Saturday, August 23, 2003

Whine and dine

In the early 90s, I hosted an annual basil massacre—a six-course sit-down dinner with a Mediterranean theme and a first course featuring homemade pesto. In its heydey, the basil massacre involved two dozen dinner guests, three sets of china and flatware, linen tableclothes, candles, a hors d'oeuvres buffet (tomatoes with basil and mozzarella, caponata, broiled stuffed mushrooms), planked salmon, salad and cheese courses, and homemade tiramisu and espresso.

No more. With only a few exceptions, there are very few people for whom I'll now go crazy in the kitchen.

People used to enjoy my cooking; now they seem to actively relish criticizing it—even before they take a bite.

"I don't suppose that olive oil you use is ORGANIC," one woman sneered, looking at a bowl of hummous drizzled with one of my favorite Moroccan olive oils.

"Hamburgers and hot dogs?" another said dubiously, when invited to our summer cookout. "You'll have to get turkey sausages for us. We don't let our children eat beef any more because of all the mad cow disease going around."

Even better was the vegan who, invited to a large catered buffet dinner at our place, contacted the caterer without my knowledge to instruct her to use a ghastly egg-free recipe for one of the main dishes.

If someone is going to be a guest in our home for a day or two, or they are the only guests at an intimate dinner, I hope they'll tell me about their dietary preferences. But for someone who is coming to a large, informal party, as far as I'm concerned they should just clam up and have a double helping of one of the dishes that doesn't offend them.

While there's a certain amount of sheer indignation to this stance, the essence of my pique is logistics. There's simply no way I can please everybody now that nearly everyone I know has a dietary regimen as complex--and as humorless--as the federal tax code.

One friend is on the Atkins diet. He informs me meat, cheese, oils and butter are fine. So are some vegetables. Fruits are a no-no, as are all breads and desserts--except unsweetened whipped cream.

This leaves precious little overlap with the vegan, except veggies and oils. The vegan would like generous servings of whole grains and legumes--just what would send the Atkins and Scarsdale folks around the bend.

Many of my friends eat no red meat, but allow fish and poultry. This is fine with some of the organic folks, as long as the fish is wild and not farm-raised. The chicken and eggs can come from a farm as long as it was a humane farm that let them run around and didn't put antibiotics in their food. Some of the organic folks think beef, pork and lamb are OK, as long as the source animals were free range.

I flip through my cookbooks, trying to keep all this in mind. But no matter how strategically I approach the menu, it seems that at least one of the guests takes it upon him or herself to loudly criticize not just my table but their fellow guests' dietary preferences.

"I never eat bread," one fellow sniffs sanctimoniously as I put a loaf of homemade French bread, a gift from another guest, on the table. He blathers on "I stopped eating bread two days ago and lost 20 pounds!"

"I'm can't believe you're still drinking coffee," I hear one guest say to another as I bring in a fresh pot. "OHMYGAWD, don't you know it prevents calcium absorption, elevates your blood pressure, and turns you into a crock-winged bleeblethorp?"

Well, cross her off my guest list. If there's any place at all left where the old axiom "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" should apply, it's at the table—particularly if you're a guest.

Push food around on your plate, nibble at anything not scientifically proven to bring imminent death, and restrain yourself from commenting on what your fellow guests are or are not consuming. If you fear you'll risk starvation at someone's dinner party, politely decline the invitation rather than attend. It's "wine and dine," not "whine and dine," for heaven's sake.

Full disclosure: Since 1984 I've had a medical condition that restricts what I can eat. In spite of this, I've never gone hungry, and I've gotten to enjoy some spectacular dishes (with trace elements of these restricted foods) that the host might never have made if he or she had been running around the pantry in a frenzy fretting about my dietary quirks.

I'll close with the wise words of "Weird Al" Yankovic:

"Just eat it."