Food orthodoxy: a tragic story

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • April 10, 2013

Meat vs. greens.
Meat vs. greens.

Many young Americans take pride in being more inclusive, tolerant, and open to new definitions of family and lifestyle than that of their parents. Emerson is no exception: From marriage equality to ending marijuana prohibition, college students are rejecting the dogma of past generations for a more open-minded future. But there is one place where my generation seems to apply an orthodox rigidity normally reserved for arch-conservatives: the kitchen table. 

A dinner party of the college-educated and under 30 can look like a cross section of personal creeds and fasts. Friends cutting off their ties with red meat, dairy, or gluten have become increasingly common; fad diets are observed like religious conversions; and fresh vegetarians and vegans sprout like well-tended organic tomatoes. We don’t just expect food to satisfy the appetite: We used it to express our political beliefs and personal values.

What’s getting lost in these rigid practices is the inclusive tradition of food. Since the days of hunting and gathering, the experience of eating has been about inclusion and discovery, and rigidly restricting the diet takes away from that tradition. 

There is certainly a distinction between adopting a restricted diet for medical or religious reasons, and doing so as a personal decision. I’m never going to argue the merits of Korean pork barbecue with someone keeping kosher or repairing a heart condition. But if you’re a vegetarian with an invitation to a South Carolina cookout, or a non-observer of white flour finding yourselfin Florence for the weekend, you should ask yourself if that personal creed is worth closing yourself off to certain life experiences and having to reject hospitality.

Food is a uniter — a way to share experiences, offer companionship, and express gratitude. The word “companion” is derived from the latin “com + panis,” literally “with bread.” Human beings — regardless of ethnicity, income, or geography — like to eat. It’s why goodwill gestures between different civilizations often involved gifts of food, and the reason Thanksgiving is the busiest travel date on the American calendar. To exclude certain foods risks excluding the eater from the communal experience of mealtime. 

One of the most unfortunate aspects of food orthodoxy is that dishes offered by hosts must adhere to special requests, or be rejected entirely. Hospitality is something many cultures take seriously. The ancient Greeks held the concept of “xenia,” or “guest-friendship,” in high regard. Xenia stipulates that hosts be generous to guests, and guests accept and respect their generosity. Violations of xenia serve as catalysts for Homer’s epics: while Paris’ abduction of Helen at a dinner party is more rude than sending back bacon and asking for tofu, both make a poor guest.

When traveling, food orthodoxy becomes an obstacle to immersion in a new culture. If you’re dining in Prague and request something without meat, dairy, cheese, flour, or all four, you won’t be experiencing the city like a local. 

I think that changing the diet to improve personal health or limiting the effect of your lunch on the environment is positive. If more Americans were to do so, we’d be a healthier, greener republic with slimmer waists and less waste. But this approach needs to find balance in food’s rich tradition of experience and discovery. Food orthodoxy needs its enlightenment.

Call it “reformed veganism,” or “liberally gluten-free.” Establish guidelines for your diet, not restrictions. If you make organic vegetables and whole grains the staples of your diet, red meat or processed carbs on rare or special occasions won’t impact your health or directly affect the environment. It’s about habit, not every menu order. To declare that you will never again digest some types of food doesn’t serve a practical purpose, but a dogmatic philosophical one. It’s worth questioning if such rigid adherence to a philosophy is worth the denial of experience, hospitality, and even companionship it entails.