even eat cheese (along with celiac, I’m casein-sensitive) and deal with the temporary sinus issues. You can’t live your life in a bubble, and those people are RUDE if they insist she cater to them, or make her pay for a meal they won’t eat.

  • Victoria

    Wheat allergy here (not a life threatening reaction, but I’ll be unhappy any popping Benidryl for a few days after even minor cross-contamination) and these people also drive me nuts. Because they just spout off all these rules, restrictions, etc., and take no responsibility for it themselves. For the few incidents of eating out for a big ground dinner since I’ve had to deal with this dietary restriction, I’m the one calling the place to see what they have to say about meeting my dietary restriction. And if they can’t do it safely, I’ll eat before hand. I don’t expect the world to automatically do what I need it to unless I am willing to also do my part and explain what my exact needs are.

  • Ben

    I can’t believe it hasn’t been said yet, but there’s one easy way to cover a lot of these fad diets – Family style dining. We did family style for 80 at our wedding, it was fun and allowed us our guests to chose for themselves what they thought they could eat.

    Though in all honesty, dietary restrictions never came up in our wedding planning. Not a single time, and nobody approached us either. We really didn’t invite that sort of commentary at any point, though, in large part due to us planning the whole thing in less than 3 months.

  • Andrea

    I suggest a nice insert for the invitation that recites the menu and has the following notation: Please understand that the size of our celebration does not allow us to accommodate special dietary restrictions. If you are not able to share this meal with us, please arrive at ___ o’clock for celebratory speeches and toasts to the happy couple.

    Then I’d start practicing my stock speech in response to the inevitable inquiries… because some folks never seem to understand that something is directed at THEM.

  • Anne

    The mother who said her kid was allergic to non-organic milk was most likely not boring you to death by going on about the bovine growth hormones that can be present in non-organic milk.

    • Dan

      But, then that’s not an allergy is it? I think that’s the issue here where some people feign medical condition to try to ensure others feel obligated to accommodate their eating style preference. Given that hGH and bGH share significance sequence homology at the protein level, it’s highly unlikely to be allergic to one and not the other. A person who is allergic to GH, in general, is going to have much bigger issuers than diet preference.

  • Flatlander

    I think if you are going to be someone’s guest at thier table or a resturant where they are footing the bill, the civilized thing to do is sit down and eat what is in front of you. If you have a legitimate medical issue, not some imaginary disease of the moment, politly inquire before hand to see if you can be accomodated, if not decline.

  • Rambo

    My favorite guest allergy at a restaurant is “mayonnaise”. I asked “are you allergic to eggs?…to oil?… to lemons?… to salt?… to pepper?” “No, no, no, no and no.” Interesting that the combination of these ingredients can cause an allergic reaction.

  • Earl Schiffke

    I’d elope in Las Vegas to avoid all this nonsense. Those family members with the imaginary food ailments need a good slap.

  • Lydia

    Michael, these kinds of posts are my very favourite ones that you write. Wonderfully written letter, great response. Thank you!

  • amanda

    i had a small wedding where we served beer (new glarus) and bbq (smoque) it was amazingly delicious. there were 2 vegetarians in attendance who quite happily ate the mac & cheese, cornbread and coleslaw. when planning the wedding one of my coworkers who is a vegetarian, and who i never liked, said if there wasn’t a vegetarian option at a wedding she wouldn’t go. easy enough, she wasn’t invited. i will not spend my thousands of dollars to lean to the whim of one person. i mean it was bad enough i had to forgo hoppy beer because my husband doesn’t like it ;-)

  • JsinGood

    My only issue with this post is the initial case of the lactose intolerant woman used as an example of food fascism. My girlfriend is lactose intolerant and allergic to oysters, but loves both cheese and oysters – at least she used to love oysters until the allergy oddly developed (and it’s pretty severe). She still looks upon them with longing though. Fortunately, there’s a pill she can take for the lactose – waiting for science to come up with something similar for the oysters. If they do, they could make a fortune off my girlfriend alone. Weirdly, she’s fine with all other forms of shellfish. In any case, there have been a couple of times where we’ve been out, and she thought she forgot her pill, so we were left with no choice but to inform a server of her situation, and then she later found her pill buried in her purse, so it was no longer an issue. I think in lumping legitimate, uncontrollable allergies and conditions in with personal choice diets together under the umbrella of “food fascism” (I know you make a distinction later in the post) confuses the issue. Albeit, some do take their response to allergies to a tyrannical extreme – such as banning peanuts at locations completely to combat peanut allergies.

