I don’t eat garlic, said the Italian. Do you have hemp bread? emailed the gluten-free relative. Yes, we love Indian food, please have some chicken vindaloo for us, not too much dark meat, texted the dinner guests. I eat green and yellow food, but not red or purple, said the artist. Have I told you about the interesting effects of nuts on my colon? asked the in-law.
I act concerned, and I should care, but I don’t. Yes, the truth is out: I’m an unfeeling beast when it comes to your diet.
Most conversations are genuinely interesting. Tell me about your job, your family, your thoughts on Brexit, Brazil, breasts or Broadway—and I’ll listen avidly (popping peanuts in my mouth, because I’m not allergic to them—isn’t that fascinating?). But, although I know you’ll think I’m an ungracious churl, and perhaps I am, I have to state that when someone starts to tell me about his or her diet and what he or she can or can’t eat and why, I do not feel like a supportive woman. I feel like saying what my mother, a very supportive woman in general, used to say if we fussed about our food: “Just eat it up quietly.”
Remember the good ol’ days, when you had a dinner party and asked the guests whether or not they were vegetarian? That was all you had to ask. Then they came, and either they ate or they didn’t, and if they didn’t, they didn’t tell you why. You didn’t have to hear about the hives they got on their backsides if they ate a cashew. You did, unfortunately, have to bear the brunt of their silent superiority if they were too high-caste to eat off your dirty Muslim plates, but that’s another story.
If you have a severe allergy to something and will die inconveniently in my living room if I feed it to you, please let me know. Otherwise, I’m not particularly interested in all the ins and outs of every type of food and how it affects your skin and mood and bowels—especially your bowels. I recently listened to a dear friend tell me in great detail about exactly what happens if she eats more than one scoop of any dessert with dairy. I will spare you the details. I do not wish my editor to fire me for writing a column that not only doesn’t focus on women, but discusses the texture of lactose-intolerant poop.
A good friend recently went on a highly complicated diet, and then came for dinner with her girlfriend, who also has a highly complicated, but completely different, set of dietary restrictions. Many phone calls went back and forth about what we could and couldn’t cook, what was okay to combine with what, how many hours before bedtime the meal must be served, etc. etc. I found myself missing the old days in India when you could hang up the phone mid-conversation and later say that the line went dead and you couldn’t get through again, no matter how much you tried.
But wait—isn’t this the same person who listened to me go on and on about my broken heart when I was 21? Who sat and looked interested when I said the same thing for the 50th time, and didn’t roll her eyes when I wrung my hands and wailed piteously as I told the same sad story yet again? Maybe I owe her a few minutes of my time and a little courtesy. Hmm.
Maybe the current mood of demonizing particular foods (milk makes you fart, ghee makes you fat, meat makes you evil, vodka drives you mad, bread is the devil) is just another way to connect. Talking about how food can harm you is simply the inverse of enjoying it—you’re still focusing on the food, just negatively rather than positively. And you’re still connecting with me. And you’ll probably still pretend to care when I go on and on about the flowers on my balcony and what fertilizer to use and whether the petunias look good with the lobelias and why the sorbaria seems to be wilting no matter what I do…if you can muster up some politeness about all that, well, I guess I can try to stay awake when you tell me all about the miraculous powers of apple cider vinegar.
I love food. My family talks about our next meal almost as soon as our plates are empty from the last one. Eating is, after all, one of the fundamental ways we all stay close in this vast and eerie universe. We break bread together—unless we’re carb-free. We toast each other’s success—unless we’re allergic to red wine. We connect through food. As Orson Welles said, “Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what’s for lunch.”
Yes, I adore food, but here in the privileged persnickety 21st century kitchens of those of us who aren’t wandering in the wilderness or are too poor to fuss, food seems to have become just another neurosis, and eating has been reduced from joyous feasting to a minefield of tension, power and control. Too often, communal meals feel more like a grim problem to be solved than the glorious excess Charles Dickens described when he wrote: “Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”
Just eat it up quietly.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
Also Read: Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns