Monday, November 26, 2007

Stigma of Restricted Diets

When I found out that the Thanksgiving dinner I was invited to this year was a potluck dinner, I went on a search for an equivalent vegetarian substitute for turkey. On Yahoo! Answers, Love is... asked "What is your vegetarian thanksgiving menu? I need ideas!?", to which Mildred S replied:

"a twenty pound turkey
pork sausage sage stuffing
prime rib
double stuffed potatoes with bacon bits and cheese"

As a pescetarian, I have been told (jokingly) that I don't deserve to partake in the Thanksgiving celebrations, Thanksgiving being a meat-fest holiday. The first time I met Devin's mother was on Thanksgiving day three years ago and he had forgotten to tell her that I don't eat turkey, so she has never again forgotten my diet restrictions, as she felt obligated to concoct me something to eat while everyone was already digging into their meat-laden meal. It can sometimes feel like having a restricted diet is a burden to oneself and an inconvenience to others, as a post by Pleasley on the SparkPeople "Calling all Vegetarians (and Vegans)!" team forum shows:

"I just got home from a friends house, her and her husband invited us over for a BBQ. The only thing she had without meat in it was potato salad. The potato salad was good but I am glad I decided to eat before I went to her house. I told them that I wasn't hungry when they asked why I wasn't eating, I didn't know what to do. I have only been vegetarian for about a month. How do you handle a situation like that without offending the hostess? I offered to bring a dish with me and I was told that everything was covered, I almost took something anyway. I need to know haw to handle this without offending anyone and without always having to eat before I go."
To this post, I replied:
"I have been to a couple BBQs lately and am invited to a couple more. Whenever I find out that a gathering will have food, I always ask if I can bring something because I'm vegetarian. I end up feeling kind of bad because usually after I say "Should I bring something because I'm vegetarian?", the host/hostess will insist that they can cover vegetarian food for me. It makes me feel bad because I know I will probably be the only one eating it and then the host/hostess will then have to deal with the leftovers I don't finish! The hostess at the last BBQ I went to bought an entire package of Gardenburgers AND Tofudogs just for me!

My friends and family know for the most part that I've been vegetarian for several years, but they just don't think about it and I really can't blame them. Once, at a surprise birthday party thrown in my honor, the host almost forgot to provide vegetarian food because I was the only vegetarian present! I would rather remind the host/hostess upon the invitation that I'm vegetarian, that way I won't feel left out at the party and the host/hostess won't be embarrassed that they forgot."

The host at the surprise party I mentioned above was Devin and we have been eating together since circa 2004, so I understand when my pescetarianism just isn't on everyone's list of priorities! And as a lover of food, I won't stand to be left out while everyone is digging into their meat dishes, so I have no qualms of reminding a host/hostess upfront of my diet restrictions and therefore have had no problems. I find it's pretty reciprocal that a host/hostess wants to accommodate his/her guests as much as I want to find things to eat.

Unfortunately, some others with restricted diets have not had as easy a time as I have had. I'm sure it helps that I do eat some flesh (seafood) and am very relaxed about animal by-products (cheese, eggs, honey, butter, milk, etc.), but certain posts on the Serious Eats discussion forum show the dark side to restricted diets:

When srphayre asked "Is it impolite to tell your food preferences your hosts?", some comments included:
"The vegan thing I do not accommodate. I am always honest and say to the vegan folks, I am sorry but maybe my food is not for you" from JerzeeTomato.

"I personally don't accommodate [veganism] because I have... philosophical issues with the practice, and because [of] vegans who cannot stand to have the same cookware, knives or dishes used for their food that are used for meat, ...and there are no circumstances under which I'm willing to deal with that" by thepictsie.

For lemons, it's the "self-proclaimed vegetarians who dive into the meat, saying 'Well, yeah, I'm a vegetarian, but I eat duck. And I just love seafood, don't you?'" that leave her "speechless".

Irohner believes "it is horribly rude [to tell the host your food preferences] unless there is a medical condition (allergy, diabetes, etc.) or religious belief involved".

JerzeeTomato had more to add, writing "I will not serve tofu. I just do not. I also like KDBlue will not make vegan food. It is not because I don't know how, it is because I won't. If you have that many reservations with food you need to make your own food or go to a place where you are appreciated. It is great to live in a time of plenty and be able to have so many choices. We are truely blessed."

choc_puddin, a vegan, suggests "Why not try giving up meat for one meal? People eat too much meat anyways."

The "point is," chefman writes, "big food pussies should let their hosts know."

Fellow pescetarian KarynMC believes "If I invited someone with a food allergy or another food restriction, I would make a meal they could eat. That's what hospitality is, folks."

thepictsie provides the last post in the discussion, responding to choc_puddin's post with "I don't enjoy beans, and I don't function well without meat (yes, I have tried). Trying to tell omnivores not to eat meat is just as obnoxious as omnivores trying to tell you to eat it."

Some of the responses to the discussion topic "Is it impolite to tell your food preferences your hosts?" are very heated because restricted diets tend to carry a stigma, which is addressed in another Serious Eats discussion topic titled "Why the hostility toward restricted diets?"