    All that said, my girlfriend would never think to make either of her conditions an issue with an event someone else is funding. With the near infinite number of trendy dietary restrictions that seem to have sprung into existence recently for various “ethical” and pseudo-scientific nutritionist reasons, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to even bother catering to everyone else’s personal choices. And it’s a sad state of affairs where every food fascist expects everyone else to pander to their lifestyle decisions. It’s selfish and self-centered to an extreme.

  • Skip

    I’m pretty much in tune with the posts above saying “you don’t need to accommodate for the restrictive diets.” Now having said that I’m pretty sure that the last three weddings I’ve attended the hosts had three or four entrée plates to choose from. Usually meat, fowl, fish, and non-dairy vegetarian. And even though they didn’t have wedding cake and dessert options, there was a salad and a variety of appetizers. I thought most people would have had something to eat. I think that’s dang considerate enough.

  • Ryan Jones

    I’m on a wacky diet. No medical reason—just a narcissist wanting to retain and continue to improve my rather well toned bod. (Screw “well balanced”; the elimination of sugars and grains made the soft pouch of water weight vanish and the abs appear in a way years of crunches never could accomplish.) And my better-half is on a just as inconvenient diet—frustratingly not complementary to mine—for a real medical issue to do with her bladder.

    As a macronutrient nutcase and burning-bladder sufferer, we know that we need to be totally responsible for our own diets. It can be embarrassing and inconvenient at first, but if you are going to adhere to an unconventional diet (whether due to ethics, health, or vanity), you have to learn how to maneuver in the normal eater’s world. This means bringing your own food to picnics, Thanksgiving and on the plane (I always brought my own for flying even before the abs); calling ahead to ask about ingredients; and sometimes missing events that revolve around food, at which either the host or attendee would be upset by lack of suitable options. Nobody should have to go out of their way to accommodate we food psychos.

    That said: If there is an easy fix that would allow your new family members’ to eat and attend without too much hassle, would it really be that bad to ask the restaurant to whip up a single, different dish that would please most/all of the wackos? If the chef doesn’t care that they’d have to broil a dozen chicken breasts and a few heads of cauliflower to get the head count up, and it would create more harmony on this day that’s supposed to be all about family togetherness, why not spend the 30 seconds on the phone with the restaurant to try and come up with an offering to make all happy?

  • Mary

    I love this! If you are serious about the point you are making in this piece, you seriously need to reconsider your interactions with Gluten Free Girl aka Shuana Ahern. She is exactly the type of person you rail against here.

    • Skip

      Mary, I suspect you didn’t read the article carefully.

      MR wrote,

      “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.”

  • Kevin

    Nice response, Michael. They could also state the menu, then, to quote the menu from “Animal”, “Changes and modifications politely declined.” Love that.

  • Clay

    So, these people are fascists for choosing what they eat? There seems to be nothing in this email indicating they have demanded to be accommodated.

    And who, exactly, gets to decide what is a “real” dietary concern?

  • Celia

    Like some of the other commenters, I’m conflicted. I am severely gluten intolerant and have some pretty serious issues with dairy too. (I won’t have anaphylaxis, but will be miserable for several days with minor cross-contamination.) My daughter gets ill for days with even moderate quantities of soy, and my kids are both gluten-free because of sensitivity. So, we follow something akin to “paleo” or “WAPF” type diets. Mostly it’s real food, but always GF.

    I do NOT expect people I’m not close with to provide anything for me at get-togethers. I always pack things like Larabars in case there’s nothing for me to eat. Usually I find something, but I’ve been known not to eat at functions. I honestly don’t care. It’s not my hosts’ job to cater to my dietary needs–yes, they are NEEDS–if there are a huge number of people who don’t need the same thing. I get it. I am not concerned about a peanut reaction or anything, so whatever.

    However, if it’s a small gathering of very close friends and family? I’d be a little offended if they didn’t care enough to at least have a side dish I could nosh on. Even a salad or a sorbet. Just the THOUGHT of trying to provide something, however small.

    I am almost with you on this, but for the over-generalization that all people doing this kind of thing are inherently picky eaters. Vegans, while picky on some accounts, often do it for purely ethical reasons. It’s not allergies, but it is a really deep choice. Often vegans I know will–like me–take a snack with or eat before just in case. Also, I would do anything to be able to eat gluten on occasion. It’s just not in the cards. I’m not sure whether this woman is aware that even her “paleo” guests might actually react to gluten if given to them. But I don’t think she should be required to provide a separate meal. Maybe, though, a side dish or two that would fit the bill? It’s an Italian restaurant, for goodness’ sake. Veggies with olive oil would satisfy most people. Or a salad. Usual dinner fare.

