I’m going to toss a couple of things out here this week, and they’re related in that I’m sure we’d all like to see everyone getting to have a good meal whenever possible. It’s something that we often take for granted, but can at times be harder than you’d expect.
I ran across one example of this earlier this month when I went to a family event that included one of the greatest creations known to mankind: the collaborative buffet. These spreads are a wonder to behold. Contributors often make whatever dish is their favorite or most famous or most comforting or name-your-own superlative. And then everyone who bellies up to the bar finds something to make their plate seem special-that is, as long as they’re not avoiding any particular foods.
I’m lucky. I can eat gluten and nuts and dairy. I’m not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian (I don’t write about cooking meat-much-because I think there’re plenty of other people out there doing it better than I could, and also because meat is expensive and I like to think this column is about accessible food). But as I approached that lovely spread, I realized I was going to be spending several hours later in the day sitting behind the wheel of a car, so I figured I’d better find some lighter fare (nothing makes me sleepy quite so quickly as the combination of the soothing movement of a vehicle and some meat and potatoes in my belly).
My niece is vegan, and as she and I moved along the buffet line together, we both kept moving past some really delicious-looking dishes (mac and cheese, fried chicken, casseroles, potato salads), and as we spotted the one huge tub of salad, we both jumped over and started happily filling our plates. But then disaster struck, as my niece spotted little flecks of cheese mixed in with the greens. “Oh, no! I can’t eat this!” She pushed the salad onto her father’s plate and headed for the bread. I very much enjoyed my meal, but it got me to thinking (during that long drive home) about how limited that fabulous buffet would have been for someone with just about any kind of dietary limitation.
Of course, people who are on restricted diets-for whatever reason-are used to limited options and often travel with “just in case” food so they won’t starve if the available fare all proves to be off-limits. The food isn’t the point, anyway-these events, whether at a wedding, funeral, reunion or random cookout, are about fellowship. But here’s the thing. It might really make someone’s day if just a few people contributing to such a buffet were to come up with ideas for dishes that will appeal to a broad range of people, while also steering clear of some commonly avoided ingredients such as meat, nuts, highly refined carbohydrates and dairy.
To be clear, this wasn’t a huge crisis. No one went hungry. It was a wonderful afternoon with family, and we were grateful for the time spent over a delicious meal. But I do want to pass along a gentle suggestion: The next time you’ve got a fistful of grated cheese that you’re about to sprinkle on top of some fabulous vegetable and pasta dish, maybe you might be willing to put that cheese on the side instead. If you’re thinking about making a pot of chili, why not make it a three-bean chili instead of one with meat? Or if you’re at a loss for something to make, consider something that is likely to appeal to carnivores, vegans and everyone in between, like hummus, salsa or a bean salad. You might just give someone their only option.