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.


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.





83 responses to “Provocations”

  1. This rings very true. Eccentric preferences regarding food and drink are one thing. With a little bit of flexibility and discretion all round, one can cope. But the moral judgment issue is the killer.

    The latter has a lot in common with cultish thinking; and cult members generally break bread amongst themselves and according to their own rules. Once cults were defined against mainstream culture; increasingly cultishness encroaches on the mainstream and is part of it. A sign of (inexorable?) social fragmentation.

  2. Bunsen Burner

    The problem with your example is that three of the dietrary preferences are probably medical conditions. I’ve had friends hospitalized due to their allergies or gastro-intensinal problems. The piece would work better if this was acknowledged.

  3. I should point out that Coeliac disease, which is mentioned here, is a real thing and not an eccentric dietary preference. There is nothing I would like more than to chow down on some proper bread again.

  4. s. wallerstein

    First of all, it’s not true that no one thought of nutrition in the 1970’s, as the writer claims. I certainly was very aware of nutrition in the 1970’s, and in fact, in the 1950’s when I was growing up, my parents, not members of any cult, were very aware of nutrition: that too much cholesterol is not good for you, that whole grains are more healthy than processed grains, that Coca Cola is just junk, that sugar causes tooth decay, etc.

    I’m a vegetarian myself and have been one, on and off, since the 1970’s and I assure you that I never preach about the issue, but this post seems so preachy that I would call it an “anti-sermon sermon”, which is just one more form of sermon.

    I recall going to a family reunion a few years ago, and my sister and I, l being vegetarians, brought our own main dish. What’s the problem with that? We didn’t preach to anyone nor did anyone preach to us.

    Preachy people will always find a subject to preach about and if it’s not food, it will be something else.

    I avoid preachy people, but I suspect that the author of this post is just another member of that tribe.

  5. labnut

    Wonderful! This is such a timely post.

  6. Robin: I knew I could count on you to miss the point entirely.

  7. S. Wallerstein: way to miss just about every point. Bravo.

  8. labnut

    I am going to reveal my age when I tell you that training for the evening meal was an important part of my upbringing. There was so much to learn. There were the intricacies of table manners, the complexities of setting a place, the ritual of the meal, the duties of the host and the duties of the guest. But two things stood out. First there was respect. You respected your host and then you respected your fellow guests. Your respect showed in your attentiveness to the needs of others. Second you followed the rules of polite conversation, giving no offence, showing sincere interest in the conversation of others and contributing something sparkling, insightful or engaging to the conversation. Finally you should never fail to write a note of thanks to the host.

    In this kind of environment it was unthinkable to make special dietary demands(unless you were an important guest). You might as well ostracise yourself.

    Today we seem to be in a race to the bottom where robust assertion of one’s own needs takes precedence over all other considerations. But it is more than assertion of one’s own needs, it is also strident signalling of our own claims to be special.

    The problem with this kind of signalling is its emptiness. It does not signal any kind of merit. Consequently the signalling is quickly discounted and this forces the signaller to up the ante so that he can reclaim attention. Hence the escalating race to the bottom.

    We all engage in signalling. It is a natural part of social interaction. There is sincere signalling which is anchored in something real and then there is posturing, which has no anchor. What has happened? Why have we transitioned from sincere signalling to posturing? I suspect it has all to do with the strong influence of entertainment media, that now dominates most of our waking moments. Entertainment media is based on a pretence that fantasy is real. We understand that and accept it as such. But it seems to have infected our minds so that we think we can similarly manufacture our own reality.

  9. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.,

    Since Robin and I both missed the point or the points, maybe you could summarize them for us and for others with problems of reading comprehension.

    Robin has always seemed like a bright fellow to me, so maybe the author of the post has difficulties communicating her central thesis or theses. I know that you write well and clearly, so I’d thank you for a clear summary of the main ideas of the text.

  10. The other readers seem to have gotten it.

    It’s a provocations piece, not an essay.

  11. labnut

    I avoid preachy people, but I suspect that the author of this post is just another member of that tribe.

    You have always made insightful comments so I am at a loss to understand the over-the-top nature of your comment. You seem to have gone one step too far.

    1) This is a provocation piece. The intent of the post is to express strong opinions that provoke thoughtful reactions. Often we need to be provoked into thinking about things we take for granted.

    2) The wrong way to respond to the provocation is to raise the stakes by countering with a stronger provocation. That becomes a barroom brawl.

    3) The right way to respond is to stop and think, asking the question, what is going here that a respected philosopher feels compelled to make such strong claims?

    4) Sapere aude.

  12. The funny thing is that the piece very clearly is not about ethical veganism, even though one of the chief examples I use involves it. It also clearly isn’t about people with serious diseases. It is about a very common and nebulously defined “well-being” and virtue. Hence the cycling example at the beginning.

    But then again, certain peoples’ reactions, in which the first thing they do is hunt through the piece to see how they can make it about them — and get offended — is precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about. So, the criticisms actually make the point.

