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Posted by on Aug 3, 2011 in Food | 4 comments

On meals, manners, and food preferences

A sheep in non-vegan wool (Creative Commons)

Herbivore by Choice

I only wear vegan fleece” — that’s the statement that pushed me over the edge. Vegan fleece? Sheep eat grass. I guess that makes them vegan .. so that means their wool is “vegan?”

No. Vegan fleece is synthetic fleece .. better known as “polar fleece” .. which is more correctly known as Polyethylene terephthalate, ie: Polyester. Apparently, wearing polyester spares countless sheep the uncomfortable 2 minutes a year it takes to shear them.  (Never mind the environmental effects of plastic production and waste or the fact that it’s made from the dead bodies of dinosaurs.)

So here we are, in world where we classify our diets (and, by extension, our relationship with animals) practically right down to the species level –Vegetarian. Vegan. Raw vegan. Fruitarian. Ovo-lacto-vegetarian. Pollotarians. Pollo-pescetarian —labels that are so proscriptive that we now have the ridiculous term “flexitarian” in order to describe the normal way in which hominids have eaten for the past, oh, 2.5 million years – that is, omnivorously — mostly plants, sometimes meat.

Free Rollin' Eggs

But, aside from the absurdity of the whole thing, this is not really what bothers me. I don’t care what a person’s dietary choices are. Some of them I even applaud. I understand that it’s better to eat more plants and less meat. I know that eating beef is not great (or necessary) for my body and the beef industry is catastrophic to the environment. I know that we’re fishing the sea to total extinction. I know my eggs want to roll around cage-free. I get it.

Here’s my concern: It seems that the wearers of these badges have forgotten that their diet is a preference. Not a religion. Not the result of an allergy. Not medically indicated. More healthful, in some cases, yes, but a vegan will not break out in a horrific rash if she brushes against a wool sweater. A vegetarian will not go into anaphylactic shock if there happens to be beef bouillon in her vegetable soup. No, eating only plants (or any other selection of food) is a choice.

What Happened to Manners?

Gentle Reader: The socially correct thing for a [vegetarian] guest to do is to be perfectly happy eating salad, bread, and any vegetable; the socially correct thing for a host to do is to refrain from being disappointed when a guest does not, for any reason, consume everything that is offered.—Miss Manners

When I was growing up, my mother taught me that when a friend invited you to dinner, you never ever asked, “What are you having?” Your decision to go was not based on the food. It was based on your friendship. She also taught me that it was rude to tell your dinner host that you didn’t like something. If it was offered to you as a choice, you could say, “No thank you.”  If it was already on your plate you ate it anyway – or as much as you could stomach. Either way, you didn’t make a fuss about it.

You sure as hell didn’t call them in advance and state, “Yes, I’d love to come for dinner” and then provide them with a list of foods you don’t care for.

Bringing an extra dish to someone else’s dinner is like bringing an extra person – Helena Echlin, Table Manners

I’m not trying to go all Miss Manners here, but it seems like we’ve moved to an extreme era of self-centeredness.  Today people with self-imposed food preferences (and I’m including “dieters” who do or don’t eat protein, carbs, and whatever else) think nothing of announcing that they “don’t eat” certain foods. Oh sure, they’re accommodating. They’ll offer to bring a vegetarian or low-calorie dish. But how rude is that to even suggest that they will bring replacement food in case I serve something they don’t like to eat?

Everyone has food preferences

Vegetarians tell me, “But meat revolts me. Just seeing it on a plate makes me nauseous.” That’s fine. But we all have those kinds of preferences. My stepson finds the smell of scrambled eggs disgusting and can’t face bleeding-rare beef. My husband (for genetic reasons) can’t tolerate the taste of brussel sprouts and is repulsed by the smell of curry. I’m not fond of cantaloupe and I am lactose intolerant. None of us eat white bread or fast food.

But I assure you, if you invite our family to dinner, you will never know any of that. We will eat what you make for us and we will tell you how good it is.