    And honestly, if they really don’t want to eat, they don’t have to. They can come anyway and partake in beverages. Or they can not go. I often go places I can’t eat with friends and have a drink or something just to visit with loved ones.

  • Rich

    Reminds me of my own wedding when a guest couple requested a gluten free meal for their son who proceeded to steal the Belgian chocolates from several tables and never touched his meal.

    An invitation is an honor. An honor that, once accepted, becomes an obligation. An obligation to show up, on time, clean, dressed, and ready to enjoy whatever the host has planned. If you can’t handle the obligation, don’t accept the invitation.

  • Hilary

    I feel for Heather. This is really a dilemma for her and not really about food preferences, I think. Heather is trying to please a lot of people, while still affording her daughter’s wedding meal and trying to keep the bridal couple in mind. I think it is admirable that she would even consider the vegan/gluten free/(insert food to avoid) diets.

    I have a nut allergy. It has never been life threatening, but I have found myself with an itchy throat, unbearable rash and terrible stomach ache from time to time after ingesting a dish with tree nuts accidentally. I can usually count on this happening a couple times a year. I sympathize with those who must avoid, but that is the key. I avoid nuts. I don’t find it all that difficult and I try not to complain. I ask questions of servers, chefs- but I try not to make it a bigger deal than it is. I’ve found that in a rush to accommodate GF/Vegan/nut free lifestyles, mistakes are made. There is a general lack of understand as to HOW allergens can contaminate other food, and simple procedures like glove changing, dish water changes, etc. are forgotten. Processed substitutes are often used, and are those really healthier? Do we really KNOW what are in those replacements? Just because a food avoids using the
    ‘health villain’ of the hour does not mean it is actually healthy!

    People who avoid by choice, I think make it tougher for those with allergies. It is hard to have an allergy and be treated with contempt because you have one. I do not expect to be accommodated. I think it is very nice when my relatives don’t add pecans to the sweet potato casserole on Thanksgiving and I thank them for being so kind. But I would never demand that they do so.

  • Rob

    How come no one was gluten intolerant back in then1950′s and 1960′s when I was a kid? Can you say eating disorder?
    I myself am exhausted trying to plan a dinner and having to worry about who eats what and when. Do what you want at home but if you are invited somewhere for dinner don’t expect meals cooked to order. The correct thing to do is to ask what is being served and if you feel you cannot partake of a communal meal then decline the invite. Vegans, you are welcome at my table, just eat the side dishes but don’t think of bringing a bag of carrots for yourself. Because that’s what it’s really all about, people sharing their food, not just eating together.

    • Justin Ross

      Actually, there are a couple of explanations.

      The first note I have is that people WERE gluten intolerant back then, but back then, people didn’t really know what it was. In fact, the ancient greeks were aware of a syndrome that may very well have been celiac/gluten intolerance. Likewise, celiac disease was described by researchers in the late 1800s, though its cause wasn’t really suggested until the 1940s.

      Second is the possibility that the apparent upsurge of (actual, not imagined) gluten intolerance these days is due to the fact that today’s wheat is a far different beast than that grown in the 50s and 60s. Today’s wheat is a mutant dwarf version of the wheat that humans had previously been growing for thousands of years.

      Finally, if celiac disease is indeed more prevalent now than in the past, it’s possible that the autoimmune reaction triggered by wheat is actually *caused* by some other environmental element(s) that is (are) becoming more prevalent.

  • Carri

    Wow, my time zone has me joining this party kinda late but it has been fun reading all these comments (and the ones on Facebook, which are oddly even more divisive) with my morning coffee. As a baker who is now a dinner cook, I have seen it all over the 20 years I’ve had my cafe/bakery. The best line of all is when people come into the bakery looking for gluten free. (ummm, it’s a BAKERY!) We immediately ask with concern, “How intolerant are you? Because if gluten is a serious issue, you don’t even want to be in here!” Invariably the response is, “oh, a little is ok!” because if they were a celiac, they wouldn’t even try. As a food worker in a wheat based kitchen, it is nearly impossible to make food that is not contaminated in some way with wheat spores. It is our choice to cook this way and if it doesn’t work for a few of our customers, that is too bad. It is not fair to expect that every public eating place have the resources to accommodate every dietary restriction. The idea that a steak house should be able to provide a decent vegetarian meal is like asking a vegetarian restaurant to pony up a porterhouse. Neither should be held to any ideals other than those in their particular mission statement. That said, if you want to have a family party and you have people with issues, it is the gracious thing to at least make a slight effort to accommodate them. Perhaps letting folks know what the menu will be ahead of time so they can decide how they can/will participate. The family style service seems like the way to go in this particular case. Good Luck to Heather with the family backlash…I’m guessing this will start a shit storm with those folks in her group who love to argue their choices!

