Sunday, November 22, 2009

Guests with Issues...Biennial Style

“I have had enough with people who want to have it their way, and I am done catering to the quirks of food-obsessed numskulls,” says Susan Goldberg in a City Room piece in today’s New York Times.

Man, oh Manischewitz, can I ever relate to that statement. Two weeks ago, I hosted an intimate Shabbat dinner for 2800+ guests in Toronto. (OK, I didn’t exactly “host” the meal, but like Susan, it was my job to deal with those she aptly calls “food-obsessed numskulls,” and in a crowd that size, believe me, there are plenty.)

According to the medical journal American Family Physician, as many as 80 percent of Ashkenazi Jews are lactose intolerant. Luckily, my Shabbat dinner was kosher style and chicken was among the entrée choices (fish and vegetarian were the others) so no dairy was served, which neatly dispensed with that issue. However that still left me (and the chef) to deal with the diabetics, the low-fat, low-carb, high protein, low sodium dieters and those who have allergies or aversions to nuts, gluten, garlic, onions, peppers, strawberries, cinnamon, melons, pineapple, sage, black beans, cheese, mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes, eggplant, avocado, rice and seafood. Did I forget anyone?

Like Susan’s guests, many of mine “presented me with a detailed list of their food requirements.” Among them were these:

Attendee #1 asked for plain grilled or roasted breast of chicken, plain sautéed vegetables and no stuffing or sauce. Fine, but beyond that, please leave the specific preparation to the chef. If, as you suggest, the chicken can be marinated in olive oil, lemon and red wine vinegar and seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs, it's not, strictly speaking, "plain."

Attendee #2 requested “No wheat, yeast, corn, rice, nightshades or vinegar.” Good thing Attendee #2 didn’t end up with Attendee #1’s vinegar marinated chicken breast, which was a real possibility when you consider that my Shabbat guests ate in 16 different dining rooms. And, in case you’re wondering (I know I was), according to The World's Healthiest Foods, “potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, tamarios, pepinos, pimentos, paprika, cayenne, and Tabasco sauce are classified as nightshade foods…A particular group of substances in these foods, called alkaloids, can impact nerve-muscle function and digestive function in animals and humans, and may also be able to compromise joint function.” Who knew?!?...

Attendee #3 indicated that he doesn’t eat red meat. Good thing he selected chicken from among the choices. Did I mention that they were chicken, fish or vegetarian?

Attendee #4 also doesn’t eat red meat. She selected fish for Shabbat dinner. Wait, don’t tell me…the choices were chicken, fish or vegetarian, right?

Attendee #5 is a vegetarian. Fortunately, she selected the vegetarian option.

One more: Attendee #6 chose chicken for Shabbat dinner provided that it was seasoned only with salt and pepper and that the sauce contained neither mushrooms nor cheese. Hmmm…did I mention that my dinner was kosher style and thus no dairy would be served?

Thankfully, in his sermon the next morning, my boss eloquently reminded me of the spiritual side of Jewish eating with these words:
First, we know – as all Jews know – that meals are profoundly important in creating and sustaining purposeful community. When we eat alone, we are sorely tempted to focus on ourselves; we distance ourselves from the world, from the needs of others, and—most often—from the presence of God. And eating in loneliness, we drift away from the Jewish people.

But when we join together for a se’udah – a Jewish communal meal – we open our minds and our hearts to the concerns of others, and we draw God in, as a partner, to our sacred community.

For most of us, the Seder, the Yom Kippur break fast, and the Shabbat meal – each an experience of togetherness and solidarity – are among our most significant Jewish memories. For 3,000 years, the message of the Jewish tradition has been: invite others to join you in your festive meals and celebrations.
Unfortunately I wasn’t actually in the hall to hear him speak these words. I was preparing to serve Shabbat lunch to 2100+ guests.