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