... a dreamer, freelance writer, massage therapist, naturopath, mother & drop-out social work student living, working and writing in the Blue Mountains. When not occupied with the real world, she writes fantasy.
Published May 2nd 2012
The Politics of the Modern Dinner Party
Ever fretted that some ingredient from your seemingly benign pantry might upset one of your guests? That the delicious prawn cocktail could cause hives? Or the Bocconcini a bout of wheezing? Maybe one of your guests is vegan? Or has a wheat allergy? What do Hindu's eat? Perhaps a guest is diabetic or is watching their cholesterol.
Is any of this your responsibility?
The answer is to be aware of the potential problems that arise from culinary intakes and to take them into consideration. After all, by hosting a dinner party you are providing food and drink, which does to a small extent put the onus on you not to kill or discomfort anyone. Ingesting is the foremost route of substances into the human body, and as such, you could be seen as the supplier of anything harmful.
A dinner party is not only about food. It's also about comradeship, networking, connection, fun and hospitality, so spread the love around. My father, who was downright rotten at showing affection, used the giving of food to show his love. I like to think of it that way too. A sensitive and caring host considers the emotional and physical effect of the food served.
To get started, below is a glossary of terms that will assist you in appropriate menu planning. Any of your guests could fall into one of these common categories.
Belief Based Diets
Islamic: Practicing Muslims consume foods considered halal or allowed under Islamic law. Forbidden foods (known as haraam foods) include pork and alcohol. Meats must be ritually slaughtered in a particular way.
Kosher: This refers to foods allowed under ancient Jewish dietary laws. People on a kosher diet generally avoid pork, shellfish and the consumption of both dairy and meat in the same meal. Consumed meats and fowl must be slaughtered in particular ways.
Hindu: These people abstain from food that causes harm. Thus, practicing Hindu people are generally vegetarian.
Buddhist: Many Buddhists practice vegetarianism.
Environmental and Spiritual Activists: These enlightened people have a global consciousness. They will sacrifice money, time and pleasure to do what is right for the planet. We've all met one of them and generally they make us feel inadequate, hence the desire to bag them. They will generally loathe genetically modified (GM) foods, pesticide ridden produce, mass produced meats and anything that is involved in destruction of the planet or abuse of people (as should you). They are often vegetarian, because of the inefficiency of meat production in feeding the planet. They will prefer foods endorsed by environmental groups and be fans of Fair Trade products.
Vegan: This person doesn't eat any food substance that comes from an animal, meaning all meats, fish, dairy products and eggs are out, as are products like gelatine. A person usually goes vegan for ethical reasons, while vegetarianism can spring from either ethical, spiritual or health preferences, and occasionally financial ones, since meat is more expensive. Vegetarian: Vegetarians can fall under either the belief based or health based category. While there are many different types of vegetarians ranging from lacto-ovo vegetarian's to semi-vegetarian's, it's more important to find out what they do and don't eat than know the technical terms.
Serving up a healthy feast can only do good
Health Based Diets
Health problems are part of life and a fab host will try to some extent to accommodate them. Here are some of the most common diet restrictions you are likely to encounter.
Wheat or dairy free diet: Wheat and dairy foods are the most common food allergies thus you will encounter this all too often. Most hosts find these individuals difficult to cook for. It just requires imagination. The internet, our ever-reliable free supply of information, can help you if you are in dire need of recipes.
Gluten free diet: Followed by people who can't tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, semolina, couscous, bran, malt and to a smaller extent barley and oats. Often people are on a wheat free diet because of problems with gluten.
Celiac: This person has a problem digesting gluten. See above.
Diabetic: Someone following a diabetic diet must do so for medical reasons. They must steer clear of low Glycaemic Index (GI) foods which include sugar, refined carbohydrates (basically all refined flour products), sweets, alcohol, soft drinks, processed foods, or too many fruits or juices. As diabetics need regular small food intakes to keep their blood sugar levels stable, don't have them waiting two hours for dinner.
