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Public mastication

Stop moralizing everyone's food choices

Eat the cookie. Or don't.
  • Eat the cookie. Or don't.

Basic etiquette tells us there are three subjects one should refrain from discussing at work, with casual acquaintances, or around the holiday table: sex, politics, and religion. Before I continue, let me first admit that I’ve been terrible at this. At a recent event, fueled by a cocktail or two, I not only brought up two of these three taboo topics, I then proceeded to badger one of my beloved colleagues about his beliefs. I did exactly what I wish others wouldn’t do to me. Call it a New Year’s Resolution if you want, but whatever the month, I’m vowing to keep my passionately held convictions to myself in order to get along with others who may or may not share my opinions. I’ll still blast my thoughts on Facebook; after all I’m only human, and it’s easy enough for others to ignore my posts. But in person, among colleagues and acquaintances, among “polite society,” I will refrain.

Now, having said all that, there’s a fourth topic I’d like to see added to the list of subjects to avoid, and that’s diet. Unlike sex, religion, and politics, the subject of diet is a bit trickier to navigate — what is appropriate and what is taboo? Food is essential to our survival. We all eat. Certain foods, or methods of preparing dishes, play a central role in many cultures. We experience and enjoy food. We share recipes and restaurant recommendations, we post photos and we watch the Food Network. Food is great to talk about. Diet isn’t food — it’s our selection of food. The topic I seek to banish from happy hours and family gatherings is not the food itself, but rather why or why not a person chooses to eat it.

Paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian: I have at least one friend who fits into one or more of those categories, and that’s cool. I’m not bizarrely fixated on what goes into their mouths and out of their asses. It doesn’t matter. We have other things in common. When David and I host a dinner party, we inquire after our guests’ dietary restrictions and food aversions to make sure everyone present enjoys their meal. We don’t judge or require justifications for nixed ingredients — we simply want to know what to leave off the plate so we can provide an equally enjoyable experience for all of our guests.

I have chosen my friends carefully — I prefer to surround myself with kind, creative people who share my “live and let live” mentality. But sometimes I have to step outside of my bubble, and it’s in these times that I may find myself among those who are a little more “live and tell others how to live” than “live and let live.” And if they’re not talking about sex, religion, or politics, the topic, more often than not, is diet.

The holiday season is the worst. With all the festivities, people tend to eat and drink more than usual. Many feel guilty about their indulgence, and as a result, they foist their insecurities and shame upon everyone else.

This past month, I grew fatigued by the preponderance of people who seemed incapable of eating a cookie without voicing some kind of disclaimer lest their virtue be called into question. “I really shouldn’t.” “I’m going to have to make up for this.” “I’m being so bad.” Whether they were seeking permission or forgiveness, I do not know. But each comment started a wave of similar comments, until nearly everyone in the vicinity followed suit by chastising themselves for eating cookies, some while extolling the perils of sugar. Their audible agony was exhausting. I stared blankly while thinking, For fuck’s sake, people, it’s a cookie. Either eat it, or don’t. Our host had baked those cookies herself. The decent thing to do is respond with a simple, “No, thank you,” or “Wow, that’s delicious.”

While at lunch with friends the other day, I ordered a sandwich that happened to be vegetarian. When it arrived, just before I took my first bite, a friend said, “Good for you.”

I wasn’t trying to be “good.” I like artichokes. This sandwich featured artichoke, and my friends had vouched for its yumminess, so I ordered it. Not every menu selection is the result of some battle between a tiny food angel on one shoulder and a food devil on the other. I set my sandwich down and said, “Are you moralizing my food choices? Because that’s weird, don’t do that.” My friend shrugged, admitted the strangeness of what he said, added that he’d said it because it was something “everyone did,” and we continued with our lunch.

He was right. At some point, we became accustomed to framing our discussion around food choices in moral terms. It’s stupid, and we need to stop. There are countless reasons that make up an individual’s diet: allergies, aversions, religion, health issues, personal beliefs, the list goes on. I wasn’t seeking approval. I was seeking lunch. If ordering an artichoke sandwich made me “good,” what items on the menu made me “bad?” I wondered if my friend had struggled with his own choice of sandwich; if he felt guilty about it for whatever reason, and was merely admonishing himself aloud for not being as “good” as me.

Etiquette and good manners are not intended to make one feel superior to others, but rather to make everyone feel comfortable in any given situation. As I mentioned, I am no saint in this regard. However, I vow to be better, and I invite you to do the same. So should you find yourself dining with coworkers, at a party with acquaintances, or even hanging out with your family, please consider this gentle advice. Unless someone asks, assume nobody cares why or why not you choose to put any given morsel in your mouth. Keep it to yourself. Your opinion of what goes into anyone else’s mouth is even more abhorrent. Safely conclude that whoever’s in front of you is about as interested in what you think they should or should not eat as they are in knowing what you think would be the best way for them to make love to their partner. And if you can’t think of something more interesting to say, you can always try, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Everyone loves that.

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