Vegans tell me, “But it’s a lifestyle choice. A philosophy I live by.” Again, that’s fine. I have lifestyle choices and philosophies too. Five years ago our family made the conscious decision not to eat fast food any more. (Does that make me an Antifastfooditarian?)  I truly believe fast food is wrong on every level – health, environment, economic, and everything else you can think of. But, you know what? If a friend wants to meet me at McDonalds for lunch because that’s her favourite place, I’ll eat there. No, I don’t prefer to, but for her I will.

It’s. No. Big. Deal.

Who’s coming to dinner?

“We usually eat with our families so it is easy to see how breaking bread together would symbolically link an outsider to a family group.”  — Diane Ackerman, The Natural History of the Senses (p 127)

Really, the last thing we need in this world is more rules around eating. People feel guilty enough about food.  We worry about fat and micronutrients. We count calories and stress over high-fructose corn syrup.  We torment ourselves over whether to buy the local non-organic apples or the organic ones shipped from 2000 miles away.  And there are so many food guides, nobody knows what to eat any more.  Even among the ranks of the herbivores and the like, there is immense anxiety.

It’s great that people are worried enough about animals, the environment and their own health that they’re paying attention to their diets and their impact on the natural world. I totally understand. I haven’t eaten veal since the 1970’s when I learned how veal calves are farmed. I’ve made red meat a special-occasion food. I buy organic locally-farmed chicken, shop at the farmer’s market, try to eat only sustainable seafood, and have built up a nice collection of non-meat meals that my family likes.

But sharing a meal is not about the food.  It’s about spending time together – the conversation, the laughing, the stories told.  To break bread with friends and family is a ritual part of humans bonding. Over meals we celebrate life’s important events – weddings, funerals, religious rites, birthdays, graduations, and holidays. To be invited to share a meal should be considered an honour, not something where the details around the food are to be negotiated.

So let’s stop worrying about what’s on the table and instead start caring for who’s at the table.  Because really, that’s all that matters.


  1. Well written, well stated, well done (no pun intended with the latter).
    How about that Paleolithic diet plan that appears to be gaining traction? Isn’t this an “omnivore-esque” term? By biological design (genetic survival necessity?) we appear to be a species that can and will digest most anything we can get into our mouths and down into our gullet. This statement is supportable by medical x-rays. We reside in a time where CHOICE is plentiful at least in our respective countries. I wonder how the vocal Veggi-vores would handle living in a country where choices and selection of food items were hit and miss, rationed, or none existent? In any case I’m proud to be an Omnivore. It’s worked in my favor this long and I see no reason to buck biology -excluding those for medical health reasons.

    With family lives running at hectic speeds your view stands correct; it’s not the food or what we eat but who is at the table. It’s also about raising our glasses and the gesture of the toast as we acknowledge one another, the day, or an accomplishment before we eat.

  2. Kim, you have a nice blog. MB turned me on to it. I like a good steak, and great veggies too! Too much of anything is probably not a good thing in anybody’s diet. Seafood is also a favorite of mine. Have fun, thanks for the help on the beach, you shouldee it now. Much love, Peter.

  3. When you haven’t eaten meat or dairy for two decades, it is not just a preference. Your body no longer has the enzymes to properly digest the food and would cause ‘discomfort’, to put it politely. Expecting a true vegetarian (i.e., one who consistently follows it and not just when it is convenient) to eat meat to be polite is to me akin to expecting someone who eats kosher to share a bacon cheeseburger with you. It is not impolite to simply say, “No, thank you”. That is truly focusing on who’s at the table rather than on the table.

  4. I agree with some of the info presented here but think there is a lack of understanding and respect for one’s personal beliefs about what is right and wrong. For example, Islam dictates that its followers do not eat pork. To do so would literally be against one’s religion. As someone else mentioned in the comments, eating non kosher food, some Jewish peoplewould be considered heresy.for many vegetarians not eating animals is either partially or entirely based on strong beliefs similar to religious ones about what they believe to be right and wrong. This is much different then preferring the flavor of a food over another. Whether it is a pig roasting whole in front of their eyes or a bouillion cube discreetly mixed into a stock or rice dish, the appearance or nutritional qualities are irrelevant it is the personal understanding, beliefs, and / or ethical convictions that must be respected just as one might do when visiting a place of worship of a person from another religion.

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