David and I have some friends in the neighborhood who we get together with on occasion. We’ll invite them over for dinner and drinks and vice versa, and it’s a great time catching up. They’re not vegan, but they always do a lovely job of putting together a vegan feast. I know that sometimes when faced with the idea of having vegans over for dinner, some non-vegans are stumped. It’s as if you told them, “Don’t think about elephants!” Of course, all they can think about are long trunks, droopy ears, and if a magic feather really could make you fly.
Sometimes when faced with the idea of inviting a vegan couple over for dinner, meat eaters suddenly can only think about all of the things they can’t make them. Rack of this and leg of that are off the table. Cream covered whatnot and cheesy whatever? Forget about those too. I know in the past I’ve faced the same thought patterns when cooking for gluten intolerant friends or people who have specific allergies. There I am at the grocery store reading labels, and thinking of new things to dip in the hummus that aren’t crackers or pita.
Speaking of PITA, sometimes I get the feeling from reading Dear Abby-type columns, that some vegans (and those with other specific dietary needs) worry that this is how they’ll be perceived by hosts. And to be fair, sometimes I’ll hear about hosts who don’t want to take their guests’ needs into account. In these last seven years of eating a meatless diet, I have come across some people who weren’t very receptive (or some who were downright hostile), but that has been the minority far and away. Furthermore, the more time that passes that David and I are vegan, the more comfortable our friends and family get with it. They have a clearer idea of the kinds of things that we eat, and for a large part, veganism has been demystified. Pass us the fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and grains, and we’re happy. Ordering a pizza? Great! We’ll take ours cheeseless.
What is more common is that people have warmed my heart by how caring and considerate they’ve been. Whether it’s a simple pasta with marinara, a taco bar, three bean chili, or a spread of fruit, crudités, and bean dip, it always makes me feel very welcome and cared for when people make the effort when they’ve invited us into their homes. And when I have those aforementioned people with allergies or specific dietary needs into my home, I don’t perceive it as a hassle to accommodate them. They’re my friends. It’s kind of like when my dad would come to visit me in California. It was a pleasure to keep his favorite beer in my fridge. It was my way of saying, I want you here. I want you to feel comfortable. (Now my parents keep soy milk and snacks in their fridge for us, and it makes us feel very loved!)
A question that sometimes comes up then is – does that mean I’ll keep or make meat dishes for meat eating guests? No. The people I’m having over don’t have an ethical issue with vegetables. They eat them in their homes and in their lives. My friends don’t expect me to change my values depending on who’s coming to dinner. They know that our compassion for animals extends to include cows, pigs, sheep, fish, and chickens. That’s our baseline. They no more expect us to serve them bacon than they would a Muslim or practicing Jew.
So when our neighborhood friends had us over for dinner recently, they visited our local co-op before we arrived. I think this is such a great idea to pad out a meal without adding extra time in the kitchen, especially if you’re cooking in a way that’s different for you. At most natural grocery stores with a deli, they label what’s vegan and vegetarian, often with the ingredients included. Our hosts were able to pick up several different dishes, making sure that they didn’t have eggs, dairy, or meat in them. Then they made a batch of quinoa and sliced some homegrown tomatoes. They’d grilled onions and sweet potatoes before our arrival and had them heating in the oven until it was time to serve dinner. For dessert, they served Rice Dream ice cream topped with raspberries.
There was so much to eat (more than I have room to picture here), and it was a bit like Thanksgiving having a bit of this and a bit of that. I liked that they didn’t feel there had to be one particular entrée or focal point to the meal. When you think about sharing a meal with friends at a Chinese, Ethiopian, or Indian restaurant, there doesn’t have to be one main item sitting at the 6:30 mark on your plate. We’ve grown accustomed in American culture to the meat and two veg idea, but there’s no reason that it can’t be delicious nibbles of this and that.
I think when people go vegan, they sometimes worry that they’ll be ostracized from social events. They worry they’ll be shunned at the grill out. But what I’ve found is that when we open up to the people in our lives about the things we care about, they widen their definitions of us. They make room for these aspects of who we are, and when they accept these parts of us, it deepens the understanding between us.