A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a reader with a problem I suspect at least some FWD readers (and contributors) can sympathise with: Handling food allergies when you’re invited to a friend’s for dinner.
Dear Amy: My neighbor recently hosted a very nice dinner party with food and entertainment. I attended and had a great time. The problem is that the host noticed I was skipping several of the dishes and asked why.
I explained that I have severe food allergies so I took only those foods I can safely eat. I had plenty to eat, and it was delicious.
The hostess became very upset with me because I did not advise her in advance of my allergies.
I felt that rather than have her change her menu it made more sense to simply skip those dishes not suitable for me. Was I wrong? I was trying to be polite. — Baffled Guest
I definitely respect this strategy; sometimes, when you try to tell a host about an issue beforehand, you get heaving sighs and an expression that clearly says ‘oh, dear, I wish I hadn’t invited you.’ And then, your host will assure you that all the food is safe to eat, oh, except for the thing you’re allergic to in the stuffing, but you can just pick it out, right? This person has apparently adopted the ‘checking to see what I can eat and going from there’ approach to handling food allergies, quite possibly after one too many dramas. And evidently, a pleasant time was had by the guest, so what’s the problem here?
As for the hostess, well…yes, by all means, get upset at someone who was trying not to make a fuss. That will definitely encourage the person to want to return the invitation, and to want to bring up said food allergies with other dinner invitations in the future. For sure. Nothing like being lectured to make you feel supergreat!
Here’s what Amy said:
Dear Baffled: You were not impolite. Your hostess, however, wasn’t quite polite.
Generally, depending on the type of party, it is fine to let a host know in advance, “I have some food allergies, but I can usually work around them, so I don’t want you to worry about catering to it.” The host can then decide what, if anything, to try to do about it.
Regardless of the dynamic, it is a real party spoiler when a host lectures a guest after the guest has had a gracious good time.
What Amy missed here was that it’s not that the host ‘wasn’t quite polite.’ It’s that the burden here is still being placed on the person with allergies, not the person doing the entertaining. Maybe I was raised in an odd household, but my father always taught me that Guests Rule, and that I should go to every length to make them comfortable and happy in our home, a habit I keep up in my own home. If a guest specifically has to ask for something, I am doing something wrong.
Which is why, when I invite people over for dinner, I always ask if there are any special food concerns (dietary, religious, or otherwise), and specifically ask if there are any dishes my guests simply don’t like. It only takes a second, and if I’m confused, I simply ask for clarification. It’s really not that difficult. And it lets my guests know that their comfort and enjoyment is paramount in my mind. If I encounter a restriction I’m not familiar with, I take it as an exciting challenge; it means I can hit the recipe books and get experimenting!
Menu planning takes work, and thinking about the needs of your guests should be part of that work. And a hostess who lectures guest is someone who clearly fails at hospitality.