True confession: A few years ago, I fed a vegetarian friend Tex-Mex spinach enchiladas that were prepared with chicken stock. I didn’t realize it until I set the platter down and my friend, looking up at me innocently, began serving herself enthusiastically. But I let her eat the enchiladas anyway—“These are soooo good!” she said—and I’ll admit that I felt a perverse satisfaction. Subconsciously, I was taking revenge on the scores of guests with limited appetites who have harpooned my dinner parties and who make eating in restaurants nearly impossible.
It used to be fairly easy to deal with people who had special food preferences and diets: You tried to accommodate them, and they tried not to ruin your meals. Nowadays, in the age of the lactose-intolerant, the gluten-intolerant, the tannin-averse, the people who eat only meat, the people who eat everything but meat, the pregnant, and the religiously restricted, the once relatively simple act of throwing a dinner party has become a series of tense negotiations. If you serve the Thai beef salad, you’ll please your friend on the South Beach Diet but risk killing your peanut-allergic pal.
I’ve toyed with the temptation of adopting a scorched-earth policy—eat what I cook, or starve—toward my more eccentrically inclined friends. But at dinner parties, sometimes the host is supposed to win, and sometimes the guest is. In other words, compromise. So I came up with a few guidelines to help figure out who has the proverbial right-of-way at food intersections.
The first: Life-threatening allergies get a free pass. (Can I make you a peanut-free dinner? Absolutely, especially if it means I don’t have to take you to the emergency room.) The next level of importance is religion; if you believe that eating a certain food will ensure your eternal damnation, I don’t want to be the one who casts you into the abyss.
After that comes a very large gray area populated by those who have serious but not deadly food allergies; these must be negotiated case by case. (Can I whip together Thanksgiving dinner complete with stuffing, gravy, and two kinds of pie, all without the use of wheat or dairy? Yeah, okay, but I think I want a note from your doctor.) Also included here are vegetarians, about whom I’ve developed a separate set of guidelines. If the vegetarian is deeply committed and a great friend, I’ll build a meal around him, based on the logic that it’s part of the fiber of his being.
There are, however, two groups that should never be yielded to. First, those who pretend to have food allergies as an underhanded way to make sure they are never served something they don’t like. I know someone who claims up and down that she’s allergic to oregano, and I also know her claims are not true. A gal like that gives real food-allergy sufferers a bad name. Second, the dieters. The Atkins adherents, the Sugar Busters!, and the South Beach devotees are the culinary equivalent of single-issue voters: Before they agree to show up at a barbecue, they have to make sure the potato salad isn’t going to be there. To them, I say, “If that’s the goal, don’t accept dinner invitations. Stay home with your Splenda instead.”
But if you really want to be a mensch and please all the people all the time, there is only one solution: Indian food. Its amalgam of flavors has been influenced by everyone from the Brits to the Chinese, and its canon contains dishes that can please almost anyone. It’s possible to concoct an Indian meal with enough components so that everyone gets to eat at least something. You’ll still work like a dog to make it, of course.