LET INGA TELL YOU:
After the holidays, I love to collect stories from friends who were hosting large crowds of picky eaters. Seriously, these women qualify for sainthood. Unless it's a genuine allergy situation (verified by a note from the guest's doctor), I tend to go with my mother's philosophy, which was the same both for entertaining and weeknight family meals: Dinner is served!
Since there appears to be a new health fad just about weekly, trying to accommodate what guests are — or more to the point, are not — eating is pretty much doomed to failure. But this does not keep my heroic friends from trying.
A good friend of mine recounted how she was planning a Christmas day dinner for 11 (her table can only accommodate 10 but she decided she could squish two people together at the end of the table), which would include three young grandchildren plus some family friends.
One of the guests was her husband's ex-wife with whom both she and her husband have maintained an enviably cordial relationship. The ex-wife called and mentioned that she had a new boyfriend and wondered if he might be able to attend as well? My friend, ever accommodating, decided she could probably squish two people together at BOTH ends of the table, and said yes.
Ex-wife calls back the next day. Boyfriend wants to know if he can bring his teenage daughter since it will be a custody day. My friend starts to panic. But the grandkids are tiny, she can maybe double them up, so she says yes.
That afternoon, another call. The teenage daughter would really like to bring her boyfriend, who is in a horrible family situation and will not otherwise have any celebration at all. It would be a great kindness to include him, and of course, would be in the spirit of the holiday. My friend says yes, realizing that she will probably be eating by herself in the kitchen. Or maybe she can rent some folding chairs to put around the table instead of using the comfy chairs that go with her dining room set.
She then learns that all four of these guests are vegetarians. She decides to make this meal really simple: pasta with a choice of a red marinara sauce with meat or a green pesto sauce. Very Christmas-y. There will be a big salad, and some fabulous bread. Voilà!
But then she hears from her daughter-in-law. DIL has decided that the grandtots, who have been eating bread and pasta for their entire little lives, including the day before, are gluten-sensitive and will henceforth be eating only gluten-free pasta and gluten-free bread. (Isn't gluten-free bread an oxymoron?) DIL notes that that would include any croutons in the salad.
My friend decides, OK, so she'll serve two types of pasta, one gluten and one gluten-free, with the two sauces, along with both gluten-y and gluten-free bread. Croutons will be eliminated from the salad. Or she could make some using the gluten-free bread? Nope, that might push her into the zone of hostility.
There went the pies she was planning to serve for dessert, too. Can't serve a dessert that the grandkids can't eat. Relationship with the daughter-in-law could not be saved.
One of the other guests then reminds my friend that in her dietary regimen (no allergies, has something to do with blood type?), she does not consume fungi (that would be mushrooms), root vegetables (including onions), or meat. Dang! That red sauce was going to have all three of those ingredients. And the now-crouton-free salad was going to have mushrooms, too.
OK, so my friend makes a note to remember to put the mushrooms on the side and let people add them to their salad if they want. But eliminating onions, mushrooms and meat from her treasured family red sauce was going to be problematical at best. She realizes that there are just going to have to be two red sauces, the traditional one that she usually makes, and one that will pretty much be ... tomatoes.
But now the problem is how to serve all these dishes since her sideboard really doesn't have enough room for so many options. It will also be critical to make sure that everything is scrupulously labeled so that nobody eats gluten-y bread and mushroom-tainted marinara sauce by mistake.
Of course, it would be so easy to get all those labels confused! Imagine the horror to find that the gluten-free preferers had accidentally eaten the gluten stuff by mistake, or that the onion lady had ingested not only fungi but cow!
Personally, I would feel really really bad if that happened. For about five minutes. And then I would sit down with my glass of Chardonnay looking at the blinky lights on my tree, chuckling maniacally, and basking in the spirit of the holiday season.
— Inga's lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at email@example.com