On a website such as Serious Eats, people tend to be very serious about food, eating it, cooking it, and seeing other people enjoy or dislike it. Devin and I get into huge arguments when he makes a disgusted facial expression or comment about the food that I eat. I went into a silent fury once when I put a piece of pickled ginger in my mouth and my friend simultaneously commented "I don't see how anyone can eat that pink stuff. It's disgusting". Wow, well that's rude. I feel that these comments should be kept private, especially when you see that someone nearby does in fact enjoy the food in question.

I recognize that my passion for food is not necessarily something that everyone can or even should understand. We all have different reasons for appreciating the foods we love or rejecting those which are not compatible with our palates. These are things that should be respected, just as differences in other personal beliefs, and not imposed upon others. Many times I do feel like an inconvenience to the people I eat with, but I alleviate most tension by being truthful and specific about my diet restrictions and offering to contribute a dish.

Obviously, I cannot associate myself with organizations like PETA, because I do eat some flesh and most animal by-products. But I also refrain from fully supporting militant and fanatical organizations like PETA because I believe that their strategy for spreading the vegetarian cause is counterproductive. Like JerzeeTomato says, we have the power of choice, but unfortunately, neither PETA or JerzeeTomato seem to realize that the power of choice involves the choice to eat meat OR to not eat meat.


K. Appleby said...

I can't help but understand a little of what thepictsie seems to be expressing with the comment on vegans "who cannot stand to have the same cookware..." as the rest of a meat eating household. I am on my way to becoming a vegetarian, so I share your position of being caught partway between the two perspectives. The older generation of my family and likely others still think of vegetarianism and related restricted diets as being associated with "hippies" and other social rebels from decades ago. Vegetarians are, in their minds, a little loopy. This is an unfair and outdated view, but it sounds like thepictsie and others are still having experiences with vegetarians and vegans who reinforce these negative images. Just as it is hurtful for those with restricted diets to be isolated at food-based gatherings, it is offensive to have these same people turn their noses up at anyone who does not share their restrictions. Restrictions ought to be respected and accommodated among friends and family, but I believe there also should be reasonable limits on what is expected of a host. I do not know if the comment was based on a personal experience or just a generalization about vegan attitudes. But it is understandable that people would take offense at having their lives and homes deemed contaminated in this way. I applaud your idea of both reminding ahead of time and offering to contribute food to gatherings. Eventually, all food restrictions might be considered without a second thought, but I think, in the mean time, efforts like yours will help to bridge the gap and clear up this bad blood between groups.

Alyssa said...

k. appleby: Yes, I seem to have a unique position as someone who is a partial vegetarian. I usually tell people that "I'm a vegetarian. But I do eat fish." So while I consider myself a vegetarian, I really can not because I still eat flesh.

While my pescetarianism is a personal issue, it has been beneficial and courteous to realize that this personal decision does affect others and that I need to be as flexible and accommodating as I want others to also be. That's why when my friend wanted to have her birthday at a steakhouse, I said "okay!" because it's not always about me and my pescetarianism.

It gets uncomfortable when a person's restricted diet begins to resemble religious fanaticism and militarism.

Pauline said...

Wow, I had no idea how difficult being a pescetarian could be! I'm much like you - I love, love, love good food. It baffles me that there are food-lovers out there who would be willing to shoot down alternative diets, though, even if it doesn't include the (meaty) favorites they enjoy, and regrettable as well. I've had some amazing vegetarian dishes in the past, as some of my friends are strict vegetarians, and of course some lovely seafood dishes (as is the Asian way, I suppose).

What really struck me, though, was that there are those out there who are unwilling to try - and even get offended when asked to consider accommodating for friends. It's kind of you to let your hosts know about your diet ahead of time, though, to save them any embarrassment (or awkward moments) on the day-of. My friend has particular difficulty with this, though; she and her daughter are both vegetarians, but every holiday meal with the in-laws, they're faced with eating nothing but garden salads for dinner because the family either can't or won't accommodate them. Since it's a family dinner, though, they're required to show up as part of their familial duties, so they try to eat before they go. It's really quite frustrating, but I'm really glad to hear that your family and friends are supportive of your diet!

Alyssa said...

pauline: I am conflicted to have a food blog and review restaurants when my diet is restricted. Am I adequately and fairly reviewing restaurants even though I might be missing out on the star dishes? But there is no doubt that I am a lover of food and that is something we should all embrace, whether or not we eat the same things.

Your story about your friend and her daughter is a horror story I often hear from those with restricted diets! I am very lucky to have such accommodating friends and family. Unfortunately, at home I often impose my restricted diet on my carnivore boyfriend rather than cooking two separate meals. But because of this, he has come to love several vegetarian dishes; amazing, coming from a formerly strict burger-and-fries guy!

Jerzeetomato said...

First of all no one bothered to mention that I was speaking of what I serve in my house which is of course my choice. I do not hold people hostage and make them eat meat. IF you come to my house meat is being served full stop. I do take requests from friends if I can and if I want to. The freedom of choice again is two ways. Mine and yours. Please try not to take portions of a conversation to prove your point (leaving a great deal of the original topic and text out) using my text without talking to me. It is very rude and very slanted. More reasons to dislike your argument.

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