By Barbara Guggenheim
There’s almost nothing I like more than a good meal with friends. I may not be legendary Washington hostess Pearl Mesta , but I’ve thrown my share of luncheons, dinner parties, and cocktail soirees. Over the years I’ve noticed changes in friends’ eating habits – first it was guests waving off a warm bread basket, then eschewing rich desserts in favor of fresh fruit. I’ve always tolerated it with equanimity and maybe a twinge of pity.
But the dietary restrictions of partygoers are growing extreme.
A few weeks ago my husband, Bert, and I attended an A-list dinner party in Bel Air. As I approached a group of men gathered by the fireplace, I heard them anxiously discussing… wheat gluten. Wheat gluten! A decade earlier, these guys surely would have been talking about sex or politics – now it’s their food neuroses. What’s a hostess to do when the art of entertaining becomes an exercise in offending the fewest possible guests?
One event this summer nearfy forced me to hang up my apron strings.
For years I’d dreamed of throwing what the English call a house party – a weekend of long walks, leisurely meals, and good conversation. So Bert and I invited a group of friends for the Labor Day weekend to our country house, a converted mill outside of Paris. Our friend Robert and his new girlfriend, Sora, were taking the Chunnel from London. Lois and Steven were driving up from the south of France. Mary and Don were on their way back from the Salzburg music festival, and Carl, who lives in China, was meeting up at our house with his 20 year old son, Andy.
Bert loves to cook and was looking forward to trying out some new recipes using the superb local ingredients. Friday night he made couscous. The first to arrive, Andy showered and came into the kitchen looking for a beer. “Uncle Bert,” he said, “I hope you remember that I don’t eat meat or chicken.” Bert hadn’t, but rolled with the punch and set aside a plate of vegetables.
An hour later, the 10 of us were seated at the table heatedly discussing the election when Andy looked down at his bowl. “Uncle Bert, what’s in the sauce?” It was a chicken stock base. “Oh, I can’t have that,” Andy lamented. “It’s made from chicken.”
“Not to worry, darling,” I said, patting his shoulder. I took his bowI into the kitchen. Dumping the couscous in the trash, I grabbed two hard-boiled eggs, sliced them, and laid them out on some unwashed lettuce. There was also some leftover sauce from the Shrimp Louis that Bert had made for lunch, which I poured over the eggs. Minutes later, I returned with “Eggs louis..” Andy loved it.
In bed that night, Bert groused. “I don’t get it. How come the kid can eat hardboiled eggs but can’t eat chicken soup? It sounds like fatuous nonsense.”He grinned and added, “Maybe it’s a question of which came first, the chicken soup or the egg.” Ugh.
The next morning, no one could quibble with the croissants and baguettes still warm from the bakery. I hadn’t realized, though, that Lois dissects her food-pulling apart her croissant into bite-size pieces. Oh well, I could live with that.
Our village is the watercress capitol of France, so Bert planned a watercress salad for lunch. Mary wandered into the kitchen while he was slicing tomatoes. A prima donna in oan apron, Bert hates it when people talk to him while he’s cooking. ”You’re putting tomatoes in the salad?” Mary said, wincing. “Well, yes,” said Bert. “One often does.” Not detecting the edge in his voice, Mary went on. “I have acid reflux. I don’t eat them .” Now I was annoyed. She’d given us no warning of this. Ever polite, Bert offered to segregate her salad – not good enough for Mary, who gestured to the vinaigrette Bert had just made. “I hope there’s no vinegar in there. I can’t have that either. And olive oil upsets my stomach. Do you have any canola or soybean oil?” I went to the cupboard and opened the door, pretending to look for these aberrant oils. “What about Pennzoil, bitch?” I muttered to myself.
Later a storm set in and we were housebound. Bert fabricated a conference call to Japan and went upstairs to nap; I was stuck playing Monopoly. That evening there was a touch of autumn in the air – perfect for Bert’s coq au vin. (Andy was having a trout from our stream.) The welcoming aroma of chicken permeated the house. No sooner were we at the table when Robert piped up. “Tell me, Bert, how is this prepared?” Flattered, Bert reeled off the ingredients. When he got to the wine, Robert put down his fork. “I’m a recovering alcoholic; I can‘t have liquor.” Sipping his wine, Bert explained how the alcohol boils off when cooked.
“Trust me, Bert, I can’t risk it,” Robert protested. “Even a thimbleful could start me down a long, dark road.” So much for the rum raisin cake I’d bought for dessert.
Bert turned to me. “Barbara, take Robert’s plate into the kitchen and change it for the other chicken Hortense made – the one without the wine.” I was stumped. I didn’t know any Hortense. What other chicken? Then I remembered the “other turkey” story Bert once told me. A maid entered the dining room, holding a turkey on a silver platter. As she walked in, the turkey slid right off the plate and rolled across the carpet, coming to rest on a guest’s shoe. “Hortense,” the hostess ordered without missing a beat, “take this one away and bring in the other turkey.”
Bert followed me into the kitchen, grabbed a pile of coq au vin from Robert’s plate with his bare hands, and ran it under the tap. “This is what Hortense calls coq sans vin,” he announced, back in the dining room. “I hope you like it.” Robert dug in with relish as Bert smiled maliciously. “It may need some salt. Hortense doesn’t use much seasoning.”
“No, no, Bert,” said Robert. “It’s perfect.”
The next morning at six, I rolled over and noticed that Bert was wide awake, fretting over what he could prepare for our group. I, for one, shouldn’t have been surprised by our guests’ food issues – I recalled my father once telling a waitress, “I’d like my eggs over easy. And tell the chef absolutely no butter; I’m on a strict diet. Have him use bacon fat instead.” Growing up, however, it seemed to me that everybody ate everything. (As kids, of course, we’d push our carrots under the baked potato skin – but that was a matter of taste, not ideology.) No one came to my parents’ house and insisted that my mother serve a salad with dressing on the side or that she substitute brown rice for white. I was starting to feel that my friends’ food issues were about something other than weight loss or allergies; they struck me as convenient attention-getting devices.
Later that morning the phone rang. Stephanie and her fiance, Dan, wanted to drop in for lunch. Wearily I asked, “Anything special you don’t eat?”
“We’re easy,” Stephanie said. “We eat anything – vegetables, fruits, nuts-as long as it’s not cooked.” When had Stephanie become a raw vegan? Why couldn’t she be, soy, lactose-intolerant? I dragged our juicer out of the cupboard and threw in some carrots from the garden. Bert passed by and asked what I was making. “Carrot soup, so eat your heart out,” I snapped. “If you want any flavor, shave in some ginger,” he said. There were ginger snaps in the cookie jar, so I threw them in. Stephanie loved it.
After lunch there was a pounding at the gate. A courier was delivering a fantastic jeroboam of Chateau Lafite Rothschild – a gift from one of Bert’s Parisian clients. Quickly, I decided to hide it in the barn. These guests weren’t going to get a drop.
That night, against his better judgment, Bert served an eggplant, tomato, and leek pasta. It wasn’t raw, but Stephanie had left after lunch. And it contained neither wine nor chicken stock, so Robert and Andy were okay. It did have tomatoes, but Mary bravely pushed them aside. For dessert, I set out a bowl of fruit. Carl picked up an apple and was about to bite into it. “Oh, don’t do that, please,” begged Sara. “I can’t bear to hear when anyone bites into on apple. My shrink and I have been discussing this for 10 years and still can’t figure it out. Would you mind eating a pear instead?”
On Monday, alone at last, Bert and I feasted on roast duck, with cheese and fruit for dessert. We opened the jeroboam and drank what we could of the fantastic wine. I love my friends, but next time I’ll draw up a guest list according not to common interests but to food hang-ups – Atkins adherents one night, raw vegans the next.
In Los Angeles a week later, an old friend named Sheila called to have dinner. She and her hippie boyfriend, Mark, live in nearby Topanga Canyon, so I was ready to invite them over. Having learned my lesson, however, I asked if she had any special dietary needs. ‘Well,” Sheila replied, “it’s September and my channeler told me I must eat white foods this month – cauliflower, rice, yogurt. Is that all right?”
I imagined breaking the news to Bert that on a channeler’s orders he had to prepare an all-white dinner. Then I tried my sweetest tone. “I’ll tell you what, Sheila. Bert’s really so much better with purple. His beet risotto is out of this world. Let’s get together when you’re scheduled to eat purple. Maybe December?”