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Dinner politics: is the customer always right?

A few weeks ago, I accepted an invitation for our family to join another family at their house for dinner. After the logistics were set, the host asked what our “dietary restrictions” were. The question was less “Do you have any?” and more “What are they?” The matter-of-fact nature of his query made me wonder: Has catering to food idiosyncrasies become a de facto element of hosting a meal?

Over the following week, I couldn’t stop thinking about our email exchange. It appears that current trends have turned the relationship between those doing the cooking and those being cooked for on its head. Put another way, modern meal preparation has become an unsung–and indispensable–act of customer service.

Modern meal preparation has become an unsung—and indispensable—act of customer service.

Wait a minute, I hear you say. I don’t get paid to cook meals for my [spouse, children, roommates]. True enough. The fact is, we do lots of things in our daily lives in the service of others and don’t receive a dime. Consider housework, driving, running errands, and parenting, to name a few. These tasks, large and small, add value to the lives of others and build relationships. (See “customer service, defined.”) Preparing meals for family and friends is just one of the best examples.

The politics of dinner

It feels like private cooking (as in, at-home) as an act of customer service is a relatively new phenomenon. Decades ago you showed up at someone’s house and what they had prepared was what you ate. (I spit out enough food into paper napkins growing up to know this to be true.) Of course, hosts were considerate back then, but to my recollection, they didn’t bend over backwards to please. Guests were less outspoken about food preferences (did we even have any?) and hosts mostly didn’t ask.

Today, there’s a hidden imperative in hosting. We don’t so much invite friends to enjoy a meal at our home as much as we perform a culinary high wire act to accommodate the range of food issues in each RSVP. “There has been a pronounced shift in Americans’ eating habits over the past 20 years with far-reaching implications for how food is created, prepared and consumed,” says a 2016 report by Pew Research Center. “Moreover, the way Americans eat has become a source of potential social, economic and political friction as people follow personal preferences reflecting their beliefs about how foods connect with their health and ailments….” Translation? Dinner isn’t just dinner anymore.

We don’t so much invite friends to enjoy a meal at our home as much as we perform a culinary high wire act to accommodate the range of food issues in each RSVP.

You are what you eat

Eating is complicated these days and we’ve all got our issues. We’re more aware of food allergies, more of us are vegetarian or vegan, and it seems almost everyone is trying to avoid or embrace specific foods. Because eating is so personal, and so central to our lives, it’s easy to lose perspective and inconvenience others, perhaps without meaning to. With most dining establishments catering to our food preferences, we’re increasingly comfortable asserting them whenever and wherever we dine. What does this look like? In practice it means toting a preferred sweetener to a coffee date, demurring when dessert is served, and (at my home this past weekend) flipping a BYO salmon burger for a teenage guest who doesn’t eat turkey.

These shifts in expectations and attitudes around food aren’t limited to the eaters. The cooks have changed, too. Our food-obsessed culture worships celebrity chefs and fetishizes ingredients. From magazines to podcasts to food blogs, the message is the same: you can create a wholesome, delicious, and aesthetically astounding meal in minutes… and what’s more, you should want to.

Endless images of the ultimate avocado toast miss the point: food is to be shared, literally, not just on Instagram. By focusing on the end result—the perfectly composed salad, the flawless pie crust—we lose sight of what’s important. Do our guests feel welcome? Are they relaxed? Are we?

Given today’s cultural pressures, cooking for others can feel like a referendum on our status as a domestic god or goddess. In an attempt to produce a meal fit for a Food & Wine spread, we often forget that as hosts, it’s not supposed to be about us. It’s loaded in other ways, too. Where we shop, what we buy, and what we cook speaks volumes about our priorities and beliefs about health and wellness, and anxieties around consumption and sustainability. That’s a whole lot of agenda crowding into the Instant Pot.

Endless images of the ultimate avocado toast miss the point: food is to be shared, literally, not just on Instagram. By focusing on the end result—the perfectly composed salad, the flawless pie crust—we lose sight of what’s important. Do our guests feel welcome? Are they relaxed? Are we?

Is your diner always right?

Despite all the ways that cooking for others is fraught these days, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: Most cooks just want to make people happy. As we search for ways to connect in this age of fractured family time, sharing a home cooked meal remains one of life’s simplest pleasures. Time at the table lets us connect and converse—in person—with the people we care most about. A point which brings us back to the question of how far we cooks will go to make people happy. I plead guilty to swapping out green beans for broccoli on one plate, and fudging the ratio of pasta to sauce on another, all in the name of mealtime harmony. Because what’s the point of bringing everyone together for a meal if someone leaves the table hungry?

This idea of cooking as a means of connecting can put cooks in a bind. Yes, we’d love to craft our own menu for once. But what about our best friend the vegan or our neighbor who’s flirting with eating gluten-free? We accommodate dietary preferences to ensure people leave the table truly satisfied and contented. But perhaps, after all, we’re conflating “full” and “more deeply connected.” Maybe they can just snack at home, first?

But kitchen burnout in this age of accommodation is real. Trust me. Increasingly, I find I’m less willing to sacrifice my time, creativity, or sanity to check all the boxes for my diners. Yes, I want meals to be enjoyable, convivial events, but also, I’m tired. Plus, I want my children to learn to show up at someone else’s table ready to quietly eat whatever’s being served. I’d like them to be gracious guests who arrive on time, make lively conversation, and thank the host. Then, if need be, they can make themselves a cheese omelette when they get home.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.