Candida Diet: Another common diet, albeit a complicated and variable one depending on the type of Naturopath they've been seeing. The list of forbidden foods on the Candida diet is forbidding, so I don't suggest omitting every one, but aiming for a generalist approach. High on the list would be sugars, refined carbs, yeasts, breads, dairy foods and alcohol (packed with sugars and yeasts).
Migraine diet: While there are many causes for migraines, sufferers usually are advised to avoid tyramine containing foods (chocolate, cheese, wine and processed meats like salami) since this amino acid, which results from the natural breakdown of tyrosine in aged or fermented foods, has been implicated in some people's migraines.
Health Nut: This individual eats to maintain their health, rather than for taste or spiritual reasons. Raw vegies and fruits somewhere in the meal will usually keep them happy as will juices and alternative beverages like dandelion coffee.
Detox diet: If someone has chosen to go on a detox diet, they really shouldn't be attending your dinner party. If they do, check prior as to what kind of detox (juices and purified water only or a more lenient version of salads and soups) they are on. However, it is fair to say, you aren't a detox clinic. Have purified water on hand.
On the Wagon: Don't tempt someone to fall off the wagon by making alcohol the main feature of your party. Provide lots of non-alcoholic options. Fruit punch is a great idea, providing the illusion of drinking alcohol and will do your liver good.
Asthmatic: Sufferer's of asthma often have issues with dairy foods (especially cream and ice-cream) and preservatives (like sulphur) in wine. Keep these low if you are inviting an asthmatic over.
Weight loss: By loading the table with sweets and fats you are only making your friend's uphill battle with weight all the much harder. Tim Tam's are definitely out, while fruits and vegetables, soups and salads are the way to go.
Low Cholesterol diet: Usually followed by someone on the advice of their doctor. The easy thing to remember is that cholesterol is only found in animal foods, ie. meats, seafood, dairy foods and eggs. It is not found in plant foods in any significant level.
Children: Any parent knows this individual is fussier than King Henry VIII's personal taster. Foods that often meet with failure include overly spicy foods, difficult to chew foods and yes, those green vegetables. Although don't limit the small fry entirely. I know lots of three year olds that love olives, broccoli and hummus. Knowing what the parent eats will help you somewhat. Word of warning: I have been to kid's parties where only sugary treats are available and hyperactive children are running amok. That isn't caring and may induce silent wrath from parents.
Child size seating and utensils help
Very Elderly person: What you need to know is do they have teeth? Even so, with or without falsies, often chewing is a problem, so not a time for carrot sticks or nuts. The elderly often suffer from a myriad of health problems (indigestion, incontinence, etc) that limits what they eat and drink. This person, who was born back before the thirties, often finds ethnic food peculiar, but once tried, they can become a fan.
Pregnant: No particular restrictions, but for obvious reasons they don't want to indulge in alcohol and junk food. After all, your friend is currently a receptacle for a developing human. Depending on the trimester of their pregnancy, they may have reactions to certain foods, but you won't be able to predict what. Avoid strong smelling foods and foods like caffeine, meat, acidic fruits, fizzy drinks that can contribute to heartburn, common in the later stages of pregnancy.
Babies: Once children are weaned (usually around the age of one) they start experimenting with simple foods like banana's, stewed foods, soft vegies, small pieces of fruit, rice, noodles, pasta. Challenging if you are the host, but mum will usually bring her own food supply for them. Have something extra on hand, but don't overdo it. These miniature humans eat pint sized portions.
Infants: If they are being breastfed, you don't have to serve them anything. Hallelujia!
Other People to Think About
Overseas visitor: Often adventurous and curious about new foods, but not always. The main thing is to check in with them about their food dislikes or preferences. Be sensitive to cultural differences, but be aware they may not want to put you out, thus might struggle over the strange, foreign dish you put before them. So, be cautious and aware of the different feelings people may harbor to animal foods. Some foreigners may take offense to eating kangaroo while others may actively want to experience it.
Food bore: Basically this is someone who eats the same food day in, day out and can't cope with anything new. The Food Bore typically eats three veg and meat, white bread, milk, cheese, boxed cereal and sweets and not much else. You can spot this person immediately by their reaction to the word 'lentil'. Rather than pander to them, I suggest opening their world. Most often they are pleasantly surprised that something not out of a package can actually taste good.
