Wednesday, June 14, 2006

But I Don't Want Tofurky and I'm Not The One On The Atkins Diet

Here's one to follow up on the question of tolerance that we've been batting around. It's a question that my aunt asked last weekend. "Why is it that when someone with a dietary restriction comes to your house you are expected to cater to them, but when you visit their home there doesn't seem to be the same courtesy expected or very often extended to you?"

The initial example was that vegetarians don't often provide meat for non-vegetarian guests and TheWife argued that in this case it is a moral question of not participating in the meat industry as an economic consumer, regardless of whether one is actually the gastronomic consumer.

But the question was enlarged beyond cases of moral objection to people who opt to not eat sugar or choose to be on the Atkins diet. If they expect to have their menu choices respected, doesn't this entail an obligation to also respect the dietary decisions of their guests? And isn't this violated by restricting their visitors' choices when they host them?

My brother pointed out that there is an asymmetry because the those on non-restricted diets can still eat the food that is on the restricted list whereas the converse is not the case. And this difference, he contended, made a difference in the etiquette if not the morality of the situation.

I think there is something to this point, but I think there is one more step that gets added. Surely, one has the responsibility when hosting to try one's best to do well by your guests. Why not have normal foods next to the "weird" ones? I think there are five possible explanations for the decision to only have only foods meeting the host's own voluntary restrictions:

(1) Obliviousness. When you host, you think through your recipes to find a good one. If you aren't used to cooking outside some set of restrictions, it might not occur to you to try or you might not want to experiment on your guests.

(2) Temptation. When you are on a restrictive diet, you often are staying away from things that you enjoy or perhaps even crave. If you are keeping yourself off of something, the last thing you want is to have it there on the table mocking you and leftovers lying around pounding like Poe's telltale heart from the fridge. Add to that the fact that the person would be putting in significant effort preparing the dish. To ask someone to go through all of that trouble and then deny themselves the fruit (or dessert) of their labors may seem like too much. And the fear is often there that one little bit could lead to the undermining of the whole regimen. It is hard in a country of McDonalds where you were brought up on Fruit Loops to keep yourself on a different kind of diet.

(3) Inclusion. Having all of the food reside within the restrictions puts everyone on equal footing. People on restricted diets are always reminded of that fact, especially when they have to hunt amongst the offerings for something to put on their plates. The thought of having a whole spread where they can sample everything is exciting and so they set out a meal where they feel normal and the guests are the ones who have to hunt for what they are willing to put on their plates for a change.

(4) Illustration. Folks on a restricted diet often feel alienated, they frequently have to deal with awkward questions and snide comments about "that thing your eating." As such, when it is their turn to have people over, they frequently want to prove to the world that you can eat like us and enjoy it. So instead of giving standard options that would get gobbled up in an attempt to avoid the new food, they give you options that they believe will leave you saying, "You know, I wouldn't have thought it at first, but this is really good. I could see eating this way." It is an attempt to normalize their choices in the eyes of friends of family.

(5) Self-righteousness. There is still a deep Puritanical strain in our culture. To deny yourself pleasure is seen -- especially by the self-deprived -- as a mark of moral superiority. this is even more the case when it can be justified by demonstrable negative effects from that which has been sworn off. "You won't see that sort of thing at my table, it contributes to heart disease." There is a sense that even providing the option to eat those foods is to be part of the unhealthiness that infects our culture's approach to eating and that by sharing the pain, you are helping your guests by making them, if just for that small period, better people and maybe showing them the light.

At the same time, giving in and providing the alternative can have undesired consequences. When one of my uncles was getting married, a cousin was keeping Kosher. So between the non-Kosher entrees and the desserts were some cold cuts so he would have something to eat. I saw some guy at the buffet take a roll, put on some meat, lettuce and tomato, and then dip a knife into the vat of white goo and the dark yellow goo and spread them on top. As he took his first bite, his eyes got big. Turns out it wasn't mayo and mustard he put on his sandwich, but vanilla and butterscotch pudding.

The moral of the story is that if you are going to cater to other people's dietary choices -- label clearly.