At Hy-Vee grocery store, pushed off into a corner by the pharmacy, is an area called the Health Market. Sequestered away from the other packaged products, that’s where you’ll find the organic foods, gluten-free items, products without high fructose corn syrup, vegan specialty products, and the like.
I feel conflicted about the cordoned off Health Market. On the one hand, it makes it very convenient for me. I don’t have to walk the huge span of the store from aisle to aisle to get most of the things I need. I can just wander the few short aisles of the Health Market and be in and out in about 10 minutes. On the other hand, I am not in love with the idea of removing all of these foods and pushing them to the area by the pharmacy, because it gives the impression that the foods are somehow medicinal or lacking or weird. Because while, yes, there are beans, and grains, and whatnot in the Health Market, there are also potato chips and candy bars. Perhaps they’re made with less processed or organic ingredients in some cases, but at the end of the day, they’re still just potato chips and candy bars.
I was in the Health Market last week when a lady pushing a cart rolled by the aisles, peeking up each one hesitantly. There was a girl stocking one of the shelves, and the lady asked, “Is this the normal food?”
“Well, it’s the Health Market,” the girl answered back.
“Oh,” the lady said slowly. “Right, right…” And with an air of distrust that the potato chips might jump off the shelf and bite her, she backed away and walked off to find the normal food, wherever that is.
I’m telling this story now at the holidays, because there’s a chance that the lady in the Health Market may be going to your Thanksgiving. Your potato chips may seem weird or strange to her, simply because they’re not the brand she usually buys. You may think it’s odd when she won’t eat your potato chips, which you know are just made with potatoes, oil, and salt – the same ingredients as the chips in her “normal” choice.
Most of the people in my life are not vegan or vegetarian. Over the years, I’ve made food for these friends and family. There have been plenty of times when people were eager and happy and complimentary afterwards. Some of them have made me feel really special when they gushed over some dish that I made or sent me a message after a dinner party to tell me again how much they enjoyed my cooking. And there have been other times when my cooking has been… less well received.
Wot is this?
One year I attended a holiday potluck, where David and I were the only vegetarians or vegans in attendance. The potluck wasn’t specifically geared for traditional holiday fare only. People were bringing whatever they wanted. Knowing that some people can be hesitant about eating tofu or seitan, I wanted to opt for dishes that were all based on foods that I knew everyone there already ate – potatoes, carrots, split peas, onions, garlic…
Regular readers will know I’m an enormous fan of Ethiopian food, and so I thought that would be a great fit. The Ethiopian dishes I make are very whole foods based, not a tofu cube in the bunch. With injera for scooping up the stews, I knew there wouldn’t be anyone else at the potluck with the same dish. Plus, I knew that none of the other people at the potluck had ever eaten Ethiopian food. I love trying out new cuisines and dishes, and I thought they would have fun with it.
So I made infused oil for the stews from scratch, prepared three stews, and spent the morning of the potluck frying a platter full of injera. I overheard a few people at the gathering trying to explain it.
“It’s like a pancake?”
I described what you did and how it was eaten. There was enough that everyone could have some on their own personal plates, and not on a shared platter as is traditional.
So I have to admit that after the meal was over, my heart sank when I saw that outside of me and David almost no one ate any of it. All of the time I’d spent in the kitchen making the three different stews and frying all of the injera, and most people didn’t even try it.
Now, there are any number of reasons why people didn’t try it. Maybe their plates were already full with things that were familiar, things they knew they liked. Maybe they still felt unsure about how to go about eating it; although, even if someone had just eaten the potatoes and carrots with a fork, say, it still would have been good. Maybe they assumed they wouldn’t like Ethiopian spices. I really can’t say for sure. I can say that after spending a lot of time and energy, it was disheartening to go home with containers of untouched food. I had looked forward to sharing an experience and a cuisine that I value with people who are important to me.
Na’an For Me, Thanks
Like the lady in the Health Market or like an acquaintance of mine recently who told me that he’d never eaten Indian food because he was “afraid” of it, not everyone wants a new experience. Not everyone wants to try something new, even if it’s food they already eat (carrots, potatoes, onions) being labeled in a new way (Ethiopian or vegan). Some people are happy with what is familiar. And it’s not because they have an ethical issue with split peas, can’t eat injera for religious reasons, or because they are sensitive or averse to carrots. I wouldn’t expect people to drop their ethical beliefs over a potluck. But like I said – this is food they already eat. So steering clear of something because it’s “vegan” is about staying in their comfort zone more than it is about politics.
Over the years that I’ve been vegan, I’ve had people not try my salsa (even though most salsa is vegan anyway) and not eat fries at a vegan restaurant (because the restaurant was vegan and even though most fries are vegan anyway). Some people have a real negativity or bias against the word even before they’ve tasted the food, even though vegan food is just food.
So as we enter the potluck season, it’s good to prepare with positivity – remembering that many people will be receptive and delighted and surprised by the delicious food that the vegan at the potluck makes. (I had a party with a spread of appetizers for David’s birthday. Everything went over fantastically well, and the only vegans in attendance were me and David.) But it’s also good to have the awareness that some people may not even be open to trying it. And if this happens to you, try to detach. It’s not about you or what you brought or your cooking. Though it can be disappointing when you spend a lot of time and money making things only to have what you gave be ignored or treated with suspicion, it’s not about you.
Now when I’m making dishes for a big holiday or event, I do it because I will like it. If I want kale salad on Christmas, then that’s what I make. If I want a complicated dessert, that’s what I make. If I make something that’s involved or arduous, I do it for me. I do it because on that holiday, it will make me happy to eat it. I can’t control anyone’s reaction except my own.
Also, over the years I’ve tried to adjust my expectations and make food with the particular audience in mind. Before I prepare for a gathering, I think about what they might like or what will be familiar. I think about my past history with these people, and how open they will be to my cooking relative to the amount of time I spend on it. And if it will make me happy to spend hours in the kitchen preparing it, I do. But if spending hours preparing food only to have it be ignored will hurt my feelings or ruin my day, I make something that is less involved – for my own sanity.
The Diamond or the Rock
I cooked for a couple of non-vegan friends recently, one of whom spent time in Ethiopia as a teen, and I absolutely loved making a spread of wots for them. It filled my heart with so much love and joy when she couldn’t stop eating at the table, even when she admitted she was well past full. So I sent her home with the leftovers, and then she texted that she continued eating the leftovers on her way home in the car.
Sometimes you give a gift, and you know that people received exactly the same thing you’ve given. You give a diamond, and that’s what they get. And sometimes you give a diamond, and the person looks at it, and you can tell that they’ve received a rock. And you don’t know how it happened. You worked hard and you made it with love, but nevertheless, they’re underwhelmed and standing with a rock in their hands.
We can’t control what other people see when we give a gift to them. We can only give a gift because we want to and then hope for the best.