Provocations

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Last month, while preparing for our big Thanksgiving feast for over a dozen guests, the following item from Vox caught my eye.

How to host Thanksgiving dinner when everyone has a dietary restriction

by Julia Belluz

On holidays like Thanksgiving, we bring our weight loss diets, health issues, aversions, religious beliefs, and world-changing agendas to the dinner table with us. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s evidence of a growing awareness about where our food comes from and what it can do to our bodies. But it does mean hosts are left panicking over how to accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences.

This challenging new reality was all too familiar to many of you who wrote in. Elie Challita described a dinner in which one person had celiac disease, another was allergic to garlic, a third was pescatarian, and a fourth couldn’t eat anything spicy.

“I hadn’t done that much research since getting my masters,” Challinta wrote.

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Now, I’ve had just about enough of everyone’s “growing awareness,” and the discovery that there is such a thing as a “pescatarian” threatens to bring on a sudden murderous rage, but really it’s the overall gist of the thing that’s got me wondering how things could have gone so horribly wrong.  Certainly, there are substantial duties involved in one’s role as a host, but there are equally many that apply when one is a guest (including not being a burden to your host and the other guests), so statements like “hosts are left panicking over how to accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences” suggest that at least this writer from Vox and her reader, “Ellie Challita” are terribly confused about some of the basics of human social interaction.

I recall, as a young child, failing to eat some vegetables that were on my plate.  My mother told me to eat them, explaining that they were “part of the meal,” and I did. I should emphasize that the point was not one of nutrition – no one thought about that in the 1970’s – but of manners and respect.  That my parents had spent their hard-earned money and my mother had put in a substantial amount of labor in shopping, prepping, and cooking the meal, were of far greater significance than my personal tastes – there was nothing wrong with the vegetables, I simply didn’t like them – and called for respect and deference on my part.

This was the beginning of an almost two decades long education in manners.  My parents are of a generation for whom virtue is self-effacing and never involves imposing oneself on others, a view that not only no longer holds sway, but is threatening to disappear altogether, in favor of its opposite, as people today are inclined not just to pursue their virtue at others’ expense, but their (always nebulously defined) “well-being” too.  Sometimes I find myself wondering why, at a time of unprecedented freedom, prosperity and long life, so many people are so pissed off so much of the time, and perhaps it’s because of stuff like this.  After all, who among us hasn’t found him or herself fuming with aggravation, in an endless snarl of traffic, only to discover that it’s all because of one lone jogger or cyclist, who thought it made perfect sense to make scores upon scores of people late to wherever they might be going, for the sake of his workout?

A story related by a close friend of mine comes to mind, regarding something that happened to him, when he was in China.  He was at a dinner, hosted by a family in their home in a rural village, and was dismayed when his hosts, with great pride, passed him a plate of roasted cicadas.  The prospect of eating them was beyond nauseating, and he considered refusing or disposing of his portion somehow, while his hosts weren’t looking.  But he could see how much it meant to them that they were able to share with a guest what they obviously considered a delicacy, and he ate the cicadas, which, as he expected, were among the vilest things he’d ever consumed.

Would he have been justified in refusing, had he been an ethical vegan?  I don’t think so.  Indeed, in my view, it would be worse to do so for that reason than out of disgust.  There is at least a kind of rugged honesty to the rudeness involved in rejecting something your host offers you at a dinner party, because you don’t like it, but to do so on the grounds that your virtue demands it represents an altogether different level of dickishness.

For one thing, what was supposed to be about everyone is suddenly all about you.  The host now has to figure out how to accommodate your food preferences.  Does he prepare you a separate meal?  If you bring your own food, will it need to be heated up, and will he have the oven or stovetop space to do so?  The host may have twenty guests coming, but now he’s exerting more energy on you than on all of them put together.

For another, you’ve just signaled to your host and fellow guests that they are unethical people.  After all, the reason why you have refused your host’s hospitality and insist on munching on kale, while everyone else tucks into their kibbeh and kebabs, is because you think that eating meat is a serious moral offense.  So what does that mean you think of your host and of your fellow guests?  Indeed, why are you even sitting with them at the table at all, given that in another context, you might very well be throwing blood at them or brandishing signs and screaming at them across a barricade?