  • Charles

    What I always find amazing is how understanding and undemanding people with ACTUAL severe allergies are, and how people who just choose whatever food-fad makes them feel most superior are complete jerks about it. Good Luck Heather, if they give you crap it is because their diet is depriving their brain of the nutrition necessary for BASIC HUMAN DECENCY

  • Caterer

    Yes, there are people who have specific food requirements due to illness or allergy and sometimes they call us ahead of time and very humbly make arrangements for something they can eat. Many times ( not sure how a husband AND a wife can both be lactose-or- gluten intolerant. Did they meet at a support group?) they show up and WHILE THE MEAL IS BEING SERVED want to special order… At a banquet… Which they are not paying for… And hold up all the meals for the non- pain in the ass guests. I think people many times “fake” these ailments because they think the food is not freshly cooked or they will get a better meal. I’m sorry, if the host ordered chicken, you are getting chicken. Just because you want your good grilled doesn’t mean I’m going to accidentally give you a filet mignon while everyone else eats chicken. We cook all our food to order and I laugh at these people. When we do get special requests I like to ask questions so I can give the guest what they want and make sure it tastes good. I want them to experience our great food as much as possibe. If someone tells me they are allergic to cheese, I would ask if they are allergic to all dairy, just certain cheese. Sometimes people are just allergic to Renit in certain cheese. Most of the time when I ask questions to better understand their situation I get attitude. F- off crazy person, I’m just trying to help you! The best is when the host knows there is someone who has a special diet. Of course I will make them something they will eat. No, you don’t get to pick it, I am the food professional and no, my crystal ball won’t be able to tell you which vegetables will be the freshest and most cost effective for us to buy at the market nine months from now on a particular day.
    Is one meal not organic going to kill my one year old- no. Would I prefer it, of course. Do I need to make an issue at gramdma’s 90th birthday-no. Grandma lived that long and didn’t eat organic

  • Nick (Macheesmo)

    I seriously have a headache after reading this post and spot-reading a few of the comments.

    This stuff is getting out of control. Just eat real food, people.

  • Livia

    This really isn’t about the food.

    It’s about whether or not you like these people enough to want to feed them.

    And if you don’t want to feed them, then they shouldn’t be invited and you can accept the familial fallout.

    • Livia

      You, sir, have some classy followers. After you linked through twitter to my blog post disagreeing with you, I was sure that it would end up leading to ad hominem attacks. But while people commented on the comment, there weren’t any personal attacks – which is better that I expect most places on the internet. Very impressive.

  • Kate @ Savour Fare

    I’m totally risking being flamed for this, but I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have come up with food “intolerances” after consulting a naturopath. I feel like there are real, serious, food allergies and intolerances recognized by MDs, and then there are the whole host of “you know that rash you get in dry weather? It’s a dairy rash!” diagnoses, and I almost always see the word “Naturopath” when people are describing that. It’s totally perpetuating the craziness.

  • db

    After reading through this comment thread, I just realized I have an allergy to nuts.

    Nuts who think they have the right to disrupt a family function by proselytizing about the latest fad diet they heard about on Oprah. I’m allergic to them.

  • Liz

    As a caterer, I would say to have your guests let you know what their restrictions are and let them know that you will ask the restaurant to provide them with an appropriate meal. In my business we leave that appropriate meal up to the chef to create so that he can take advantage of other components of the menu if possible. Also, the chef creates one meal that accommodates as many different dietary needs as possible at once – he doesn’t create something different for each one. I am assuming with a group of 75 you won’t be ordering off of a traditional restaurant a la carte menu and there will either be a served dinner with possibly a choice of entree or perhaps a buffet of some sort. It should not be too hard for the restaurant to accommodate your special dietary requirements as they mostly likely get these kinds of requests all the time.

  • Doug

    While not inviting the siblings seems harsh, the basic premise: not wanting to pay for whole courses of pasta, etc., that won’t be eaten is sensible. I guess in the interest of finding a negotiated solution (bad habit as a lawyer), I would suggest that she offer at least one “non-standard” meal, be it vegetarian (which she concedes is easy enough to handle) and/or a “gluten-free” version, which admittedly, I don’t know how you do this at an Italian restaurant with a pasta course or two. I know people who have gluten allergies are sensitive to it and it creates rather bad side effects, but these aren’t allergies (it appears), but rather personal choices for fad diets. So, if she sends a menu choice along with some sort of polite language indicating that if the menu don’t meet your requirements, then please stop by after lunch for desert and cocktails or something like that.

