Dinner party etiquette can be extremely complicated, and while I don’t typically host formal events requiring the use of a confusingly high number of scary utensils, there’s one rule I try to live by: don’t kill the dinner guests. I learned from my mother, when inviting someone for the first time; always ask if they have any food allergies. What about other food restrictions, medical, self-imposed, and the ever pleasant ridiculously picky eaters? Depending on the type of event and the number of people you’re cooking for, it can get tricky.
When you’re not serving a meal, it’s typically pretty easy to provide a variety of snacks that can keep everyone happy. And individuals with more difficult restrictions are generally accustomed to asking in advance, bringing something along they can eat, or at the very least, showing up with a full stomach. But when it comes to a home cooked dinner, I have a lot of sympathy for people with dietary restrictions. After all, I keep kosher and I have Crohn’s Disease. I think choosing to keep kosher is similar to choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. I have certain traditions, beliefs, etc, and while others may not share them, I want them to respect them. And while my disease is well-controlled through medication and for the most part, it won’t hurt me to eat anything in moderation, there have been times when that’s not the case, and my diet is incredibly restricted. I may not go into anaphylactic shock, but trust me, Crohn’s flairs aren’t pretty, and can lead to severe malnutrition, dehydration, and a need for serious drugs, hospitalization, or even surgery.
Generally, by asking people if they have allergies, they’ll volunteer any other pertinent dietary information. But at the same time, it’s not as wishy-washy as asking people if they have any likes or dislikes. If someone doesn’t like the texture of mushrooms – will eat them if they’re mixed all together, but pick them out if they’re big enough pieces, tough toenails! (I know – what a ridiculous phrase. My boss says it all of the time and I couldn’t resist.)
So this brings me to the Friday night Shabbat dinner party I hosted last week. My brother was visiting from Seattle, although his wife had to leave for New York Friday morning. Kirios was busy with his company’s holiday party. But I was taking the day off to spend time with my brother, and wanted to ensure that our evening was filled with good food and good company. I invited our first cousin who lives in the area, as well as her roommate who is also a friend of mine. I invited a childhood friend who lives in the area, and hadn’t seen my brother for a decade, and with his boyfriend. 6 people, no problem. There were a couple of allergies in the group – tree nuts, fish, sesame, and cocoa. As depressing as being allergic to chocolate sounds, this didn’t seem like a menu-planning challenge at all. In honor of my brother and cousin, and I decided to make our Grandma Magda’s Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage – a real patschke recipe that I had never tried myself (Yiddish for a production), but a wonderfully heavy and distinctive meal for a winter’s night.
Then all hell broke loose. And by that, I mean my brother casually asked if he could invite his fraternity brother who lived in the area over for dinner. I can seat 8 at my table, and cooking for seven or eight isn’t really any more work than cooking for six, so I naturally agreed. In fact, I had recently seen this guy at an event, which he attended with a lady friend. So I told my brother to go ahead and invite his girlfriend as well. They both graciously accepted our dinner invitation. “Ask about allergies,” I instructed my brother. Turns out the girlfriend is a diabetic who eats no carbs (including rice) and is allergic to soy. GREAT.
That’s when I started to panic. I realized it would be easy enough to keep some of the stuffed cabbage separate for her, without any rice mixed into the beef, and without any sugar in the sauce. The Hungarian version of this recipe is sour, and only includes a spoonful of sugar anyway (unlike the Polish, who make it sweet with raisins). Obviously I was planning to make challah for Shabbat, which she wouldn’t be able to eat. But I was determined to plan the rest of our menu to include her dietary restrictions. In the end, my brother and I settled on making a butternut and acorn squash soup, and roasted broccoli, onions, and mushrooms to accompany the cabbage. We were told she could eat fruit, nuts, and chocolate for dessert. Since nuts and chocolate were already on the allergy list, we had been planning to make an apple crisp. For our diabetic guest, we took some of the sliced apples, doused them in cinnamon, and baked them for her.
In the end, the stuffed cabbage and the rest of the food came out well. No one went hungry, and as far as we know, no one got sick from our food. I’d consider that a successful Shabbat!