The picky eater who came to dinner
With Americans' appetites subject to an array of dietary restrictions, balancing one guest's requirements for gluten free with another's for meatless can be a juggling act.
The New York Times
No one would touch it.
The offending object? A footlong loaf of bread, stuffed with savory cheese, purchased at a beloved Italian bakery and presented with pride at a recent potluck meal. "This bread is delicious," I crowed.
The kitchen went quiet. You'd think I had offered up a bouquet of poison ivy. One guest said she was gluten free. Another didn't consume milk products. The mood lifted only when someone else arrived with a large bowl of quinoa and lentils.
It's becoming harder for Americans to break bread together. Our appetites are stratified by an ever-widening array of restrictions: gluten free, vegan, sugar free, low fat, low sodium, no carb, no dairy, soyless, meatless, wheatless, macrobiotic, probiotic, antioxidant, sustainable, local and raw.
Though medical conditions like celiac disease and severe allergies have long relegated a small percentage of diners to rigid diets, more and more eaters outside this group appear to be experimenting with self-imposed limits, taking a do-it-yourself, pick-and-choose approach to restricting what they consume.
Some group-dining devotees say they are happy to adjust as the occasion demands. In April, Coco Myers, a writer who avoids gluten and lactose, invited a fish-averse friend to a dinner party in East Hampton, N.Y., hosted by a couple who don't eat red meat. A few days earlier, the hostess (Scott O'Neil, a painter and an amateur cook, who had been planning a seafood stew) emailed Myers to ask about problem foods.
"Sometimes I go to dinner parties, and you just deal with what you get, right?" Myers recalled. "But she put it out there." So she compiled a dietary no-fly list: no fish, no gluten, no lactose.
O'Neil was up to the challenge. "Nowadays I always ask, because there's so many things people don't eat," she said. She swapped the stew for a mixed grill with chicken, scallops, salmon and tofu, rounding it out with rice, an asparagus-topped salad and an upside-down rhubarb cake.
Joanne Heyman, who owns a consulting firm in New York, thinks that stories like this illustrate just how much "the locus of responsibility has moved from the eater to the hostess." Heyman, a former vegetarian, said she recently organized an invitation-only business dinner for two dozen people. On the day of the event, she started getting last-minute notes from guests saying they were vegetarian, vegan or gluten free.
"The distinction is not that people have restricted diets," she said. "It's their attitude about whose responsibility it is to meet their dietary needs."
But where are all of the atomized eating habits coming from? Do these diners have anything in common, apart from ownership of single-serve Tupperware? Unlike the diet fads of yesteryear (Atkins, Zone, South Beach and countless others), many contemporary eating styles speak directly to values and virtues, aiming to affirm your ethos rather than nuking your love handles.
Today's restricted eaters are prone to identity-driven pronouncements along the lines of "I'm gluten free." (It's worth nothing that, back in the aughts, no one declared "I'm Atkins!" Except, quite possibly, Dr. Robert Atkins himself.)
Consumers seem to be building self through sustenance, adjusting their appetites to reflect independence and moral character. In numerous interviews with restricted-diet adherents and those who study and feed them, control and identity were two common themes on everyone's lips.
"It's an alternative way of finding an identity in a place where identity is increasingly uncertain," said Richard Wilk, the director of Indiana University's doctoral program in food studies. "So much of our lives are completely out of our control. You can go to college and not get a job. You can do an internship and not get a job. The economy takes some new tack every 15 minutes."
Meredith Yayanos, a musician and a founder of the alternative culture magazine Coilhouse, adapts her diet to influence her mood. "I love the idea that there's a mix and match going on," she said.
Yayanos first dropped gluten, sugar and carbs on a friend's advice after being mugged at gunpoint, a trauma that left her fending off panic attacks and depression. "Within 48 hours, it felt like a thick layer of gauze had been pulled off my brain," she recalled. Now Yayanos revisits that diet whenever her mood drops. She's noticed her friends experimenting with food, too, essentially "hacking" their bodies, tinkering with different fuels to reap feelings of clarity and energy.
But Fabio Parasecoli, a native of Rome and the coordinator of food studies at the New School, worries that diverse diets can kill the pleasure of shared meals. "For me, food is very social, and I would never show up at someone's place with Tupperware," he said. "It's difficult when dietary choices prevent people from fully participating in social life."
Meg Geldart, a circus acrobat in Portland, Ore., is determined not to let that happen. She frequently cooks meals with as many as 20 friends who are, variously, omnivorous, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, vegetarian, vegan, diabetic or allergic (to garlic, onions, nuts or legumes).
"It just became havoc," Geldart said. She and her friends eventually arrived at a decision: "Not everyone's going to be able to eat everything." But with careful planning (plus a lot of recipe collecting and cross-referencing of diets), they've been able to ensure that, at any given meal, everyone can eat something.
"We did an East Coast-style clambake that was really fun," she said. "Our vegans and vegetarians weren't too excited, but we did a vegetable roast for them."
Still, even in Geldart's hometown, that famously tolerant foodie mecca satirized on "Portlandia," patience may be waning. On the website of the local alt-weekly The Portland Mercury, anonymous readers recently aired their frustrations over restricted diets. "You probably don't have celiac disease anyway. Self-diagnosis on WebMD doesn't count," one wrote.
"At restaurants, I ask for extra gluten on everything," said another.
Some restaurants steadfastly refuse to change a single dish to meet restrictions, on the grounds that even small alterations can slow a busy kitchen and butcher carefully calibrated recipes. Last year, Gjelina, a Los Angeles restaurant with a no-alterations policy, made national headlines after refusing to sideline the toppings on a smoked trout salad for Victoria Beckham, who was pregnant and dining with the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Both guests walked out.
"It's the restaurant's policy not to change any part of the menu," said Fran Camaj, Gjelina's owner, who commented on house rules in general but declined to address specific incidents or guests. "If you don't like the policy, that's fine, best of luck."
Even if some folks won't budge, the spending power of independent-minded eaters is moving the marketplace. Many diners are driven by tales of adulterated food that perennially make the news, creating skeptical consumers.
By controlling consumer spending, restrictive diets also make personal choices political. "The government-industrial farming complex really offends me," said Detective Daniel Kraus, with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office in Oregon City, Ore., who eats with his health and his ethics in mind. "I'm not with the Occupy Wall Street types at all. I'm a Ron Paul Republican."
He added: "When I go to the grocery store, it makes me mad that I can't buy barbecue sauce because the No. 1 component is high-fructose corn syrup."
Kraus said he stopped eating grains, legumes and dairy about 18 months ago as part of the "paleo" diet, which he said lowered his weight and blood pressure. This popular regimen, also known as the Paleolithic (or caveman) diet, consists of foods that our ancestors could pick or kill with a stick, arguing that human beings lack the appropriate digestive equipment to eat complex, processed foods.
But not everyone's rushing to change their habits; some foodies are downright skeptical of the ongoing dietary fragmentation. Josh Ozersky, the founder of Meatopia, an annual bacchanal for carnivores in New York City, argued that the atomization of eating styles is about more than health.
"Like a lot of chefs, I'm convinced that these diets are not always the results of the compromised immune systems of American diners, but their growing infantilism and narcissism," he said.
Does Ozersky plan to accommodate dietary diversity at his next event?
"My attitude has been a very clearsighted, unilateral anticipation and dismissal of all of those issues," he said. "Meatopia is all meat. Anyone who doesn't like that can go to vegetopia."