Originally published in the Daily News on May 30, 2001
'Guess who's coming to dinner - a vegetarian. "
"Oh, great. Now what do we do? "
If you haven't yet found yourself on one side or the other of this exchange, you may soon, as the number of those calling themselves vegetarian continues to rise and warmer weather makes cookouts and food-related get-togethers more plentiful.
And this question - should a host accommodate guests with special diets - is such a hot-button etiquette issue that the Emily Post Institute recently polled members on it. They got a split decision: Fifty percent said it's up to the host to please the guests, and 50 percent said the guests should sit down and shut up.
But let's say you've invited a vegetarian to your event, for one reason or another. At some time in the past - some point you might now wish to go back and change - you made friends with someone who is now a troublemaker. Maybe they were "that way" before you met, or maybe it's something that just happened recently, without your even being consulted.
The worst-case scenario is that the troublemaker is not just vegetarian but vegan, eliminating a whole range of cheese and egg dishes as alternatives.
Things might look bleak. But cheer up - as a card-carrying troublemaker who's also a vegan, I have some tips that will serve you well, and help you to serve well, even in such an extreme circumstance.
Frankly, there are two basic questions when vegans are invited to your party: 1) What will they eat? and 2) What will they say?
These are related: Marginalizing vegan guests by restricting them to dipless crudites and pretzels increases the chance that they'll embrace their "outsider" identity.
Vegans at cookouts can be walking vials of conversational nitroglycerin, who if riled up can easily spew overwhelming amounts of unpleasant facts about the nonvegan food on your other guests' forks.
I know a couple of vegans who can answer the most innocuous question such as "What about vitamin B-12?" with a five-minute monologue on slaughterhouse methods.
But the converse of this is that the more good food there is for vegans to eat, the more polite they're likely to be. A happy, well-fed vegan can get questions like "Hey, did you ever stop to think about insects?" and answer with a straight face, "I prefer not to eat them as well. "
Of course, there are also a few vegans who aren't interested in whether you eat meat; they're only eating this way because their doctors know it's the only thing that can save their lives. Still, these people need to eat, too.
So what, then, do you feed vegans?
At first glance, many people come up empty on this, but actually plenty of foods are left after meat and dairy are eliminated. When people ask me what "we people" can eat, I'll often launch into, "Oh, lessee ... almonds, apples, apricots, artichokes, arugula, asparagus, avocados, bananas ..." until they cut me off.
If you're having just one veggie guest, you could ask him or her beforehand for some preferences. After all, you don't want to slave over a delicious Nam Jim Satay only to find your troublemaking friend is also allergic to peanuts.
And even those on "restricted" diets have taste preferences, which of course you may choose to ignore. I, for one, can't stand eggplant. John Street can eat as many eggplant hoagies as he wants; he's not going to win me over to that cult.
Yes, it's an "alternative" standby in the minds of many, but in case I ever get invited anywhere after reading this, I'm staking my claim now: No eggplant.
Other plants are fine, though (and bizarrely, other people are also fine with eggplant): Salad is always a popular item, especially one with a variety of lettuces and vegetables; even us picky eaters can pick around the ones we don't like. But think twice about that grated cheese, cream dressing or egg slices if you want to keep your vegan guest well-fed. Other than the egg slices, tasty nondairy alternates to all of these garnishes are available at larger supermarkets.
Another vegan option is crudites, the little dipping-size carrot sticks, broccoli florets, mushroom tops, etc., that everybody loves to sample. Remember, though, that if your dressing is sour cream-based, your vegan pal is left just munching on what might legitimately be called rabbit food. Onion or spinach dip can easily be made dairy-free, and your other guests won't even realize they're missing out on the cholesterol.
Even with such an array of raw vegetables, it's nice to have something hot and/or hearty to eat along with the grown-ups. You could delve into some of the latest wave of vegan cookbooks for a real humdinger, but there's probably no need. Potatoes roasted in their skins, spiced up with an herb or two, make a hearty dish that can anchor your guest's grazing.
If you're having a barbecue, remember peppers, portobello mushrooms and tofu can be grilled, too (just keep 'em away from the meat, OK?), and shish-kabobs can easily hold 100 percent vegetable items instead of the customary two-thirds.
Pasta is another possibility that's almost foolproof, and it's now easy to find eggless varieties. A little olive oil, garlic and basil, and maybe some walnuts or Great Northern beans for extra texture (as well as that all-important protein!), and you've got a dish everyone will love.
Which can be a problem. Especially in the case of cookouts, where there is a man "in charge" of the pieces de resistance, feelings may be hurt if and when the non-meat dish is attacked by the crowd while the exquisitely charred hunks of animal flesh sit cooling in the breeze. I've seen it happen more than once and heard about it plenty of other times.
To avoid this, ask your vegan guest to constantly say things while eating like, "Can't get enough of this eggplant! " If that doesn't work, try "okra. "
The point is, we're not coming to your party in order to evangelize, and as long as everybody plays fair (yes, we've already heard the question, "Aren't plants alive?"), vegans will generally fit in pretty well. We won't come stand over the grill and say stuff like, "Boy, you'd probably be an even better chef if you'd stop eating meat. "
Then again, if you're throwing a "down home" event whose centerpiece is, say, the roasting of a whole pig - especially if the day is kicked off by a ritual hunt with a sharpened stick - well, maybe you should just wait and invite your veggie friend to your next social function.
In most cases, though, the vegan or vegetarian guest won't cause any anxiety, especially with a bit of forethought and communication. We're not an entirely different species: Like you, we just want to enjoy good food, good company and good times.
Oh yeah, and we also want you to stop eating meat.