Food rules

January 4th, 2010

Christmas was quite delightful this year (the belatedness of the annual Mystery Milo notwithstanding). We had a good group of folks with us, and “Sherlock Holmes” certainly didn’t disappoint as far as holiday escapism, and the uncanny desirability of Robert Downey Jr., were concerned.

The only part that made me slightly unhappy was when we went to Changsho for dinner afterward. We got the big table with the lazy susan — does anything speak of joy and inclusiveness more than the big table with the lazy susan in a Chinese restaurant, I ask you — and sure enough, I was That Person who had to take her entree off the lazy susan and hoard it to herself, because I couldn’t share what anyone else had ordered.

I’m going to be That Person for a while, it seems. Essentially, there is more bad acid floating around in my gastrointestinal system than at a Grateful Dead tribute band concert, and I need to change a lot of eating habits fast. After a couple of months, when things calm down, I should be able to have the occasional quesadilla or slice of pizza.

But until then, I’m one of Those People, those people who can’t share. I can break bread with you, but that’s about it. Oh, and those fabulous Ugly Wintry Mix cocktails you all came up with? Yep. None of those, either. Which means I might now encounter Mr. or Ms. Pushytipples of my own, now that I’m not drinking much. (Or, more likely in my case, Mr. or Ms. Terribly-Concerned. I can have a drink occasionally — very occasionally — and while I appreciate being warned of things like unexpected rum in eggnog and habaneros in the queso dip, I also appreciate being treated like an adult. I am at the moment eternally grateful to one of the Fabulous Bureaucrats, whom I had dinner with two days after my diagnosis, and who unblinkingly sat through my dithering about whether or not ketchup was on my new list of forbidden foods, as well as my consumption of two glasses of white wine. The FB in question knows me well enough to know that I can’t change all my habits overnight, but change they will when I set my mind to it.)

Before all of this mishegoss went down, of course, I knew that food and identity were deeply linked, as were food and sociability: it’s pretty much what the food chapter of my book is about. But having to make a lot of changes, fast, brings certain issues into even sharper perspective.

For one thing, there was this brilliant you-know-you’re-middle-aged-when moment a few weeks ago, when I met a friend at Casablanca for a cocktail-hour business meeting. He immediately apologized and said he couldn’t eat, because he had a colonoscopy the next day; I, of course, couldn’t drink, as I have gastritis. (We ordered hot waters, he shared his broth with me, and we left a really good tip.) Not sharing food turns out to be as good a bonding experience as sharing it, though I doubt restaurateurs would agree.

It’s also been interesting to see how many of my friends with a strong ethnic identity have been quick to share recipes from their own cuisine with me. I’m not just appreciating their food; I need it. Their Greek, Bosnian, Filipino, Russian recipes will save me from my own sick body and restore me to health.

So in at least two cases, having restrictive food rules has brought me closer to people who either have similar — permanent or temporary — restrictions, or people whose ethnic identity is complemented and complimented by what I can eat. I’m sure I’ll run into others, as time goes on: people who disbelieve in my condition, or the way my doctors and I are treating it; people who will take it as a personal affront that I cannot eat or drink their particular favorite food; people who, one way or the other, make my biological condition into some kind of metaphor of rejection, perhaps rejection of something they hold dear.

Yesterday’s “Coupling” addressed that, from the perspective of a food consultant/chef who finds it impossible to form relationships with men who have food rules. She writes, “Gradually, I realized that a willingness to try new foods spoke to a person’s general openness to the world and new experiences.”

It may. Or it may speak to a person’s number of taste buds, or to their immune system or bowel functioning. Our bodily processes may be a metaphor for deeper psychological issues — or they may simply be the sometimes working, sometimes on-the-fritz results of a complicated and frankly klugey system. (No offense, but how anyone over the age of 25 can believe in Intelligent Design is beyond me. Wait ’til your knees start going and see how intelligently you think you were designed then, kid.)


10 Responses to “Food rules”

  1. RP on January 4, 2010 4:29 pm

    Ah, yes, the “all right-thinking people should be adventurous about food” attitude. I think I even believe it to some degree, and I’ve had IBS all my life. So the food restrictions that keep me from living my life in the bathroom also become a club I can use on myself for being too boring/geeky/introverted.

    When I lay out this contradiction in typed words, it seems rather silly, but I can’t seem to get past it for more than a few weeks at a time. An invitation to an interesting restaurant (and I *am* a bit of a foodie who loves to find new places) can cause me to burst into tears since I want to be social but I don’t want to order the damned grilled chicken sandwich again (and that’s the only thing on the menu I can eat safely).

  2. Shulamuth on January 4, 2010 5:20 pm

    (Amen to the understanding that human knee is the best argument against intelligent design!)

    From the other side: I am (knock wood and cross fingers still an omnivore who has never met a cuisine I didn’t like, but even with that, medication controlled type II diabetes means I need to pay attention. And I’ve got lots of friends on food restrictions of one sort or another.

    One of my favorite activities is entertaining. So I’ve tried to move the whole food/bonding thing into taking a creative approach to serving people things they can enjoy.

