Monday, May 11, 2009

On the plates of others

Article and photo courtesy of Kurt.

I hosted a birthday dinner for a good friend this weekend, and made my first batch of Nems with the help of my sister-in-law. They were unbelievably finicky, but delicious. I quickly learned that I was utterly hopeless at rolling them and she got stuck with the task of assembling over a hundred of the little morsels. A little too much sugar in the water used to soak the wrappers produced strange bubbles in the fryer, and wax paper used instead of parchment to separate layers of them became worryingly sticky. In the end, there was enough wine and good humour to compensate for any kitchen mishaps.

It’s often the same small close-knit group that I hang with, and food always plays a central role at our get togethers. However, tailoring the menu to people’s dietary considerations is something I often find challenging – three versions of nems were required to satisfy just nine people this weekend.

The fish-seafood-eggs variety of vegetarian often requires a separate dish to be prepared, and I have to be careful of tolerance for chillies, or ingredients like coriander that people seem to either adore or abhor. Whether it’s preparing two main courses, or serving key ingredients as ‘condiments’ to be added at the table, the result feels like a compromise to me. One of the greatest pleasures of food is sharing it, and sometimes it no longer feels like sharing when so many variations are involved.

Part of the reason I feel this way is undoubtedly from my upbringing. There were no special requests at our dinner table, and no question that we would clean our plates as children. When invited somewhere we ate what our hosts prepared, or at the very least tried it. Being a good eater was part of being a good child, and food played a role in our moral upbringing either wrongly or rightly so.

Of course, food never made any of us sick, so our parents never had to accommodate us for legitimate health reasons. I can’t imagine what it would be like to fear food in this way. I do have to be careful with some white wines, champagnes, and bottle-fermented beers as they can provoke an intense asthmatic episode in me. Needless to say, this is easy for me to manage – it’s not like there’s a champagne drinking fountain at work.

Health considerations I respect and accommodate, but I really have a hard time with what we might call ‘picky’ eaters (see armchair Freudian analysis above). I had a guest this weekend that eats so few things, that she lists ‘candy’ among the four staples of her diet. On the flip-side, I have another friend that makes a conscious effort to revisit foods once a year to see if she’s changed her mind about them. I find it laudable – she’s come ‘round to cheeses, olives, and other pleasurable foods that she had previously written off.

How do the rest of you feel about the concept of ‘picky’?

How do you manage your own food sensitivities and intolerances or those of others?

Do we pass judgement on people based on what passes their lips?


  1. While earning an holistic nutrition degree, my classmates and I prided ourselves on our restricted diets. You can't eat gluten? Well, I can't either, but am also vegan and avoid refined sugar, AND abstain from soy. And so on. A teacher pointed out one night, our efforts were not so much admirable as obsessive, and that bringing your own dish to a dinner party where there might be "nothing you can eat" is not considerate; it is rude, precious and fussy. In most cases, intolerance can be overcome for one evening, and if you are one of the rare people who will die if exposed to certain things or whose health will be critically compromised by an ingredient (celiac, for instance) this is different...but very, VERY rare.

    So, I find myself judging people not so much on what they eat, rather by how they approach the unfamiliar, how they navigate communal dining, and how open they are to stepping outside their daily dining routines.

  2. PS: I need more information about these mysterious, oily and almost-failed yet still deliciously successful nems!

  3. Nems - basically the Vietnamese fried spring roll. Filling may contain any combination of minced pork, chicken, shrimp, tofu, along with onion, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, bean sprouts and rice vermicelli. Roll painstakingly into rice flour wrappers, and let set / dry. Deep fry (coconut oil works well) and serve wrapped in a lettuce leaf with more sprouts, carrots, and mint. Dip the whole handful into diluted fish sauce with garlic and sugar and overindulge. A Vouvray or crisp Alsace white helps cut the oil.

    It's best followed by improvised amateur modern dance routines in the living room. At least that's how we did it.

  4. I concur with Amanda. Allergies, well, there's not much you can do with that. And if there's something you don't like from previous experience, who am I to judege? However, blanket statements that shut out entire cultures, or unwillingness to try something different is bothersome. The worst is when people go out to travel to countries far off and yet dine on the same type of food they find at home!