Friday, March 21, 2014

How to Deal with Dinner Guests Who Have Allergies

I eat gluten by the gut-full, I never heard of Paleo, and it seems that butter is back--yippee!  In any case, nothing could be ruder than announcing to a hostess that you are on a very particular kind of diet involving some holier-than-thou food philosophy.

But it is okay to say that you are a vegetarian.  Or even a vegan, but if you announce the latter, you have to define terms for your hostess: "That means I eat _________, but I don't eat __________ and I can bring my own food."  Remember, Moses Montefiore brought along his own Kosher chicken to a formal dinner (and it seems Queen Victoria was there).  

If you're the hostess, however, you must ask.  You call somebody to invite them to dinner and you say, "By the way, is there anything you don't eat?  Or allergies?"  I always ask, and people usually eat everything, but I do get the occasional, "Oh, I really don't like fish!" or "I hate Brussels sprouts."  Then I know, and I can plan the menu.  

If a guest does have an allergy to nuts, then it's your responsibility, for a small dinner, to avoid them entirely--to reassure the guest that salad is made with olive oil, not hazelnut oil, to understand that hidden allergens cause anxiety--as when a friend offered a chewable vitamin E tablet, I chewed, and it had almonds in it.

If you're hosting a large party, it's your responsibility to tell the guest which dishes have nuts and which don't--and to provide something that he or she can eat, even if only salad and cheese and crackers.  The good guest recognizes that a hostess should never be asked to provide a special meal.  The good hostess remembers that she has an allergic person coming to dinner, plans accordingly, and puts the guest at ease.  If you buy something and you don't know what's in it, read labels, or just tell the guest, "I can't be sure about this dish."  Waiters do this all the time, and believe me, I appreciate it.

In a nutshell (so to speak) being a hostess to an allergic guest is just another dimension of being a good hostess:  you greet guests, you make sure they feel at home, you introduce them to people you think they'd enjoy, and you get them talking over food they feel happy eating.

Here's a list of DON'TS for a host or hostess with a guest who has just said, "By the way, I'm allergic to nuts":

(1) Do not reveal your anxiety, as a hostess recently did to me:  "Uh, I'm not sure I can rule out debris and uh, uh, I'm not sure if it's okay."

(2)  Your guest should never have to say, "Please don't worry--I eat most things and I know to avoid chocolate.  I'd just like a heads up if you know there's nuts in a dish."

(3) Do not forget to tell the guest that you remember he or she cannot eat nuts.  When they arrive, and you hand them a glass of wine, you've got to remember to say, "I just wanted to let you know, you're safe with the salad and the meat, but the appetizer does have cashews."

But this is all part of the same dynamic:  you make the guest comfortable:  you reassure him or her; the guest never reassures you.