Or, when the lion dines with the lamb.
I’ve been thinking a lot about food segregation for the past couple of years. And I don’t mean whether my minty peas are touching my mash. Rather, about the future of eating, preferably, eating together.
The kids in my family were praised heartily for eating everything. Being a Korean family, we were also praised for how much spice we could take at a young age. When your kimchi no longer had to be rinsed in water before you ate it, you were deemed to have moved from being a baby to a child. You gained approval and respect.
We would often show off and try to outdo each other when our parents were watching, putting the most incendiary condiments on our food and trying very hard not to show any reaction.
The youngest of my cousins was, most unfortunately, a picky eater. The first in our family, and the first one I ever knew. She would only eat a few things, and they were quite bland. She needed to have her kimchi rinsed far past a respectable age. She was loved, of course. Cherished, actually, as the baby of the family. But she was not praised. We just shook our heads every time she ordered another bowl of bland, sweet noodles.
What did I learn? That eating everything, from insanely spicy food to fish eyeballs (only when people are watching, of course!) is one of the hallmarks of being a successful adult. It means you can go anywhere in the world and eat what is put in front of you, as a good guest should. You can travel on camels with Bedouins or you can eat street food in Malaysia. You can accept any invitation. You are free.
I had my first encounter with dietary restrictions around the age of eight. I was accompanying my parents to a dinner hosted by my father’s business associate. Entertaining guests and going to social events was a big part of my father’s career, so this was nothing new to me. But for this dinner, I needed to be briefed. Because these people were…
Vegetarians. (They were also Swedish expats, but that was completely overshadowed by the fact that they elected not to eat the flesh of animals)
But I thought only Buddhist monks and nuns were vegetarians! These people were a family with a child, and not even Buddhists. I was quite shocked to learn that anyone would be a vegetarian outside of religious requirements.
My mother prepared me so that I could fulfill my duty of being a good guest, which was considered part of a person’s essential dignity. She fed me before we went, and promised to feed me (meat!) after, if I was still hungry. These assurances allowed me to face the evening with grace, without the anxiety that vegetarian food would be all I had to eat that night. I guess that would be like being sent to bed without supper.
I expected to find our hosts pale and thin, and imagined their child would be wan and stunted. They were nothing of the sort, of course. But from the very start I was deeply suspicious of people with dietary restrictions. I suspected it indicated something was wrong with them. That they didn’t embrace life. That they were afraid of food. That they wanted to set themselves apart from the world.
Things have changed since I was eight. The world, of course, but also my own body. I have, to my dismay, become the ultimate picky eater. I need to know what is in my food and where it came from. There are all kinds of food I no longer eat, and many kinds I only eat under certain conditions. And the most shocking of all, I regularly fast. In other words, I’m a lousy dinner guest. And that still makes me shrink in shame, even though I have my reasons.
Sharing food is a cornerstone of how we socialize. As someone who travels a lot, I can tell you that offering and receiving food is a fundamental ritual, and expressing unqualified pleasure and enjoyment in what is given is important.
Yet the world has changed, as people embrace ever more nuanced and specific eating regimes. Being vegetarian is perfectly quotidian. Try having dinner with a raw foodist-nut sensitive-gluten free vegan. That’s more like it.
I was in Bordeaux a couple of years ago, having lunch at a restaurant with a celebrated chef, his wife and his press agent, who eats vegan. Eating vegan in France means eating at home, mostly, or maybe eating at the home of your vegan friends. She shared with me that her family thought veganism was a cult, and was deeply concerned that their otherwise well adjusted and successful daughter was now a cult member.
She confessed that it was way too hard to eat vegan in French restaurants, so she aimed to eat vegetarian when dining out. At our lunch she ordered spinach ravioli, which sounded innocent enough, until it came…with a large crispy piece of bacon in it.
The menu said nothing about bacon, or meat of any kind. And that is very typical of traditional French culinary thinking. It’s delicious, why do I need to tell you? Who wouldn’t like a little crispy, salty pork with their pasta?
Well, never mind that Muslims don’t eat pork and Jewish people keeping Kosher don’t eat pork. You would think there would be just a passing mention that there was pork in the dish. Lots of people who do enjoy meat nevertheless do not eat pork. Imagine eating vegan in this kind of restaurant culture. It becomes a big deal, when it really should be incidental.
I imagine people who eat vegan, vegetarian, raw, macrobiotic, etc., feel more at ease eating with others of like persuasion in homes or restaurants that cater to their specific requirements. Their eating choices need not be the topic of conversation and they don’t need to feel like a burden on others. There is no laborious and awkward back and forth with the server, trying to determine if a dish is appropriate for you or can be adjusted. They don’t have to be defined by their eating style, as in, “Meet my friend Tolly. She’s a veee-gaaan!” That probably gets old very quickly.
So how do we all get together for this most basic human ritual of community, inclusion and camaraderie? Can we stop defining ourselves and others by what we choose to eat or not eat? The fact that I fast regularly or that I am a wine enthusiast who doesn’t drink alcohol…these are really the least interesting things about me, and not what I want to talk about (and inevitably have to explain) when I am getting to know people over lunch. The fact that the press agent, who is now a friend, eats vegan is not what defines her.
I’m spending a few months in Bali, and I have been astonished at the food scene here. There are restaurants that cater to just about everyone, with flexible menus and staff that understand your request to make a dish vegan or provide a gluten free alternative to an ingredient. It’s no big deal.
This is not fine dining, mind you, but the food is enjoyable and freshly prepared. Even if I was fasting, I could order an “infused water” and be able to enjoy the experience of dining out and socializing with a diverse group of friends. So much of what we do socially either includes food or is built around food. I’d prefer not to exclude others or be excluded for such a trivial reason as dietary differences.
Not all restaurants will go this way, of course, nor should they. Long live Southern BBQ! But there could definitely be more of these kinds of restaurants that cater to a more diverse customer base, from omni eaters to fruitarians. Places where we can all get together and not have our diet of choice or necessity be the awkward and inevitably dull topic of conversation. Somewhere we can make a toast with a glass of wine, a cashew nut milkshake and an infused water, all at the same table.
A toast to health, and to eating together.