  13. labnut

    The essential thing about social behaviour is that we make considered concessions to the needs of others while endeavouring to preserve our own essential needs. It is a delicate dance of observation and consideration, yielding and assertion. It is based on a deep down respect for the other person that accords him rights equal to your own. When he does the same thing for you we have a healthy society.

    the first thing they do is hunt through the piece to see how they can make it about them is precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about

    An insightful observation.

    On the other hand we often contribute from our own experience. That is valid if it leads to useful generalisations, otherwise it is a form self-presentation..

  14. labnut

    On the other hand, we should not be surprised when a provocation results in a robust conversation.
    On the other hand, … no wait, I am running out of hands.

  15. Well, they *are* intended to “provoke.”

  16. s. wallerstein

    Ok. I think I now understand.

    I read the heading “by Julia Belluz”, and I assumed that the whole article is by her, but now I am beginning to realize that just the heading is by her and the rest of the article is by Dan K.

    Now I know from previous experience that Dan K. is not a preachy person, but he does like to provoke poltically correct complacency. If, as I now suspect, the article is by Dan K., not by Ms. Belluz, I will read it in a different light.

    Context counts.

  17. S. Wallerstein: Is it the formatting? I deliberately set the quoted section from the Vox piece in an indent, but perhaps it isn’t showing up in whatever format you’re viewing it?

  18. s. wallerstein

    No, it’s what my father called “the idiot factor”. He always said that whatever you write and however clearly you write, some idiot is going to misunderstand it. In this case, I’m the idiot.

  19. I doubt that most people eat “thousands” of meals a year. Just two thousand would average more than 5 a day.

  20. Maybe I’ll write on pedantry next.

  21. s. wallerstein

    Since I did not realize that the article was written by Dan K., I didn’t see the irony or the subtlety.

    For example, the statement that no one thought about nutrition in the 1970’s is a rhetorical device, I now realize. I imagine that
    your parents (those of Dan K.) knew the basic facts of human nutrition just as mine did in the 1950’s. However, I imagined that the writer came from a home where people really did not know the basic facts of human nutrition in the 1970’s: those homes did exist, I have no doubt. For that reason, I pedantically pointed out that many families did know the basic facts of human nutrition in the 1970’s or even before then. Enough said.

  22. Nutritional considerations simply were not anything like they are today, in the average home. My mother often says today that she’s amazed at the things she cooked for us, then, given what she knows now.

  23. I even remember my pediatrician smoking in the office, when I would go for checkups. It was a wildly different time than today. Nothing resembling contemporary health concerns, even among the ordinary population.

  24. labnut

    A good example of the changes in knowledge and attitudes is the history of stomach ulcers.

    From the CDC:

    Data show that about 75 percent of ulcer patients are still treated primarily with antisecretory medications, and only 5 percent receive antibiotic therapy. Consumer research by the American Digestive Health Foundation finds that nearly 90 percent of ulcer sufferers are unaware that H. pylori causes ulcers. In fact, nearly 90 percent of those with ulcers blame their ulcers on stress or worry, and 60 percent point to diet.

  25. s. wallerstein

    As you say, awareness of nutrition has increased since the 1970’s. That has its upside and downside. Friends of my parents died of heartaches at age 60 quite possibly because they ate a diet primarily composed of high fat animal products.

    Anyway, I certainly agree that manners are very important: saying “thank you” (gratitude), not lecturing someone who invites you to dinner about the evils of their diet, saying “excuse me” if you’ve violate someone’s space, offering your seat to a pregnant woman or someone with a cane, not blocking traffic by jogging, etc. There is a little book by a French philosopher, Andre Comte Sponville, A Short Treatise of the Great Virtues: the first virtue, he says, is courtesy, which may be just a formula, he concedes, but is a first step towards towards doing the right things for the right reasons.

    However, manners evolve. We live in a much more diverse world than the world of the 1970’s and in social situations we should be tolerant of the diversity of peoples’ eating habits, without preaching either for or against them. If people have something to say to one another, they don’t need to all eat the same thing or follow the same food ritual to have a great experience together. Each can bring their own food, there can be a buffet with a wide variety of food or they all eat something simple, say, bread and cheese with nuts and seeds for the vegans. The important thing is to get together with people with whom one has an affinity, not the menu per se.

  26. If people have something to say to one another, they don’t need to all eat the same thing or follow the same food ritual to have a great experience together. Each can bring their own food, there can be a buffet with a wide variety of food or they all eat something simple, say, bread and cheese with nuts and seeds for the vegans. The important thing is to get together with people with whom one has an affinity, not the menu per se.
    = = =
    It is this that I disagree with profoundly, for the reasons I gave in the essay.

    When I go to someone’s home, part of what is significant about the experience is my sharing in their family’s culinary traditions and tastes, and when I do so, my understanding of and relationship to them deepens. All of this is lost when we bring our own individual meals in tupperwares and simply eat in the same room.

    I’m glad that you brought this up, because beyond the humorous examples, it’s really what you are describing here that I am so against, and which I believe is at the heart of much of our social disintegration and mutual antipathy.

  27. s. wallerstein

    You attach an importance to food that I don’t. Everything about a family signifies who they are: the furniture, the plates they’ve chose to eat on, the pictures that they have on the wall, the books that they have in their bookcases, the music that they listen to, and if I want to get to know them, I should pay attention to all of that, including their food preferences to be sure.