Finally, however the tension is resolved, the result is the self-segregation of oneself from one’s host and one’s fellow guests, at what is supposed to be a social event.  Even the most considerate person, who brings his own meal, requiring no heating or other preparation, and makes every effort not to signal contempt for his host or fellow guests, is not fully participating in the event.  He is not fully accepting his host’s hospitality; not experiencing the culinary traditions of the host’s family and culture; and not sharing the experience with the other guests.

And all for what?  Eating one meal out of thousands you will consume will have absolutely zero effect on your weight-loss program, health, or the welfare of a single animal, but it will honor your hosts and make you a part of an important social, human experience that has for millennia signified the bond of friendship that might exist between all of us.  When we break bread together, we come together and become close in a way that we were not before.

It’s hard not to conclude that the person who refuses someone’s hospitality, whether for reasons of weight loss or general considerations of health or morality, beyond simply being boorish, is engaged in a kind of posturing and showing off that one normally associates with adolescents and not with morally serious, grown-ups.  “Look at me!” is essentially what such a person is saying.  “Look at how fit/healthy/moral I am!”  And it’s only in today’s weird cultural climate that anyone could confuse such narcissistic displays with virtue, moral or otherwise.

The public’s interest in your virtue and well-being has always been grounded in the fact that good character and health are supposed to make you less of an asshole to and burden on everyone else.  Today, unfortunately, they are just as likely to make you more of both.

Categories: Provocations

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83 Comments »

  1. “Notice that her virtue *is* self-effacing. Its burden lands squarely on her”

    Perhaps, if she is a person who desires widespread social contact then this may be a burden. But if she has built a career on this then you could say it is working for her.

    Any ethical vegan has a burden on them if they are constantly desiring meat, egg and dairy products and denying it to themselves. I would hate that.

    Their burden doesn’t fall on me – I can whip up a good vegan meal without breaking a sweat and am happy to do it.

    If there are other hosts who find cooking a vegan meal a burden then they always have the rather simple recourse of not inviting any vegans to dinner. So no burden there.

    Any burden is therefore on the ethical vegan, if he really does like meat, fish, eggs, dairy products etc.

    And if there are vegans who think me guilty of some serious moral failing because I eat eggs and dairy products then that does not bother me any more than that there are people who think me guilty of a serious moral failing because I don’t eat meat.

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  2. “by her strongly held moral code, they are all, essentially, monsters”: this seems to me an important part of the concept of religious and cultural *tolerance*. If you are not an ethical relativist or skeptic, you will constantly rub against others with distasteful or evil beliefs – some kind of detachment (in every sense) is necessary. Most mainline christians in the West don’t have trouble being friendly to godless atheists, or even to women they are not married to. I think the concepts are no different from those stupid arguments about whether one should read the books of Heidegger, say.

    More generally, re food faddism and medical dietary restriction etc – we live in a wealthy society that can now support a degree of variation in likes and dislikes. I hadn’t eaten organ meat for many years until a recent visit to China – they don’t appear at our local supermarket very often because tastes have changed. If *I* decided to make such a dish for a barbecue, I would only expect a few people to be interested. *I* would be embarrassed if someone forced something down that they detest. This example of humouring your mentally impoverished hosts because they have no resources to understand cultural difference only goes so far. I can think of lots of things I’m not going to do just because my host likes it.

    As to religious dietary restrictions – I as host would try and respect these in the same way I respect nonreligious strictures,

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  3. If I were to have a serial murder friend and said “OK, I will go along with you on a murdering spree, but I won’t actually murder anyone myself because it is against my ethics to do so” then it would be safe to conclude that my objection to murdering couldn’t be particularly strong.

    So if a vegan accepts a dinner invitation from me then it is similarly safe to assume that his abhorrence of my dietary practices is mild at best. He can’t regard me as we would regard a murderer or a sadist or anything close to that.

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  4. Robin: You’ve just illustrated why I am very reluctant to have discussions with you. You don’t know when enough is enough.

    All: This has been discussed to death, and we now are in the phase of rapidly diminishing returns. I am closing comments.

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