    I see this as speaking to MY “general openness to the world and new experiences”. It’s certainly led me to interesting recipes and a lot of experiments to come up with things like non-hockey-puck eggless-latkes, nut-flour cakes and avoiding corn byproducts (which is must harder than one would think — the stuff is ubiquitous!)

  3. Molly on January 4, 2010 11:42 pm

    We’re often Those People in shared-food situations because everybody else orders food with meat, and it’s not that we’re stingy, it’s that we want to make sure we get something to eat before we send it around.

    It’s amazing how many people get really defensive about not being vegetarians. Dude, I don’t care how much steak you eat, but I don’t want to encounter unexpected bacon.

    Did I tell you that there was ham in the croissants at kiddush a few weeks ago? The presiding rabbi didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled. I think she settled for both.

  4. occhiblu on January 5, 2010 2:13 am

    She writes, “Gradually, I realized that a willingness to try new foods spoke to a person’s general openness to the world and new experiences.”

    Are nausea, diarrhea, and constipation considered “new experiences”? Would a general openness to swelling and itching count? ;-)

    I’m engaged to someone who I did, in fact, enjoy dating because he was so open to different foods (it’s never been a criteria of mine, but it was nice). Then he discovered he was gluten intolerant. Then I realized I need to go easy on the dairy products. Now he’s starting to rethink soy.

    Since I do almost all the cooking for the two of us, it’s been a bit of a challenge to stay on top of the restrictions, but it’s more than worth the trouble. As Shulamuth points out, I think the ability to handle other people’s needs with grace and compassion says a lot more about a person’s openness to the world than does a list of their favorite restaurants.

  5. Shulamuth on January 5, 2010 2:41 am

    Giggling about the ham croissants! Reminds me of an article by Harry Golden (of the Carolina Israelite and For Two Cents Plain and if you haven’t read him and can actually find these any more you are in for a treat) who would give luncheon speeches various places in the South and folks would kindly, knowing that Jew don’t eat ham, substitute another main course — usually shrimp salad.

    And then there was the member of my congregation whose brother married into a wonderful warm southern Christian family. To make him feel at home his mother-in-law got a Jewish cook book and made gefilte fish, with catfish!

    Fortunately in both cases the gentlemen were Reform Jews who didn’t keep Kosher.

  6. akmom on January 5, 2010 8:02 am

    Why is it that humans have such a need to project their own needs/desires onto others? The “Coupling” writer disproves her own theory by being closed-minded about people whose diets are restricted – for whatever reason.

  7. bluemoose on January 5, 2010 10:04 am

    RP, I can relate to every word you wrote, especially the damn chicken sandwich. A few years ago, after severe gut issues and (finally!) a diagnosis, I discovered just how hard it was to go from the person who would eat almost anything to Meg Ryan’s Sally (from When Harry Met).

    It’s hard to socialize and even more so to date when you don’t want to disclose the exact state of your digestive system to every person you meet. There was this classy bar downtown where I lived, and every date I had for months, we went there. The bartenders and waitstaff must have noticed, but at least I knew their chicken sandwich was particularly good.

    For me, going back to Sally, it was also a gender issue. I didn’t want to be seen as the picky woman, particular about food, who didn’t eat anything. Yet, often that’s who I get to be. (Side note to restaurants: You really should list “cheese” on every single dish that contains it. Seriously. Especially since you put it on all sorts of odd things now.)

  8. RP on January 5, 2010 11:13 am

    Oh yes, bluemoose, the gender issue! It’s so galling to be become a stereotype. I end up adding to it by often not eating very much under stress, so I become a “light eater” along with a “picky eater”. It’s an amazing process where severe nausea and the threat of a week of cramping becomes transmuted into delicacy and femininity. Feh.

  9. Rebecca on January 5, 2010 2:19 pm

    There seems to be something about Chinese restaurants that has the potential for so much more food sharing awkwardness than any other restaurant type. There is often the assumption of family style sharing but yet such a wide variety of foods (vegetarian and not, different levels of spicy and in more authentic places varying degrees of adventurousness) that in fact make finding dishes to all agree on very difficult. Increasing we have moved to having everyone just order there own with the assumption of not sharing except on sort of individual trades since it saves a lot of stress but its not as fun socially.

  10. Shulamuth on January 5, 2010 3:04 pm

    This discussion is making me very aware of what a cool bunch of people I hang out with. If a bunch of us are ordering a Chinese meal the general standard seems to be that we should chose things so everyone can eat all but one or two dishes. Besides saving almost everyone (because occasionally someone is so restricted that there is only one dish on the entire menu they can eat) from being one of THOSE people, it means that everyone gets a wider variety than he or she would have chosen on his or her own, which I think is a plus.

    On the gender issue question — I’d think a male picky eater would have even more social stigma, since men are supposed to be “adventurous” and not scared of spices and stuff. On the other hand, if he can sell it as “being a meat and potatoes kind of guy”, he’s got cultural bias in his favor, so who knows.

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