    So, that’s a way to give a passing attempt at compromise so as not to piss people off. If, of course, pissing them off is perfectly acceptable, then a note saying “This meal is prixe fixe and cannot be altered. If you have substanial food allergies or other dietary restrictions, please eat elsewhere.”

  • Reality check

    Oooh, clouds of smug, all over the place.

    I agree with Livia above, this isn’t about the food at all.

    Food facism? I think it’s a particularly bad turn of phrase. Facism is not a joke, whether the “F” is upper- or lower-case. Perhaps it’s just that particular slice of the upper middle class, that knows nothing of Facism first-hand (and not from the history books either, it seems), who can use such a phrase?

    Congratulations to the “third culture kid.” Has it occurred to you that even people without exposure to such a rarified atmosphere can still learn about many cultures and cuisines? (As well as literature, film, etc., etc.) I think it’s called open-mindedness. It works together with a willingness and desire to learn. You can live anywhere in the world and still have it, it is truly democratic.

    I agree with the suggestion above to have the toasts, speeches, etc. before the meal; that seems to be a very diplomatic solution to the problem. Whoever doesn’t want to eat the meal that is offered (for whatever reason) can still be there to offer their good wishes, and then leave.

  • Lauren

    As long as everybody eats what you call a sensible meal and eat everyday, then everybody can be independent thinkers who are correct in their food choices! Yeah, that makes sense. Please remove your head from your butt and realize that people can choose to eat what they want and they aren’t wrong for that. People can attend a party and refuse to eat the food served. They aren’t wrong for that either. People can also throw a party with a fixed menu and refuse to accommodate menu substitutions. They aren’t wrong for that either. If you invite people to your party, and they don’t want to eat what you serve, then don’t take it personally and deal with it. You have a few choices. You can either serve them an alternate menu or you can decide not to and let them decide what and if they want to eat. Problem solved. Stop whining. It’s annoying.

  • Hugh

    Does anyone else smell the hypocrisy wafting from this letter? In one breath the letter writer talks about slow food/sustainable/local food philosophy as suiting her “needs”, and then in the next breath immediately dismisses wacko dietary faddists for being too upper middle class. Pot meet kettle.

    And hey, guess what, this “paleo diet” the letter writer is railing against is the ultimate local/slow food/sustainable diet. Go to a farmers’ market. Buy meat, dairy, eggs, and produce – that’s “paleo.” The picture at the top of this post is “paleo.” It’s little more than a whole food diet. Wow, crazy talk, those faddists need to “get over themselves” and go buy a Twinkie and have a helping of soylent green.

  • Maxine

    When invited to join someone for a dining event, I try very hard to be sure that what is available is within my dietary requirements. If there is no food that meets those needs, I will decline with good wishes for the occasion and invite them to dine with me and share all the happy news.

    It’s incomprehensible that someone would insist that their host accommodate ultra-restrictive diet. It’s impossibly rude.

  • Nancy

    As a 20-year, non-proselytizing vegetarian (in it for visceral reasons, not ethical), I’d never dream of asking my host(s) to accommodate my diet. But the truly gracious ones always have, even when I’ve sincerely asked them not to. Granted, next to vegetarianism, some of these new diet trends seem (okay, are) pretty extreme. Ridiculous even. So I sympathize with Heather’s predicament. But it sounds like she’s as intolerant of some of her would-be guests as they are of gluten and lactose. Everybody just needs to chill the fuck out. Why get your knickers all in a twist over what other people eat or don’t eat? If they’re not trying to force their diets on you, don’t force yours on them. Simple. Until, of course, it comes to feeding them all…

    So back to Heather’s event: if money is an issue, maybe she should consider trimming the guest list. 75 doesn’t exactly sound like a “small luncheon.” Why not just invite the people closest to the bride and groom, the people they would miss if they weren’t there, and make a sincere effort to accommodate them? Within reason. And—more to the point—with respect. A little generosity of spirit goes a long way. (That goes for all concerned.)

    • Nancy

      Not to imply that the paleo diet is extreme or ridiculous… it actually seems quite sensible and I’ve seen the positive effects it’s had on acquaintances. (Would seem easy to deal with in social settings, too.)

  • Trish

    Perhaps one of the food facists would like to supply food for the picky eaters. A feather in their cap for accommodating the family (not causing them anxiety at such a happy time) and perhaps be grateful for being included. It’s not always about them!

  • Betty

    I just survived a week with my ‘in-laws’ whose dietary fads change annually. As a happily unmarried couple of 12+ years you’ve given me one more reason not to get married.

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