    I would say that mutual antipathy stems not from not eating the same food, but from not making the effort to take the other into account, to consider them as worth taking into account, to consider them as counting, as mattering, and true, when you take someone into account, you have to include their food preferences.

    By the way, was there ever a golden age when most people took most others whom they meet into account?

  28. S. Wallerstein:

    Just a few comments:

    1. The importance I attach to food is not just some preference of mine. It is one that has been at the heart of human civilization across the world for millennia. Food is not just one of the central ways in which a culture expresses itself, it has always been a particularly intimate medium through which individuals connect to one another. I cannot count the number of times I have read someone recount how their mothers expressed their love to them through their cooking.

    2. It is a very sad day when one cannot understand that there is something very significant and intimate about a person inviting you to their home and cooking for you, something that is lost entirely by the “everyone bring their own food in a tupperware and eat it it in the same room” mentality that you promote here.

    3. The point just is that this is one of a number of forces of social atomization and yes, narcissistic concerns, that in my view is busily destroying the social fabric.

    4. For years, I cooked holiday meals at our synagogue, for the entire congregation. It meant a lot to me to be able to feed the people in my community, with recipes and dishes that are expressions not just of Jewish culture in all its manifestations, but of my mother’s and grandmother’s culinary traditions. In recent years, however, the phenonemon that you describe and celebrate has increased with alarming speed, and I found myself besieged by specific request, exemptions, and the like. The upshot is that I have stopped doing it, and most of the congregants say that holidays are the worse for it.

  29. s. wallerstein

    Until very recently in human history, there was very little variety of food available for most people. They had to eat the fruits and vegetables that were recently harvested near their homes and the meat that came from the local butcher. My maternal grandfather and great uncle (from the paternal side of the family) were butchers and both told stories of driving cattle through the city streets as young men to slaughter them. Now we buy foods flown in from all over the world, vegetables and fruits from tropical lands in winter, cheese from everywhere. That’s true in Chile where I live and I imagine that is doubly true in the United States.

    What’s more immigration is very mobile and one of the first things that a new wave of immigrants does when it arrives is to open restaurants. There is a Peruvian restaurant at each end of the city block where I live: once there were Chilean eateries there.

    So people develop new food tastes to suit their likes and preferences. That seems fine to me.

    Yes, some mothers express their love through their cooking. Not all do. My mother did not like to cook and made it fairly clear that she considered cooking to be a dismal chore. So we have different childhood experiences.

    I’m genuinely sorry that you had to stop cooking for your synagogue. I imagine that you’re a great cook, and that the people in your synagogue are now missing out on a special culinary experience.

  30. labnut

    You attach an importance to food that I don’t.

    Large numbers of people attach great importance to it.
    1) courtship rituals, take your date out to dinner;
    2) business lunches;
    3) celebration banquets;
    4) family bonding;
    5) meals with friends;
    the list goes on and on.

    Every Sunday we have a symbolic re-enactment of the last supper, something of huge spiritual significance.

    When I took up my post in Shanghai I was astonished by the large number of restaurants in the city. I soon found out why. The main way of cementing a business deal was by means of a lavish meal. Why was this? When we do something for someone else it is usually for one of three reasons: 1) a sense of responsibility; 2) out of a feeling of obligation; or 3) a form of reciprocity.

    Here in the West we are driven mainly by (1) responsibility and so contracts are very important. In China (2) obligation and (3) reciprocity feature larger. Meals are an important means of creating a sense of obligation and also a form of reciprocity.

    But here’s the thing. I found that the Chinese method of creating obligation and the need to show reciprocity resulted in stronger and more binding agreements with a better chance of fulfilment than a contract would. That is because a contract is a shield, masking the participants and requiring a legal mechanism for enforcement. On the other hand, the Chinese method quite literally attached their ‘face’ to the deal through the face to face involvement of the meal. This direct, personal involvement made for a more binding agreement with better understanding and a better chance of fulfilment.

    You might ask, couldn’t this have just been achieved through a face to face business meeting at a conference table, as we do in the West? The answer is no. The conference table is a conflict zone that freezes in prior attitudes. We wear a mask that conceals our motives and thus reduces the chances for understanding. On the other hand, the meal and its concomitant hospitality lowers the masks we wear, allowing us to see and experience the humanity of the person opposite us. With this direct face to face involvement we are committing our ‘face’. With it comes a powerful feeling of obligation to honour our commitments. We find it easy to betray a piece of paper(the contract) but find the loss of face unbearable.

  31. davidlduffy

    “Would he have been justified in refusing, had he been an ethical vegan? I don’t think so”
    Since it’s just a provocation:

    What insects are Jews allowed to eat?
    Answer by Dan Galilee
    A Jewish-American Rabbi living in Israel, studying, teaching and writing on Judaism.
    There is one species of locust that is allowed according to the laws of kashrut. However, there has to be a multi-generational direct tradition of eating this locust. Today, only a small percentage of Jews are allowed to eat it, since the identity of the permitted locust-species was lost to most Jewish communities (Rashi commentary, Leviticus ch.11). Those who have handed down that tradition are the Yemenite Jews.

