"Is it healthy?"
No matter how often the Foodcommander, in his capacity as a chef for private dinner parties, finds himself confronted with this question, he will always be unable to conceal a frown; at the very least, he will slightly raise one cocked eyebrow.
For the record: The Foodcommander is a highly principled cook. He disdains industrially processed foods, adjusts his menus to each season and favors a modern, light cuisine that elevates fresh produce and uses a modicum of dairy, meats and seafood. He is also well aware that eating has become not just a political but a politicized act. Above all, he insists on viewing the culinary experience as a sensual and pleasurable part of a balanced life. But the persistent question regarding the health attributes of his food irks him in so many ways that it is hard for him to decide where to even begin a critique of it.
At first, the Foodcommander was inclined to blame its frequent utterance to remnants of a puritan society where bodily pleasures such as the consumption of celebratory food are deeply associated with guilt. Then he considered the current calorie-conscious health craze that demands of everyone to be thin. Neither of these arguments held up for very long. A society of materialists and consumers cannot claim to be puritan, and thinness is no guarantee for health -- even if it is marketed that way: the prevailing desirability of thinness in our time is merely an indicator for a preoccupation with being seen as attractive.
Clearly, anyone asking this question aims to signal genuine concern and health-consciousness. The question also constitutes a gentle threat ("This better be healthy") and is just patronizing enough to solicit a defensive and reassuring answer such as "Why, yes of course! It is very healthy!" from servile types. After all, it's dinnertime, and people are hungry; all they need before taking the plunge into the lethal waters of fine dining is just a bit of... reassurance.
One could leave it that. But not the Foodcommander.
Fasten your seat belts. You may not be ready for this.
Michael Pollan, the liberal intellectual food writer of the day, often describes an infant's refusal to eat certain foods as "the first political act." It's a lovely thought, isn't it: the potential for progressive political leadership lying dormant in every infant. Doesn't it just make your parental heart melt with pride? What Michael Pollan conveniently left out in this nifty little parable (but, thankfully, not in his excellent food philosophy) is that infants are biochemically predisposed to respond positively only to very limited kinds of food (notably, sugars and fats), and that parents are well advised to challenge their children's dietary preferences -- the current child obesity crisis is a sign that this effort is being made less and less. But the point here is not to deplore how children are allowed to eat foods that are, in the long run, detrimental to their health or to elaborate on how culinary choices have an economical impact on the supply system. The point is: How has it become acceptable for adults to behave like narcissistic children at a social gathering such as a dinner party?
Here, then, is the Foodcommander's shortlist for proper etiquette at private dinner parties -- as far as food-related issues are concerned.
1. A private dinner party is not a restaurant setting. There are no multiple choices, no waiters taking your orders and no short-order cooks awaiting them in the kitchen. Neither is it appropriate to ask for substitutes at this point.
2. Should you be culinarily challenged, you ought to have notified your host ahead of time, keeping in mind that a private dinner party is not an infirmary.
3. Your host is generously providing you with food that has been prepared by an exacting professional of his or her choice. Openly questioning the choices he or she has made is nothing short of an insult.
4. If you can't discern what you are being served, kindly ask the server or the chef about it. If there is something that you don't want to eat, be discreet and simply don't eat it.
5. A private dinner party is a social gathering that includes the consumption of food and drink to facilitate civilized conversation -- not a gym where a personal trainer is guiding you through routines that are supposed to be good for you.
6. While your personal health concerns may be important to you, there are of no interest here. Keep them to yourself and find something more interesting to talk about.
7. Unless you suffer from a disease, real (unlike imagined) food allergies, or a compulsive eating disorder that dictates your diet, kindly embrace the fact that your body is not all that fragile. Humans survive every day in conditions way worse than, say, a four-course dinner in an Upper East Side townhouse.
8. If you believe that every meal ought to come with health benefits, you effectively have an advanced eating disorder. Do your fellow humans a favor and keep it private. Work it out for yourself, with a health professional -- or, even better, your therapist.
9. If your social calendar is so overwrought that you are at the mercy of someone else's culinary choices ever day of the week, do what anorexic Upper East Side socialites and fundraising politicians do: Eat at home, before or after the event (the difference being that anorexic socialites tend to discreetly eat a plate of sliced fruit before dinner, while politicians are more likely to wolf down frozen pizza afterwards. At the party, simply pretend to eat the food you're being served by moving it around on the plate. This has the advantage that you, unlike your fellow diners, won't have to spend precious minutes chewing and will thus have an easier game at controlling the table conversation, which will satisfy your need for attention in potentially more constructive ways than harassing the chef with special needs.
10. If your narcissism prevents you from relinquishing some control and sharing a communal experience or, put differently, if you cannot stomach the idea of being served the same food as everybody else, then simply avoid communal experiences altogether. You will not be missed.
The Foodcommander applauds health-consciousness and the importance of making wise culinary choices. Sadly, his experience shows that what frequently aims to pass as such is more often than not merely a sign for ignorance, prissiness and lack of sophistication. Everyone's relationship to food reveals something about their lifestyle, their lust for life, their curiosity, their ethical standards, their education, their sense of tradition, and ultimately, their intelligence (or lack thereof). Do yourself a favor, don't make the latter all that easy to detect.