Sorry, I can’t eat that

A little etiquette can help make it easier when celebrating with people with food issues

By Anthony Stoeckert
The great George Carlin had a routine about the term “fussy eater,” and how it was a euphemism for “big pain in the —.”
   But as we become more conscious of food allergies, fussy eaters have been replaced with people who simply can’t eat certain foods.
   Dairy, peanuts, gluten, soy, all sorts of foods can cause discomfort or illness. Then there are vegetarians, people who don’t eat meat out of health concerns, and people who don’t eat certain foods because of religious beliefs.
   All of this can make holiday entertaining a bit complicated. But if you bring some etiquette into the mix, hosts should be able to make everyone happy and full.
   According to Mary Harris, a Princeton-based Etiquette consultant, certain types of holiday entertaining actually fit well with food intolerances and preferences.
   ”The nice thing about the holidays is most people are having open houses, and buffet type things where you don’t want to go overboard, but it is gracious to offer a variety of things,” Ms. Harris says.
   ”Even if it’s not an allergy, a simple vegetarian option (is nice to offer). I would make sure I have enough things that somebody can eat who doesn’t eat meat, or doesn’t eat fish or doesn’t eat pork.”
   There always have been people who don’t eat meat for various reasons, but intolerances and allergies are on our minds more these days, and can make entertaining complicated.
   ”It does get extreme and kind of hard to manage,” Ms. Harris says. “But I would just make sure that if I’m the hostess or the host that I’m offering a variety of things, so that everybody has something substantial to eat.”
   A smaller dinner party can be a different story. Typically you know the guests well, but a guest might bring someone to the party you don’t know. In those, instances, Ms. Harris recommends asking if the friend’s date has any food issues.
   ”If I’m inviting people I don’t know, I would ask them to ask if their date can’t eat shellfish or something like that,” she says.
   Just this past Thanksgiving, she had a guest who couldn’t eat pork because of religious reasons, so she made a separate stuffing.
   There are unfortunate instances where people sit down to dinner, only to find out that someone at the table cannot eat what’s being served.
   ”The way to really handle that is to try to be gracious,” she says. “It’s really bad form to make a scene. I think people get really huffy, and the host doesn’t know they have a guest that’s a vegetarian.”
   So it’s not a bad idea, she says, for a guest to tell a host that he or she has an allergy or doesn’t eat certain foods either because of allergies, health issues or beliefs.
   ”I want people to enjoy themselves, and I’d feel very badly if somebody comes to my home and I can’t feed them what everybody else is eating, or if I can’t feed them period,” she says. “You try to let people know as conveniently as possible.”
   That’s especially true of small, sit-down dinners.
   If you are the guest with the issue, and it turns out you cannot eat the main course, then she suggests eating sides and salad, whatever you can eat, in as low key a way as possible.
   Another issue with people and allergies is that it can lead to comments and questions about why someone can’t eat certain foods. And believe me, there are instances where no one wants to hear the details of a food intolerance.
   The food-intolerant guest should politely say they can’t eat the food being offered, Ms. Harris says. And the host should politely accept the guest at his or her word. That’s not always easy because hosts look forward to people enjoying whatever has been prepared, but it will ultimately make for a more pleasant time if the allergic guest isn’t asked lots of questions or pressured to try something he or she doesn’t want to.
   ”They should politely accept their guest’s answers and not try to push it on them and ask ‘Why can’t you eat this?’” Ms. Harris says. “You just want to be as gracious as possible and not make anybody feel uncomfortable.”
For more information on Mary Harris and etiquette, email mary@maryharris.net or go to www.maryharris.net