    In the liberal era, one’s dietary restrictions held for individual self-determined reasons are just as worthy.

  32. I feel the same about kashrut as about the others. The person who won’t accept another’s hospitality because of kashrut does the same damage to the social fabric as anyone else. Indeed it’s one of the worst things about the Jewish dietary restrictions.

    So, you rather made my point for me.

  33. Dan

    “I knew I could count on you to miss the point entirely.”

    Your example lumped in dietary requirements due to medical conditions with those due to choices. That obscures the point.

  34. Not for anyone else. Funny that.

  35. These are some really good observations. The trend I am describing is, in many ways, at its worst in America, where it is part of a broader philistinism that draws in part from a metastisized individualism and self-absorption.

  36. “Not for anyone else. Funny that.”

    Bunsen Burner has made the same point as I did. I find that this is a general problem, that people will treat my dietary requirement as though I am being selfish and difficult, so I don’t go to dinner parties any more.

  37. On the other hand, I would consider myself a poor host indeed if I had placed beef in front of an observant Hindu, or pork in front of an observant Jew. A dinner party is a very complex social affair that involves knowing your guests and planning a cohesive event with no one feeling uncomfortable.

    I would not feel honoured by someone eating something they loathed, or that went against their principles. The point of food for me is to be enjoyed.

  38. The point is that three out of four of the dietary requirements that the Vox reader had to deal with were due to medical conditions, only one was due to choice.

    So my question is, if the article hadn’t mentioned the pescatarian, only the other three, would you have had the same reaction to it? Would you consider this person had misunderstood the basics of human social interaction if she had planned her dinner party to take into account guests who had Coeliac, garlic allergy and reaction to spicy food?

    That would help me understand the point being made here.

  39. As with most things, it seems, we disagree profoundly.

  40. I ceased being willing to cook holiday dinners at the synagogue once the individual requests, exclusions, demands, etc., piled up past a certain point. They included a combination of preferences and health concerns.

    The issue is not one of merits or justification but of the conditions under which certain, in my view essential, social interactions occur.

  41. Dan,

    “As with most things, it seems, we disagree profoundly.”

    You always seem to say this at the point I ask the key question that would clarify just what we are disagreeing about.

  42. Robin: That’s you prerogative if you want to see it that way. I do not.

  43. As for the point being made, it is summarized in my last paragraph. The pursuit of virtue and well-being should make one less of a burden to others, not more of one. That the opposite is true is an indication that we have become profoundly confused about what virtue and well-being consist of.

  44. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.

    I entirely agree with you that the pursuit of virtue and well being should involve becoming less of a burden towards others (insofar as that is possible).

    I guess the big difference between us is how much of a burden on others it is that people have their special food preferences. When my partner was living with me, I served her son meat every day although I’m a vegetarian, simply because he wanted meat in his diet and I thought that eating meat might be more healthy for a growing child. That was no problem for me nor is it a problem if a house guest wants to eat meat here.

    Now I understand that you’re a specially good cook and that it’s important for you that others appreciate your cooking. Cooking is an art for you. For me cooking is a necessary routine, nothing more.

  45. Dan

    “Robin: That’s you prerogative if you want to see it that way. I do not.”

    Answering my question would help me understand. You chose that particular example and I assume you did it advisedly and knowing that three out of the four dietary requirements the Vox reader was dealing with were due to medical conditions and this is the basis on which you conclude that she is confused about the basics of human social interaction.

    Did you intend to imply that the person with Coeliac disease, the person with a reaction to spicy foods and the person with the garlic allergy should not have been catered for, that she should have served them up a spicy,gluten and garlic containing meal?

    Again, it seems to me that height of bad manners to invite people to dinner knowing that they will have an adverse health reaction to certain foods and then not care whether or not the meal you serve will cause them these health problems.

    I would be astonished that someone would think this good manners and can’t believe that this is what you intended to say.

    So was your example badly chosen? Or did you intend to imply that people were displaying bad manners by not eating foods that can cause them health problems?

    I don’t know why you wouldn’t simply clarify this.

  46. My only criticism of the Vox reader would be that she can’t have done much research for that masters.

    How difficult is it to come up with a non-spicy gluten free dish that doesn’t contain red meat nor chicken?

  47. ombhurbhuva

    Would this uniformity of diet apply to the eating of broccoli? One might say: put it on my plate if you wish but I will not eat it. Would that be a reproach to your family’s judgment of its healthful properties and have a chilling effect on commensality chez Kaufman. There would be the unspoken thought that there was one amongst us who does not love his broccoli that mother prepared with love and chapped fingers from the washing in cold water. This is not to be borne.

    This would have the effect that cynics claim is the basis of dietary restriction as in Judaism and Hinduism namely the restriction of commensality to the in group.

  48. Robin, I’ve discussed this with you as much as I care to. It’s a light Provocations piece, not a treatise. Take it for what it is. Or don’t. It’s all the same to me.

    In general, I am reluctant to go more than a few rounds with you, as it has been my experience over the years that you don’t know when to just let things drop and are inclined to pursue things to the ends of the earth, no matter what your interlocutor says to you. In this case, I’ve pretty much answered everything you’ve asked me, if you include not just my replies to you but to others in the thread. I see no profit in going around it again.