If all this is doing your head in here's some basic rules to adhere to. You can't please everyone all the time (as Aesops fable about the Miller, his Son and the Donkey will tell you), but you can get part of the way there with the strategies below.
Ms Moon's Rules for Politically Correct Dinner Parties
1) Provide low allergenic food choices (this refers to foods that avoid wheat and dairy products, the two most common food allergies). Alternatives to wheat and dairy foods include alternative grain products like rice, buckwheat, oats, soy and coconut milk / cream. For example, rice biscuits are popular these days.
(2) Provide healthy food. Serving junk is trashy and ultimately won't do much for your reputation as an innovative host. If you can't cook, do simple things like platters that incorporate healthy foods.
(3) Provide alternatives to alcohol, like juices, herbal teas and other drinks. You are not a publican.
(4) Provide vegetarian food options. Veg foods also cost less than meat and seafood another bonus. Many people unused to cooking vegetarian struggle to think of options that don't incorporate dairy foods. Easy non-dairy veg foods include tomato based pasta's, coconut or tomato based curries, lentil and legume dishes, tofu dishes and foods from the Middle East and Asia.
(5) Avoid serving loads of sugary or high-carb foods like white bread rolls, sweets, crackers and cakes. A few is okay, but don't make them the be all and end all. How about some pumpernickel or wholemeal lavosh on the bread board? Try brown rice for a change. Too many high-carb foods often make people feel bloated and sleepy and can lead to the demise of your dinner party.
(6) Avoid overly fatty meals that make people feel like they need a grease and oil change afterwards. You know the ones - deep fried, fatty, creamy, buttery or cheese-loaded. Not only can this make people feel sick after (too much fat to the liver can cause nausea and fats are taxing to the digestive system) it's plain unhealthy.
Social Etiquette Rules
Remember that Facebook and U-Tube exist.
As a guest, unless your host specifies, it's polite to bring something, even if it's just a packet of cheap biscuits someone bought you in 2009.
As a host it's fair to ask guests to contribute although pre-ordering a mudcake from Michelle's Patisserie with instructions for them to pick up and pay, might be a bit rich. It's proper etiquette to provide some drinks but also fair to expect or ask for a contribution in this (potentially expensive) department.
Politically correct social behaviour
Sexual harassment, insults, racism, farting and accusatory questions about other's food choices should never be part of the dinner table. Taking pics of your friends with their mouths full is also out. Come on, the aim is for everyone to enjoy themselves. Plus, any dietician will tell you that stress is bad for digestion.
Inclusivity is the in word here. This big word simply means to create an environment that makes everyone feel included and able to participate.
The dinner party is not a place for people to air their views. Save that for the soapbox or Facebook. Although each human being walks a different path to another, the dinner table represents an ideological truce and time to come together for replenishment and nourishing of both the culinary and social type.
Don't hit on another guest's boyfriend
On the note of jokes these are all the rage at dinner parties, but be aware that jokes at others expense aren't funny.
Ideally guests should also have equal attention from the host and any conversation nazis (people who dominate the conversation), brought to heel.
Do seat partners together or you could cause some problems and don't flirt with people who are taken. Bosses should never use social occasions as opportunity to hit on their staff. Kissing is allowed in public in Australia, but if people start to tell you to get your own room, you know you've overstepped the limit. Also, don't air your domestic disputes in front of everyone. Remember, you are here to be with your friends. Save the bedroom and any arguments for later.
Spare other guests your domestic disputes
If you want to get drunk that is up to you, as long as it doesn't lead to any of the bad behaviour listed above, or vomiting on your host's floor. But, remember, there is facebook and U-Tube these days. Say no more.
No, we're not talking about sensual massages here. Ensure heating is adequate and guests comfortable. Don't smoke amongst non-smokers. Dim lighting promotes relaxation and open conversation.
I hear several sighs as you conclude reading this list. Where is the fun, you ask? The chocolate? Did I say anything against any of this? By all means have fun and partake with wild abandon in whatever your whim dictates. But, whatever you do, consider others and their needs.