When is one’s Diet more important than Offered Hospitality? When is Hospitality more important than Diet? Sometimes the issues are clear, and sometimes they are not. Religious Diets and Fatal Allergies usually trump Hospitality, Personal Preference usually shouldn’t, with just about everything else, including Weight Loss and Doctor’s Directive, wandering in the middle ground.
Etiquetteer didn’t get very far in this article about the dangers of artificial sweetener because of the story that began it. A grandmother, who just happens to be a researcher of food sweeteners, told a hostess not to serve her little granddaughter any birthday cake at a birthday party because it was made with an artificial sweetener. Let’s leave aside the food safety issues for a moment and consider the etiquette of the situation. You’ve been invited into someone’s home for a party, which automatically means that some trouble has been taken to entertain you, and questioning the trouble your hostess has taken for you enough to suggest that it’s unsafe to eat. And on top of that, you’re telling a hostess not to serve a little girl a slice of birthday cake at a birthday party when everyone else is going to have cake?! This is where Etiquetteer would like to serve up a heaping helping of Shut Up and Eat! Only that wouldn’t be very Perfectly Proper, now would it?
A private home is not a restaurant, and it is not realistic for 21st-century hosts and hostesses (the overwhelming majority of whom haven’t hired a cook) to cater as specifically as some guests require. You can eat what you want at home. Adhere as closely as you can to your diet when you’re dining out, but please keep from overemphasizing it. Very many hosts make a point of accommodating vegetarians, which is a generous and gracious thing for them to do, by soliciting that information from their guests in advance.
Some related stories: the late Letitia Baldrige, in her diamonds-and-bruises memoir A Lady, First, told the story of one Kennedy White House state dinner when President Kennedy noticed a couple sitting near him weren’t eating anything? “Is the dinner all right?” he asked, to be greeted cheerfully by the reply “We’re Mormons, so we can’t take alcohol.” It turned out that every dish on the menu had alcohol in it! But this Mormon couple were clearly going to make the best of it with rolls and mints, and wouldn’t have said anything if the President hadn’t asked.
The late Gloria Swanson, famous in her later years as a vegetarian, would bring her own sandwich to dinner parties when invited out (whether to a home or a restaurant). Of course this works best on occasions when there’s a staff to slip it to on arrival with the instructions “When you bring the entree, just slip this on a plate for me. I’m on a diet.” The point is that Gloria knew enough not to inconvenience her hosts with her dietary needs and came prepared. She also didn’t make a big fuss about it.
And then there’s the late Ethel Merman, who brought a ham sandwich to Jule Styne’s Passover Seder, as recounted in Arthur Laurents’s wonderful memoir Original Story By Arthur Laurents. Jule Styne threw it on the floor and said “Ethel, you’re offending the waiters!” Which just goes to show that there are limits. Indeed, Etiquetteer has written before about how it’s not a good idea, even with a spirit of compassion and multiculturalism, to invite Orthodox Jews to Easter dinner and serve them a ham.
So . . . back to the children’s birthday party with the Artificially Sweetened Cake. In this case, Etiquetteer thinks Hospitality trumps Diet. At a children’s party Etiquetteer is most concerned about the children, and children, especially young ones, are eager to fit in. What needs to be saved in this situation? Three things: the little girl’s experience as a guest, the dignity of the hostess, and the responsibilities of the little girl’s grandmother, who, although Etiquetteer can’t really approve of what was reported, is doing her job as a Protective Grandparent. Rather than say anything to the hostess, Etiquetteer could almost wish that the grandmother had simply told her granddaughter that she couldn’t have any cake, even if it was served to her, and to make do with other refreshments. That way the little girl is still included as an equal with the other children, the hostess’s feelings have been spared, and the grandmother’s role as guardian is maintained. And if the grandmother is committed to eradicating Artificially Sweetened Cakes, she can always reciprocate with an invitation to her own home and serve a cake made with the Sweetener of Her Choice and nonchalantly raise the issue of what her research is uncovering about artificial sweeteners.
Etiquetteer feels sure you’ve encountered such an issue before, and would love to hear about it at queries <at> etiquetteer dot com.