    So, I spare myself that aggravation by simply ceasing to discuss something, when I have had enough of it. I am happy to leave something unresolved and allow people to think through things themselves.

  49. labnut

    So was your example badly chosen? Or did you intend to imply that people were displaying bad manners by not eating foods that can cause them health problems?

    Hee hee, rather like me you are inclined to pursue a point to the death(of the conversation) by exploiting one weakness in the argument. But is that fair to the author?

    The problem with that is it can obscure or cloud the essential point that the author is making. So we must return to basics and ask what the essential, core point of his essay is.

    In later comments he says(and this sums it up for me)

    it is part of a broader philistinism that draws in part from a metastisized individualism and self-absorption.
    The pursuit of virtue and well-being should make one less of a burden to others, not more of one.
    and from the essay
    “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.

    Rather than quibbling over specific examples we should be addressing Dan-K’s core assertions.

    Do we agree that we are seeing
    1) increasing amounts ofmetastisized individualism and self-absorption?
    2) increasing amounts of narcissistic displays with virtue, moral properties?

    Do we agree with Dan-K that these are harmful or deeply undesirable trends which are present in our society?

    I agree with the core assertions made in his colourful provocation piece. Let’s turn the conversation back to the meat of the matter[!] and consider these core assertions.

  50. Labnut: Thank you. I wouldn’t even say there’s an argument per se. And I did say in one of my replies to someone that clearly I wasn’t talking about people with serious diseases.

  51. alandtapper1950

    My parents almost never invited friends to dinner. Inter-family visits were usually “dropping in” for “afternoon tea”. We kids went and played in the “back yard” with other kids we barely knew. Food was not part of that social world.

    In my younger adulthood there was a phase in which “dinner parties” were the done thing. Usually three couples, often with children who were sent off the sleep somewhere or left at home with baby-sitters. Food, wine, coffee and conversation were all part of the occasion. Reciprocation was vaguely expected.

    Now I think we are in a different phase where often restaurants have become the place to meet. People don’t open their homes as much as they did. Their cooking talents or pretensions are less exposed.

    The at home event is likely to be a barbecue where food is not the focal point. The barbecue allows for bigger gatherings. Friends or family may bring a plate.

    The restaurant solves the problem of diverse tastes. And because the barbecue is basically a somewhat random collection of dishes, with meat added, it’s not hard to get around the problem of specialised tastes or needs.

    That’s my experience. Conversation, of whatever quality, is the thread running through all these forms and the main point of it all, I would suppose.


  52. Labnut

    “Do we agree that we are seeing
    1) increasing amounts ofmetastisized individualism and self-absorption?
    2) increasing amounts of narcissistic displays with virtue, moral properties?”

    That’s pretty much what Tom Wolfe said about the 70’s, the “Me Generation” and all that.

    But consider how an uncharitable person could turn this around.

    For example couldn’t Dan’s friend be considered to be virtue signalling? “Look at me, I’m so moral I am willing to endure eating vile tasting cicadas rather than upset my host”.

    Couldn’t an uncharitable person characterise Dan as asserting his own moral superiority over those pesky pescatarians?

    The same uncharitable person could say that I am virtue signalling too.

  53. s. wallerstein

    I’m not sure that we are seeing increased individualism and self-absorption and increased narcissistic displays with virtue, moral properties.

    We all have a tendency to idealize the good, old days: if we had a happy childhood (I didn’t), those of our childhood. If we finally felt good as a youthful university student and budding intellectual (I did), those of our university years. The idealization of the good old days and bemoaning that people aren’t what they used to be is as old as the Greeks and maybe older.

    The narcissistic displays of virtue have always been with us: except in my childhood the narcissistic puritanical moralists condemned all sex outside of heterosexual marriage, while now they condemn anyone who is in favor of restricting sex to heterosexual marriage. The same narcissistic displays, but with a different political color.

    The scarlet back then was A for “adultery”, now it’s S for “sexism”, but it’s the same puritanism at work.

    I grew up in the 1950’s and I just don’t recall all that great community spirit. People were self-absorbed and individualistic back then, but maybe more conventional in their individualism: that is, they all looked the same, dressed the same and had the same haircut (and even ate the same diet), but they had little interest in the well-being of others and almost no community spirit.

  54. s. wallerstein

    error: my last comment should read “the scarlet letter back then…” ,

  55. Anyway, from my point of view food is to be enjoyed, not endured in a spirit of self effacing virtue. I would not feel at all honoured by someone choking down my food for my sake, I would rather they didn’t eat it if they didn’t enjoy it.

    If I plan a dinner or a barbecue it is my intention that, if possible, everybody will enjoy the food and the company.

    If I invite a vegan to dinner I will ensure I have food there that a vegan can eat, if I wasn’t prepared to do that then I wouldn’t invite a vegan to dinner. That just seems common sense.

    I don’t find that a burden, I enjoy it. I normally make sure I have a range of food, meat dishes, vegetarian and vegan dishes and that they are suitable for food allergies if I am aware that any intended guests have such allergies. I don’t see how that is even difficult, but if it was then guests are usually willing to chip in and contribute a dish or two.

