Opinion

No more dinner parties?

Thanks to food allergies and Michael Pollan, finding a dish everyone can eat is nearly impossible these days.

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Remember the good old days, when you threw a dinner party and all you had to worry about was finding a topic everyone could talk about? Now, you have a much harder task: to find a dish everyone can eat. 

Two culprits bear the blame: the rise of food allergies in America, and food writer Michael Pollan.

Over 12 million Americans have a known food allergy. And tens of millions more have food intolerances.  

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My wife recently found out that she shouldn’t eat lactose, gluten, corn, turkey, or chicken. She also has to avoid fruits and vegetables high in sucrose.

So assuming I invite her to my next dinner party, I already have to rule out 75 percent of the foods I’d like to make. 

But I also have vegetarian friends in all their idiosyncratic shades: will eat chicken and fish, will eat fish but not chicken, will eat nothing with a face. 

And don’t forget the vegans. They make my wife look easy. 

We also have a few friends who keep kosher. That knocks out pork and shellfish – two go-to dishes for my wife. It also rules out any dish that combines dairy with meat, like my Tandoori lamb, which requires yogurt. Oh, wait, my wife couldn’t eat that anyway. 

And if it wasn’t already complicated enough, I know a lot of people who want to know the name of the farmer who raised the beef or chicken. (Thanks a lot, Mr. Pollan). To have a dinner party these days, you practically need to show the provenance of everything on the table. Someone’s bound to say, “Is the beef grass-fed? I won’t eat any beef that might have been given antibiotics.”

Oh, didn’t you know I quit my job so I could raise the cow myself? And I grew all the vegetables without any fertilizer, and yes, the butter was churned by our children who never play video games and don’t even have cellphones. 

Millions of people (and just about everyone I invite to dinner) have read Pollan’s ethics-raising books, such as “Omnivore’s Dilemma” or “In Defense of Food.” And they’ve seen the documentary “Food Inc.,” which criticizes the corporate food industry for harming our health. As a result, they now count themselves as “locavores” who shop for meat and produce farmed nearby. 

That’s good news for the planet, but again, bad news for us dinner-party throwers. I see a time when the dinner party will simply go extinct. It will just be too much bother to try to cook for a group of people with so many food tics. Easier to dine alone. Or find a restaurant to go to. (Good luck finding one everyone agrees on.)

The loss of the dinner party will be a sad turn of events. Historically, breaking bread with people is how boundaries fall and families come together. A dinner party is like a peace treaty. This truth helps explain why Jewish dietary laws were created. The rabbis knew that if you could only eat a certain way, you couldn’t fully socialize with your neighbors. Which made it less likely that a Jew would fall for a Philistine or for one of the Phillipses down the block. It’s no coincidence that Jewish intermarriage rates began to increase as fewer families kept kosher. 

So what’s to become of the dinner party? To survive, it will have to morph into the dreaded potluck. 

The vegans will bring tofu, the meat eaters will bring steak, the religiously observant will bring dishes served on their own plates, the food intolerants will bring gluten-free bread, and the few real omnivores will eat it all. 

The dinner party, once a carefully choreographed ballet of taste and flavor, will become a different dance altogether. Have you ever seen the “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine hits the dance floor?

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising in Cleveland.

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