Not long ago, if you had a food restriction, it was easy to feel like the odd person out at the dinner table. In fact, when my Tuscan friend heard about my husband’s newly diagnosed mold sensitivity and his food restrictions – no bread, pasta or tomatoes; no eggplant or other nightshade vegetables; no porcini mushrooms, red wine or parmigiano cheese – he said with deadpan seriousness, he might as well be dead.
However, according to a 2014 Harris Poll, the most recent available, six in 10 Americans restrict at least one nutritional component from their diet. A BBQ lunch with friends bore out the statistic.
We had met in high school at Vaughan Road Collegiate in the 1970s. We were enrolled in the burgeoning Theatre Arts program and performed in Ubu Roi, Guys and Dolls, and an August Strindberg play. I invited everyone over to celebrate a visit from an expat schoolmate living in Australia. We were looking forward to a good old time together.
Little did I realize what I had gotten myself into. Five of the eight guests had a total of six different food restrictions, some with multiple restrictions. I sat down to plan the menu for one mold sensitive, one lactose intolerant with Crohn’s Disease, one diabetic, two sufferers of acid reflux, a vegan open to compromise, and what’s a dinner party these days without a gluten-free guest?
Recognizing the challenge each one of my guests insisted on bringing a dish – not like a potluck, more like a bring-your-own-food (BYOF). It’s something people with food restrictions do. They bring their own bread, appetizers, side dishes, even main dishes because it’s easier that way. They don’t want to be a burden for the host and they don’t want to starve while everyone else chows down on food they can’t have.
To BYOF sounds like a good idea but my guests’ generosity and enthusiasm threatened to conjure up a carb-fest, gluten-free, sugar-laden smorgasbord – intolerant, sensitive, diabetic, moldy and acidic palates absurdly trying to eat together. I had to draw on my theatre background in improvisation and my experience as a community organizer to see it through.
Here are five tips for a food-restricted feast, gleaned from our impromptu BFF BYOF BBQ.
Tip #1: Have the talk
If you’ve seen the 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you’ll remember the scene at the dinner table when someone asks Dr. Frank N. Furter, “Where’s Eddy?” – a character played by the singer Meat Loaf. Dr. Frank N. Furter’s eyebrow arches and with a devilish smirk he slices into a corpulent roast. Everyone stops eating and falls dead silent. Not unlike when a guest with a food restriction looks at the main dish and tells a host, “Sorry, I can’t eat that.”
To avoid that uncomfortable Frank-n-Furter moment, ask your guests at the time of the invite if they have a food restriction because chances are someone will. If you have a food restriction, don’t be shy about making suggestions on how to change up recipes so you can eat. It will be appreciated. In fact, this is a good time for you to offer to BYOF.
My proactive guests prepared versions of their BYOF contributions for others with different food challenges. My lactose intolerant friend with Crohn’s made her own potato salad, and she prepared a second version, without lemon, for the acid reflux sufferers, as well as two versions of her hummus dip. But check in early with the host. I almost had several versions of three different potato dishes.
Tip #2: Avoid the ‘f’ word when cooking
Don’t fry it. Few stomachs can handle fried food. Steam it, roast it, or grill it. Keeping in mind that people with Crohn’s have a complicated relationship with fiber and acidics avoid red meat and fat, I grilled three kinds of meat and four kinds of vegetables. My trans-vegan guest brought his own guilty pleasure to the table – a creamy nostril-opening cheese from Quebec.
Tip #3: Offer choice
I made two versions of everything, one with all the fixings for those of us who could eat it all, and a plain version, easy enough to grill, without offensive ingredients like garlic, onions, vinegar, lemon and wine.
I filled my multi-coloured Turkish serving bowls with fresh chopped herbs, black olives, not the green ones acidics can’t handle, and lemon peel which is not acidic. Guests flavoured and garnished their own food. I made a gluten-free focaccia for everyone to eat. Why not have at least one thing on the table everyone can dig into. Let it be bread.
Tip #4: Water is the new wine
The table was covered with bottles because restrictions also apply to beverages and their temperature. In addition to red and white wine, I served natural spring water, smooth and pure, from a snowy mountain terroir. I unscrewed the cap of a bubbly carbonated acqua from Italy, and for the water warriors in the group I popped some orange slices in a pitcher of Toronto tap water. If you let tap water sit overnight, the chlorine evaporates and the water tastes great. Of course, I had alkalized water on hand for the acidics.
All waters were available at room temperature; ice was served on the side. Espresso coffee followed, but for sensitive tummies, I prepared infusions of crushed ginger and crushed fennel seeds. To finish things off, a tip from my parents, a little bit of Grappa never hurt anyone. For those who needed it – the Italian digestif, Averna.
Tip #5: Let them bring cake and eat it too
Whatever else happens around the table make sure everyone gets to have dessert. My gluten-sensitive friend, who had volunteered to make dessert, set off a last-minute flurry of emails when she couldn’t follow through.
Our expat Australian friend jumped right in, “No worries,” she said. “I’ll get some gluten-free pastries from the market at the Barns.” Good on her. I made sugar-free, gluten-free, coconut flour crêpes for the acidics and the diabetic. Fresh fruit and chocolate covered strawberries rounded things off.
What a feast when sensitive, intolerant, moldy, acidic and all-inclusive tummies can eat, drink and be merry while keeping talk about gastrointestinal troubles to a minimum – a BYOF BBQ success.
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Elizabeth Cinello
Wow, Elizabeth, you are really courageous. I have friends (a couple) who have about 5 allergies between them and and always found that somewhat challenging (tourtiere at Xmas made with beef actually tastes good..but vegetarian tourtiere, not so good!). But FIVE guests with multiple problems is something else!
Sylvia Bergeron, Toronto
So spot on Elizabeth. Feeding friends and family used to be so much easier. You clearly approach this with a generous spirit and as a challenge. Good tips too. Thx
Minda Sherman, Toronto
Thanks, Elizabeth. It is so complicated and so time consuming but so necessary.
Cheryl Kryzaniwsky, Port Elgin