    And I don’t see a vegan’s choices as somehow being a critique of me or as a way for him to feel superior.

  56. Let me just say a few things more, by way of clarification:

    1. The piece was not about dining per se. It was about what seems to me a relatively new phenomenon. Not just that virtue and well-being can be obtained at the expense of others, but that people do so with a kind of relish. The point is to reinforce something I’ve raised in a number of other contexts, namely that virtue should be self-effacing. My friend in China, in doing the right thing and fully accepting his host’s hospitality, suffered in doing so. The burden of his virtue fell on him. By contrast, the burden of the cyclist’s well-being or the vegan’s virtue, falls on others. Those stuck in the cars behind the cyclist pay for his well-being. And the host, whose job has now become much more complicated — unless you’ve prepared a meal for dozens or even hundreds of people, as I have, many, many times, you have no idea just how much “special requests” fuck up everything — is bearing the burden of his vegan guest’s virtue.

    2. With respect to dining and hospitality, much of the pushback here strikes me as representing a kind of philistinism that in my view is almost as bad as the narcissistic conception of virtue and well-being indicated in (1). (Indeed, I am working on a much more substantial essay on philistinism and why I take it to be a serious problem, both for the individual philistine and for those around him.) Repeatedly, the point is made that the food is largely beside the point; that one goes to converse with one’s host and fellow guests, so everyone sitting with a tupperware full of their “preference” and eating in the same room is no different from sitting together and sharing a common meal that was cooked for you, by your host. That anyone could confuse these two entirely different activities or fail to understand the special and very intimate experience that arises from the relationship between the host who, with his own hands, cooks a meal for his guests, perhaps using recipes that not only tell the story of his own family, but of his people, demonstrates the degree of social and cultural disintegration that so many suffer in the modern, industrialized world. All that I can say is that while I understand that some for whatever reason either cannot understand or appreciate the distinction between the two and the significance of the latter, they should acknowledge that it is they and their experience that are impoverished as a result, rather than try to dismiss the significance of something that human beings across the globe, from every civilization, for millennia have understood perfectly well.

    3. With regard to Robin’s last point, its either obtuse or disingenuous. The ethical vegan — as opposed to, say, the person who is a vegan entirely for reasons of health — believes that *any* use of animal products is a profound moral crime. His is the most extreme of the spectrum of “ethical eating” positions. And this means that he thinks his host and fellow guests are behaving in a gravely immoral fashion, with every bite they take. Part of my work in this area has been to try and force these people to come out and say what they really think of everyone else and face the social consequences that come as a result. To say out of one side of your mouth that “meat is murder” and then hang out with your meat eating friend as if nothing was wrong is the very definition of two-facedness. You wouldn’t do this if the person next to you had killed another person and eaten him, yet the ethical vegan thinks that killing and eating animals is almost as bad, which makes every meat eater effectively a serial murderer. Hence my reference in other essays to kids eating bologna sandwiches and going on fishing trips with grandpa. You say you believe this stuff? Then tell the truth about what you think of other people.

    The really honest and self-aware ethical vegans realize this and accept it. Indeed, my department head, who not only is an ethical vegan, but has devoted her philosophical work to making the case for it, has admitted to me that her views are profoundly socially isolating and alienating. She has very few friends, and finds it very hard to socialize with others, precisely because she is honest enough to admit that by her strongly held moral code, they are all, essentially, monsters.

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

  57. labnut

    Robin, you say

    If I plan a dinner…
    If I invite a vegan…
    I don’t find that a burden…
    And I don’t see a vegan’s choices

    Notice the dominant presence of the first person “I”? (this was Dan-K’s point)

    The form of your argument is:
    1) I do this;
    2) I am a reasonable person (by implication);
    3) Therefore a reasonable person does this.

    Now it happens that in law a great deal of use is made of the reasonable person argument.

    A phrase frequently used in tort and Criminal Law to denote a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability.

    The decision whether an accused is guilty of a given offense might involve the application of an objective test in which the conduct of the accused is compared to that of a reasonable person under similar circumstances. In most cases, persons with greater than average skills, or with special duties to society, are held to a higher standard of care. For example, a physician who aids a person in distress is held to a higher standard of care than is an ordinary person.

    But in the law court it is never said, I behave thus and my behaviour is the measure of a reasonable person.

    That argument would never fly in a court of law since personal biases cannot be reliably generalised. Whose bias is the ruling bias?

  58. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.,

    You say that the lives of those who do not have your view that sharing common food with others is a special experience are impoverished and that we’re somehow philistines.

    How can you set up your own experience, which I in no way disparage, as a measure of all other human experience? Maybe we have and have had scores of rich experiences which you have not gone through (the day only has 24 hours) and I wouldn’t think
    of calling your life impoverished for that.

    I can see that we could get into a rather ridiculous competition of whose experiences are richer than others and I don’t want to go there.

    Do you want to go there?

