Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
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Dost thou think there shall be no more cakes and ale
Because of thy wretched bowels?
—Paraphrase of Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 3)
Readers, I hope you will indulge me in this dramatic, and admittedly somewhat unseemly, turn of a Shakespearean phrase. Not long ago, I was planning a simple supper for a few couples and had just received a third text informing me of various food allergies. The relaxed and convivial supper I had imagined was rapidly becoming a nightmare of compromise and unsatisfactory substitutions.
Somehow I had to come up with a delicious menu that didn’t involve dairy, flour or meat.
I should have known not to invite a bunch of people I barely knew, but I was feeling expansive at the time. I’d also been envisioning a pleasant few days pottering through familiar recipes in my kitchen—only to find myself feeling cross, taken for granted and somewhat overwhelmed.
As those of you who are cooks will know, “simple” suppers never take less than days to bring off in the desired relaxed and blasé style—so one really needs to enjoy the preparation. Frankly, getting ready for this particular dinner was beginning to feel like a challenge on a brutal reality show.
I also felt I could empathize with the nearly 100 restaurateurs in Britain who last month signed a letter protesting the new EU rules requiring restaurants to audit their menus for allergens from lupins to eggs. These allergens must be flagged on menus. Failure to do so could result in a $5,000 fine which, for most restaurants, could be the difference between survival and going to the wall. They rightly point out that having to undertake such work will also reduce the spontaneity of their menus and reduce creativity.
Modern etiquette requires hosts to ask guests if there is anything they don’t eat.
This is when the guest can mention any genuine allergies—not their likes and dislikes. I might feign polite interest, but I don’t really care to hear about your digestive issues.
Of course, I do want to know if you are actually c(o)eliac. Curmudgeonly as I can be, I get that this is a very real health issue and I will go to any lengths, happily, to accommodate it.
If I have to jump through culinary hoops because you “really feel that you have more energy since you gave up wheat,” I am, frankly, annoyed.
I once entertained a guest and made the mistake of including in a recipe an ingredient he had repeatedly informed me caused a severe allergic reaction.
To this day I cannot explain how I so deliberately included it; however, when I realized my mistake, it was with a heart-stopping thump in the middle of the night. I agonized for hours, caught a moral maze of whether or not I should call and confess my reckless stupidity or not. As dawn broke, so, too, did the suspicion that if this had been a true allergy, I could have expected some drama before the end of the evening. If I am going to get careless while entertaining an allergy sufferer, I expect the subsequent experience to include severe anaphylactic shock and hysterical calls for an ambulance…
Sure enough, by lunchtime I had received the text thanking me for a lovely evening. The experience has left me deeply suspicious of subsequent allergy stories.
It can’t be fun living with an allergy, but neither can it be everyone else’s responsibility and expense.
During the time when we lived as expats in Malaysia, my children were at school in Kuala Lumpur. Peanut butter was not banned. How can you ban it in a country where peanut oil is a major component of the air? But if your child took in nuts or peanut butter to school, it was their responsibility to sit with kids with who claimed peanut allergies, so that the latter wouldn’t feel isolated.
How severe could such allergies be, I wondered? Indeed, at that time, and probably to this day, Malaysian Airlines tested the peanut-withstanding ability of all those entering the country by serving peanuts with the aperitifs—long after other airlines had bailed.
(While on this topic, it’s worth noting that, according to the latest medical studies, those who consume a greater amount of peanuts have about a 35 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This effect is a result of the peanuts’ ability to lower cholesterol and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.)
When you are invited to eat at someone’s house, you are being asked to share with the family.
As we expats know better than anyone else, the dinner party is an age-old, worldwide gesture of hospitality and friendship. We must take every measure to protect this prized human tradition.
Listen, it is even possible to desensitize ourselves to allergies. I recently saw a documentary about a little boy who showed extreme allergy to a new dog brought into the family. Instead of re-homing the dog, the family decided that the positive aspects of owning a pet were worth making an effort for. They began a desensitization programme at a local hospital and, in time, the boy could begin a wonderful relationship with his dog.
It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?
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Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! To what extent has food fussiness become an item in your social circle? Are you a victim, or do you agree with the curmudgeonly Joanna, that fussy eaters are making dinner parties and other group meals less fun for the rest of us? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
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