Years ago, I was with a group of friends, talking about healthy eating, when one woman, Sarah, boasted that she’d been able to go a whole evening without touching her mother-in-law’s chocolate cake. She was proud of her strength and resolution.
Interestingly, a few days later, I was with that woman’s sister-in-law. She, too, recounted a few details of that night.
“Yeah . . . mom made this delicious cake for us, and Sarah and her husband both refused to eat it. You could tell it was very hurtful to mom, who’d gone out of her way to make her favourite.”
It was interesting to hear the same story from different perspectives: from the one, the refusal to eat the cake was an act of fortitude against temptation. From the other, it was rude and selfish. Sarah wasn’t willing to sacrifice her weight-loss goals to show appreciation for her mother-in-law’s generosity.
Now, I have pretty strong dietary convictions myself. I try to eat only whole foods, and cook almost exclusively with organic, local or fair-trade ingredients. I strictly limit my sugar intake, restricting myself to honey, maple syrup, and fruit as much as possible (with an occasional indulgence in organic evaporated cane sugar). I don’t let anything with artificial food colouring or high-fructose corn syrup enter my house. I won’t buy corn, canola, or vegetable oil. I restrict my meat consumption to two or three servings a week, and generally avoid any meat except that which my parents have raised themselves and I’ve had a hand in butchering.
Sound overwhelming? Don’t worry — you don’t have to remember any of it.
I’ll eat just about anything you serve me.
After that conversation with my friend, I decided that none of my personal dietary restrictions were more important than my relationships. I decided that basically all my rules were null and void when in someone else’s home.
(I’ll make an exception if the food being served is obscenely unhealthy and also store-bought, especially if the event in question is a casual gathering. I don’t think most people will feel too broken up if I don’t take a doughnut from the box they picked up from the Tim Horton’s drive-thru for an impromptu get-together. That’s different from rejecting the chocolate cake you specially baked from scratch for me. Or even made from a box. I’m not that snooty.)
Sharing food is a powerful human experience. Humans have always, across cultures, used feasts to celebrate important events. Eating together binds us together like few other social practices. That’s why Scripture often describes heaven as a feast, and why Jesus commands us to remember him by sharing bread and wine. Eating together connects us. It reminds us of what we share in common. It equalizes us, and reminds us that we are bound to each other and to the earth. In eating together, we let our guard down and make ourselves vulnerable.
Moreover, to reject a person’s offering of food is (in most cases) to reject them and their generosity. I know how hurt I feel when I bring food to a potluck and much of it is left over. I even feel kind of injured when Ben gently informs me I don’t need to repeat a certain menu. I don’t know why it’s such a sensitive issue.
Conversely, it warms my heart when my dessert is the first one to go at a gathering. I am filled with joy when my friends enthusiastically devour what I’ve set on the table and ask for the recipe. It is an act of kindness to accept my food.
The Dying Practice of Hospitality and the Individualized Diet
I passionately believe our culture needs to resurrect the lost art of hospitality. I won’t get into it here (although this article might be a good place to start, if you’re interested in the subject), but I believe we live in a culture that breeds inhospitality on many levels.
There are many factors involved in our culture of inhospitality. But one major impediment to a renewal of hospitality in our society is the exploding multiplicity of individualized diets. We’ve got low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb, nut-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, and traditional-foods diets, just to name a few.
(I won’t even get into general pickiness and food snobbery — that is, guests declining food just because they don’t like one of the ingredients or it’s too low-class for them. I have no patience or sympathy for this. Sorry.)
For the most part, individuals themselves aren’t to blame. Food allergies and intolerances are on the rise in North America, meaning that millions of people can’t eat major staples like wheat or nuts or dairy. I personally can’t consume corn without getting a stomach ache. And some people feel strong convictions against eating animals and animal byproducts.
I’m definitely not trying to minimize the seriousness of such dietary restrictions. I certainly don’t expect someone who will suffer severely from eating certain foods, or someone who must compromise their deeply-held religious, moral, or ethical convictions, to wave these aside for the sake of hospitality.
But I’m not one of these people. I can eat just about anything without serious, immediate repercussions. (Except for corn, like I mentioned. I can have a teeny bit, though). And though I try to limit my meat intake for moral reasons, I don’t feel compelled to reject it if someone else offers it to me in their home (even if it was factory-farmed. The animal’s already dead, I figure).
So while others must turn down delicious offerings due to food sensitivities, religious obligations, or other reasons, I’ve made a personal commitment to gratefully accept anything you offer me. If you’re generous enough to have me in your home, I’d like to honour that by enjoying it fully. I don’t want you to have to worry about whether it’s healthy or organic enough for me. It’s my small way of trying to help bring back the dying art of hospitality.
P.S. I also love pretty much ALL FOOD. In case you’re thinking about having me over. I will love anything you make me. Vegetables, meats, dairy, grains, seafood, sweets, savoury dishes, exotic or Old-World . . . I’ll relish it. Trust me. And I’m particularly fond of cream cheese. Just sayin’.
Image courtesy of Dennis Wong.