  59. It’s not “my view.” It’s the view of cultures across the globe, for thousands of years.

  60. This is why you find elaborate hospitality traditions across Asia and the Middle East.

  61. s. wallerstein

    I don’t really attach that much weight to tradition. I tend to be very liberal (in both senses of the word: the classic sense and the sense that it’s used in U.S. politics ) and you’re more conservative than I am.

    Traditions often just ratify power relationships that repress possibilities of flourishing.

    Asia and the Middle East, which you cite as references, contain some of the most repressive societies on the face of the earth.

    We’re both Jewish and I know that Israel is in the Middle East, but Israel contains all the political and cultural variety that the U.S. has. I just got together with a friend and his father who lives in Israell and I drank botelled water, the father drank tea and my friend drank coffee and we spent several hours conversing very pleasantly. Would our get-together have been more pleasant if we all had drank the same brew and shared a plate? I don’t see that.

  62. I just got together with a friend and his father who lives in Israell and I drank botelled water, the father drank tea and my friend drank coffee and we spent several hours conversing very pleasantly. Would our get-together have been more pleasant if we all had drank the same brew and shared a plate? I don’t see that.

    = = =

    That’s because this is in no way analogous to someone cooking for you.

    Sorry you don’t see it. As for culinary and hospitality traditions, you are certainly missing out on quite an important part of the human experience.

  63. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.

    I don’t doubt that food sharing is an important experience for you. What amazes me is how you seem to look down (we have impoverished lives) on those who don’t place much weight on that experience.

    Have you ever participated in an underground political struggle against a vicious dictatorship, risked your life and then seen that dictatorship, through its own mistakes and through pressure of mass struggle, fall and then celebrated that fall with tens of thousands of others in the streets? I have and I bet that you haven’t. I could say that your life is impoverished because of that, but I don’t think that.

    Have you ever traveled the Amazon River from its sources in the Peruvian jungles in native transportation, no luxuries at all, to the mouth of the river in Brasil? I have and I bet that you haven’t. I could say that your life is impoverished because you haven’t, but I don’t think that.

    Have you ever experimented and had gay sex? I have and I somehow bet that you haven’t. I could say that your life is impoverished because you haven’t, but I don’t think that.

    That is, you’ve had special experiences and in fact, most of us have had them, but I don’t see why you consider that those who haven’t had your experiences have had impoverished lives. If you need to feel superior to some of us, fine, but that’s your hang-up, not a good argument.

  64. labnut

    I don’t really attach that much weight to tradition.

    Oh, but you do. Your life is infused with traditions to such an extent that you don’t recognise them.They become invisible because they are part of the normal fabric of life. You will deny it of course, but who cares? Instead enjoy my favourite scene from the Fiddler on the Roof.

  65. Okay, S. Wallerstein. You can take this view if you want to. I stand by the essay and what I’ve said in this thread. And again, the most fundamental thesis is not about food.

  66. Dan,

    This was a great rant.
    I’m surprised so many people miss the point.

  67. They didn’t miss it, couvent, they resent it. Which shows just how accurate it is.

  68. Labnut

    Notice the dominant presence of the first person “I”? (this was Dan-K’s point)

    Do I understand you to be saying that my desire to see to it that all of my guests enjoy their meal is an example of the kind of self-absorption that Dan and you are talking about?

  69. Dan,

    I hope you don’t mind I go off topic a bit. Just one small remark, when you write:

    “By contrast, the burden of the cyclist’s well-being or the vegan’s virtue, falls on others. Those stuck in the cars behind the cyclist pay for his well-being.”

    In the context of this rant, I agree with the sentiment – don’t make others pay for your virtue.
    But I think the metaphor is misguided. Most often a cyclist doesn’t want to put the burden of his well-being on the motorists stuck behind him. It’s no fun riding a bike and knowing that there’s a 2.5 ton piece of metal behind you, waiting for that split second to overtake you. I personally only do it when bad infrastructure leaves me no other reasonable option.

    I think I know where the comparison comes from: in the US riding a bike is much, much more a status marker than were I llive. But still I think it’s not a fair comparison with people who not only are strict vegans, but who also refuse to eat plants from the Solanum genus.
    (You won’t believe it, but yes they exist! I once had the honor to sit next to one, when a friend organized a dinner party for her 40th birthday. The food turned into ashen in my mouth.)

  70. So there are three points.

    Firstly there is a claim that special diets are a burden on the host. They are a burden on the host if the host finds that a burden.

    As I have pointed out I don’t find that a burden at all and I expect that I am not alone in this.

    Yes I have cooked for dozens and even hundreds of people. It depends upon your approach. Food is about people so the first stage in planning any sort of meal is knowing who it is who will be eating it. These considerations are the first part of the process, not an afterthought.

    Of course it is a problem if you discover a food allergy at the last moment, but this is just one of the many glitches that can occur in the process. If I don’t know much about who will be eating the food then I try to have a range of dishes.

    You can’t please everybody. I once went to the trouble of ensuring there was a meat dish, prepared by a meat eater, at a party where there were people who didn’t like vegetarian diets. They turned their nose up at it and went out and bought a hamburger and chips and brought that back and ate it instead. So be it. The whole point was for people to enjoy their meal and they enjoyed their meal. My only beef, so to speak, was that a perfectly good dish went to waste, as the rest of us were vegetarians. But I didn’t invite them to any future meals.

