I Can Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

I've been cooking for company for more than 30 years and have gone through all the cycles from Julia Child's veal marengo to Rick Moonen's miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with shredded daikon. I like to eat, I like to entertain and I like to surprise my guests with a meal they wouldn't prepare for themselves. But lately, I've noticed a sea change in the diners' behavior--they let you know in advance what they can't or won't eat. I won't pretend that this is equivalent to telling an artist not to use blue in his painting. But it definitely hobbles the hostess, and I'd like to proclaim my indignation.

It began several years ago with the first round of friends who became vegetarian, a food choice elevated to religious significance and meriting that level of dignified respect. One couple showed up for a weekend in the country with a bushel of organic citrus fruit and what looked like the Elmer Fudd Memorial Carrot Patch. At first I thought it was just an overbearing house gift until I noticed the industrial-size juicer peeking out of their Botanical Gardens canvas tote. It then spread to men who had undergone heart-bypass surgery and were on restrictive no-salt, low-fat diets for medical reasons. No grilled steaks, no creamy mashed potatoes, no triple-creme cheeses and certainly no creme brulees for dessert. Now, like an epidemic of enormous contagion, it's affected the simply finicky who have come out of the cupboard to claim their equal rights.

One friend has confessed to a fear of mayonnaise, thereby wiping out reams of summer recipes for chicken or seafood salads, not to mention tuna and egg. Another has announced her aversion to food that crawls, flies or looks like its living form. Apparently she hasn't read the latest reports on the pain levels of recognizable vegetables as they're peeled, steamed or grilled. And what about those baby veggies! Still another has complained that raw onions give him acid reflux, as do jalapenos and even regular peppers. A recent offering of gazpacho struck a terror chord equivalent to a mugging.

In addition to people showing up bearing their own food, some insist on preparing my food in their favorite ways. One friend took four hours to soak, snip and slice two pounds of potatoes with some rosemary and parsley. This was to be a minor side dish, but she used every cutting board in my kitchen and acted like she was building the Arc de Triomphe instead of roasting spuds garni. Though it's politically incorrect to generalize, I've noticed that self-righteous attitudes toward food extend to other personality traits as well. A good friend from Europe who is an ardent health foodie begins his dinner conversation by proclaiming, "I shall tell you somesing." Eyes glaze over as he does and does and does.

Next weekend I've got a combination that's left me stymied. One bypassee, one Atkins dieter (these two automatically cancel each other out), one vegan, one kosher lite (strict at home, but flexible for away games) and one lactose intolerant. I'm bewildered not only by what to cook for dinner but by how I came to know all this. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned etiquette of pushing the food around on your plate or hiding it in your napkin, anything to keep the powers that be from knowing how you really feel about what you're eating? Today people feel no risk of censure for admitting to their sundry dislikes or intolerances. They've been aided and abetted by nutritionists and diet gurus who give a clinical seal of approval to numerous half-baked, unproved theories of what and when to eat. Instead of getting a cold sneer of contempt for being food-phobic, finicky eaters get compassionate support from their peers and consideration from their hosts. Once the airlines started providing special meals, I knew the jig was up for home cooks like me. I'm certainly not willing to be considered less gracious or accommodating than Delta and TWA.

Still, I harbor fantasies of revenge. I see packets of dehydrated food placed Zen-like on an austere table bracketed by small pots of boiled water to dilute them. No utensils would be necessary, just a small wooden stirrer and some mugs. Let each guest pick his own brew of instant nutrient and sit quietly sipping sea kelp or Dr. Atkins's liquid cheesecake. We'd be listening to the sounds of silence. When enjoyment of food is compromised, so are life's other pleasures associated with it--conversation, exchange of ideas, humor and liveliness. So in the interests of preserving civilization and the dinner party for the next millennium, I exhort my once and future guests to leave their food fears at home and come to my table with open mouths and minds.

I Can Guess Who's Coming To Dinner | News