Recent Comments


    Picky Is as Picky Does

    Leah Garchik

    By Leah Garchik–

    I decided to serve Waldorf salad for the first course at a dinner party we had some years ago, when there were 10 or so guests seated around the dining room table. As I remember, this particular recipe included apples, walnuts, grapes, celery, parsley, and a dressing made of lemon juice, mayonnaise, and yogurt. I’d dished it out on small plates I’d stacked on the dinner plate that was at the center of each place setting.

    When the most dawdling eater had put down his salad fork—and isn’t there always someone at the dinner table who’s been so busy making an oration that when the fastest eater is using a chunk of bread to wipe up the last of the dressing, he hasn’t even picked up his fork?—my helpful mate collected the small plates to pile them in the sink.

    But first they had to be scraped.

    He started doing that job. About 30 seconds after clearing those plates from the table, and by the time I returned to the kitchen to ready the next course, my man had taken the trash can out from under the sink. He was standing beside it, holding each used dish, one by one, in his left hand, and in the right a knife he was using to scrape that dish clean.

    With all those ingredients in the salad, every plate removed from the table was a final resting place for at least one rejected ingredient. As he worked, he rapped, sotto voce, a sing-song ditty he composed as he went along: “This one doesn’t eat this,” scrape scrape, “That one doesn’t eat that.”

    As he made his way through the pile of 10 plates, the chore settled into a steady rhythm, and his language got stronger. By the last two plates, and the last two verses, sung over the scraping of a bunch of celery bits and then walnut halves, “S-face doesn’t eat this” and “Ass- doesn’t eat that.”

    This kitchen performance is remembered with delight and gravity. It was a teachable moment. Around our house, that’s what we think of picky eaters.

    I confess, Count 1: I am the mean old lady who at Thanksgiving, when one adored grandchild refuses any of the offerings on the buffet table, refuses to make her a sandwich. I am the suspicious host who, upon noticing that the pants of the woman who has just proclaimed herself gluten-free are tight around her backside, wonders if her faux-celiac is a cover-up for dieting (and the woman has been unable to convince her insurance company to pay for Ozempic).

    And I confess, Count 2: To make matters worse, I am not only mean, but hypocritical. For 55 years, I have been a vegetarian, causing other people the same oh-god-what-do-I-feed-her grief that I so reject when it comes to my presiding over the kitchen.

    I never miss eating meat. My stomach turns at the juicy Impossible Burger, and I much prefer chowing down on soy-based hockey puck-like substitutes. But I can’t ignore that, for all this time, the real down side of going vegetarian is that it’s a pain in the neck to other people, particularly the people who are hosting you in their own homes.

    I have actually made inquiries to professionals—in my former job at The San Francisco Chronicle, I came face to face with Dear Abby—about this. Is it polite to tell the host about your food preferences beforehand? If you do that, doesn’t that indicate that you expect someone to prepare something special for you?

    In my experience, if the vegetarian shows up in a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals t-shirt, propounding in favor of chickens’ natural life spans, the host, panicked, may feel compelled to run into the kitchen to whip together an omelet. The host is uncomfortable; the guest is uncomfortable.

    This is not necessary, I have said; I’m perfectly willing to eat around the meat part of the meal. If I am served a plate that includes a piece of fish, for example, I might suggest before I tuck into the broccoli that the host might want to remove the fish from the plate, so that someone else can eat it.

    As for my dinner, I have such a hearty appetite—something like that of a bear awakening from hibernation—that I can make a meal out of the salad or the succotash, or a plate of lettuce, a bowl of nuts (particularly useful because the delicate sucking and slurping removal of the nut chunks that have lodged between one’s teeth provide busywork for the time everyone else is cutting up their salmon).

    If it’s something like a lasagna that is served, I will push aside most of the chopped meat and just gobble the rest. I am sure that bits of cow flesh have made it down my throat, but I don’t much care. It’s the thought that counts, and I don’t want to plant the thought that Leah needs special treatment into anyone else’s head. In a restaurant that serves asparagus soup, I do not make inquiries to patient waiters about whether chicken stock is used. As long as there are neither chunks of meat nor feathers in the soup, I’m ready to gulp it down. And if there are those in the soup, I push them aside and gulp away.

    But here I find myself facing the third count of the hypocrisy indictment: I eat kosher salami. I probably wouldn’t take a big bite of my hard salami on rye in front of a hostess whose veal marsala I have rejected on principle, but, in fact, and usually in private, I eat salami. I know, this is like a diabetic revealing that she’s a closeted fiend for Baked Alaska, but hey, I’m trying to be truthful here.

    Here in Northern California, I’m more apt to find myself at a sushi soirée, short rib rumpus, or shrimp social than a kosher salami-fest. But if the occasion arises, especially if hot-and-sweet mustard is on the table, I have a ready response to any dining companion who, upon seeing me piling slices of salami on fresh rye bread, questions the sincerity of my devotion to all things cruciferous, broccoli and cauliflower, for example.

    “I thought you were a vegetarian!” they say indignantly, as though I’d told them I loved my mother and then they came upon me standing over her prone body with a bloody knife in my hand. “What’s with the salami?”

    For such occasions, I have over the years perfected an adorable little shrug, accompanied by a self-knowing rolling of my eyes and a punch line. “I am not the Taliban. I can have exceptions.”

    Leah Garchik is a former “San Francisco Chronicle” columnist, who joyously picked her way through many gala dinners.

    Published on June 13, 2024