    Sometimes it is not possible to cater for particular diets. When I am manning the barbecue at the surf club I can’t accommodate any vegetarians, because even if they have an egg sandwich, the egg is cooking on the same surface as the sausages and bacon and so the juices have been mixing. We can’t accommodate a gluten free diet because the gluten free stuff is more expensive and cuts into the fundraising.

    It comes back to this, if there is someone who is a vegan you can simply not invite them, or you can plan to have something they can eat. It just seems silly to knowingly invite a vegan to dinner and then expect them to eat meat, chicken, eggs or dairy products.

  71. Daniel, I admire that you shared a rant of yours, and I wish more people interpreted it with charity. As I see it, you are suggesting that:

    1. An account of ‘wellbeing’ and virtue that is not grounded in a community is hollow.
    2. Hence sometimes, for example, at ritual functions, which primarily exist to bind the community, such as Thanksgiving, one may be expected to eat (at least a little) food which one would otherwise prefer not to or consider ‘vicious.’
    3. Rejecting food, under the cloak of virtue, at certain ritual functions, even when done skillfully, is a vice not a virtue. Especially given that food only influences us our wellbeing in the long term, and one meal at a ritual function does not death make. (Unless of course you have an allergy, but I know you mean’t this exception in spirit if not in letter.)

    Keep ranting Daniel, it creates both good ideas, and crazy comments. And the good ideas are worth some crazy comments.

  72. Sorry everybody, ‘crazy’ is rather uncharitable. I mean’t something closer to ‘animated.’

  73. Labnut, as I read more of your comments across this blog and others, I come to enjoy your sense of humor.

  74. Excellent. I too have a friend, who is in effect a practicing vegan, but not one in name. In other words, he eats like a vegan, but does not call himself one. He does not do it ‘for the animals.’ And he does not enjoy putting himself above others. He eats what he does because it makes him feel good. But still, he struggles with the same problem as your friend. He finds the way other people eat morally disgusting. Not intellectually, but at the level of an immediate intuitive feeling which he has confessed to me. I don’t blame him for it. I mean, if you get accustomed to some food, you will find other food disgusting. Isn’t this the point, even the goal of changing a diet, to have immediate negative intuitive feelings about food you don’t want? In a sense, we could laud him for achieving a real dietary change.

    But anyway, my friend occasionally eats off diet in special scenarios now, because he’s recognized that otherwise he does end up isolating and morally condemning others, if only through silence. It doesn’t bother him too much, because what’s one meal off diet compared to respecting others on a regular basis.

  75. Wallerstein:

    I whole hardheartedly agree with the idea that no experience is more meaningful than someone elses’.

    I think, but I may be wrong, that Daniel was not trying to call people who eat differently philistines with spiritually empty customs and experiences.

    I think Daniel was saying that when there is a well known tradition of eating food(s) a certain way, that there are therefore social duties on how best to eat in that community.

    I don’t think Daniel was trying to privilege any particular way of eating well, just saying that when there are traditions of how to eat well, that we risk isolating ourselves and offending others by arguing that eating well is something best left decided by every individual.

    Thanksgiving is a useful example of how to resolve this moral issue because it is a highly visible tradition with certain ritual features that the average person is expected to be reasonably aware of.

    When you said: “Traditions often just ratify power relationships that repress possibilities of flourishing.” I would agree, but would also point out that only certain traditions (and ways of doing) them are the issue. For example, the language we use is a tradition too, and our ability to speak to each other can enhance our ability to flourish just as much as it can oppose it. Language is a meta tradition if you will, that lets us decide between other traditions. If we oppose all tradition in principle, we simple lose the ability to be social animals. And I for one, really like talking to other people, you in particular. I think you bring great comments to these blogs. 🙂

  76. Secondly, lets talk about the sit down meal, where the everybody eats the same food hand prepared by the host.

    Since the discussion began with the Thanksgiving theme and I have never been at a Thanksgiving dinner I went and googled a few images to get an idea of what one might entail.

    They look pretty much like my sit down meals – there are a range of dishes laid out on the table and people take what they want from them. I recall Christmas dinners which are similar – there is a roast in the middle and someone carves it and places it on peoples’ plates, then they take what they want from the other dishes.

    All of these spreads look as though they might be enough to cater for a range of diets. So are these sit down meals inferior if some people don’t decide to partake of the roast or the turkey or some other dish on offer?

    My meals may represent part of family culture. Some of the best vegan and vegetarian meals I cook come unchanged from my mother or mother-in-law or my great aunts.

    So I don’t see how sharing a meal is any less of an important, intimate or bonding occasion if the host has prepared for different tastes.

    We don’t do thank you notes, but hopefully some of that sentiment is imparted in the parting hug.

  77. Robin, if you are addressing me, I’ve already indicated that I’ve discussed this with you as much as I am inclined to. That we disagree is obvious and will not change, no matter how many more times I reply.

  78. Daniel: Have I understood you properly, or have I gone off on a tangent of my own?

  79. “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.

  80. davidlduffy

    “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,

  81. 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.

  82. 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.