x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

1,001 Arabian bites: Honesty and disclosure should be served up regularly

Eating food made by others is a leap of faith, especially for people whose destiny could be determined by a fragment of a peanut, so surprises are not recommended.

Pea soup in a country bowl surrounded by fresh peas and croutons.
Pea soup in a country bowl surrounded by fresh peas and croutons.

If ignorance is bliss, then euphoria must be an acquired taste. I know it's just a figure of speech, but every time someone asks: "Can I be totally honest with you?" or begins a sentence with: "To be completely honest", the words reverberate through my core like a tin cup rattling against prison bars. The ultimate social lubricant is an invisible, user-friendly cocktail; it's based on the fiery spirit of full disclosure with a truth-serum float.

I usually like surprises, but not in the form of surprise guests, who rate somewhere between black ice and bubonic plague on my fun-o-metre. An even scarier thought is that I won't make people feel welcome when I really do want them in my home. For example, when I invited a friend over last month for a dinner of black-bean soup, roasted chicken, salad and homemade ice cream for dessert, my bad memory ended up being the death-knell of my buddy's dinner. His allergy to beans, intolerance of lactose, and inexplicable hatred of dark meat had inconveniently slipped off my radar. Eating food made by others is a leap of faith, especially for people such as my friend Jon, a former college quarterback whose destiny could be determined by a fragment of a peanut.

If I'm serving pea soup that was flavoured with a bone, it's not getting served to vegetarians. I disclose everything, even when I'm biting my tongue to keep my inner brat in check. One Thanksgiving dinner, I was setting the table, the potatoes were roasting and the turkey was resting, when a boss's insufferable wife waltzed in and announced that she eats "everything" except organ meats, which she finds "icky". I had made my gravy (replete with imperceptibly small pieces of caramelised turkey heart and giblets) for the bird and had no time to make another. I came clean about the organ meats in the gravy, she made a face, and her turkey didn't taste as good as mine.

I have a few vegetarian friends who are in a persistent state of denial about the presence of meat and meat-based stocks in restaurant food. Unable to completely give up their favourite dishes, or perhaps unwilling to fathom the volume of chicken stock that gets used in restaurants, they develop a form of selective eyesight unique to them, ordering things that I swear contain meat and then insisting it's meat-free, as though denial is an alchemical condiment that can transform shredded beef into soy protein. If you're a committed vegetarian and you eat out, think about it. If you're not committed, well, you might not want to think too hard.

My beloved pea soup is sort of a Pandora's box of soups. I once worked with a chef whose eagerness to misrepresent the source of his signature pea soup made it difficult for me to work with him. Just outside the English city of Cambridge, in the village of Newton, The Queen's Head is a legendary pub whose specialty is a nameless, ever-changing, secret soup that bears a different colour and flavour every day (and often contains peas). It simmers in a cauldron on the bar all day long. Patrons can see a colour chart to try to match the soup's hue (greenish, reddish-brown, dark brown) with the most likely taste experience. Some folk believe that the dregs of each day's soup are used as the starter formula for the next day's batch, and that this way, the soup has been topped off and evolving for generations. I love this idea. It sounds an incredibly delicious, brilliant idea for people who are satisfied with having few choices, little information, no disclosure, and just a really good bowl of soup with a hunk of crusty bread. It's not a concept I can easily see working outside of Europe.

Last month, after two days of eating with a visiting friend from Germany, he noted with some displeasure that the automatic modification of restaurant dishes is a trend that has swept across the US and into Europe: have it your way, all the time, every time. Since I'd just ordered a salad with the ranch dressing (one of my least-favourite things on the planet) replaced with sides of blue cheese and balsamic vinaigrette (a sublime combination, for anyone who hasn't tried swirling the two together over a plate of greens and sliced tomatoes), I didn't have much to say. His opinion made me wonder if too much disclosure has given consumers an inflated sense of control and participation. Does full disclosure help to cultivate an entitled, individualist culture?

My friend recalled his German childhood, when no one was asked what they wanted to eat; they were simply given what was there. "Stop asking people to tell you what they don't eat. That way you won't feel so bad about not being able to accommodate everyone. I don't know how most people cook at home anymore, with everyone's ridiculous food preferences." He was kidding, but I don't agree with my friend on this. It's not my job to judge or to try to fix a person's prerogative. If they're dining at my house, it is my job to try to accommodate them. Mandatory disclosure and informed consent are about respect. People have the right to decide what to put into their bodies and shouldn't need to produce a manifesto to defend what they don't want to eat. What difference does it make if the hypothetical vegetarian in your life was born into a lifetime of religious vegetarianism, or if this is someone who became vegetarian very recently because it felt right? Obviously, there's a difference in accountability between avoiding walnuts in brownies because you don't like them, and avoiding walnuts because they'll send you into anaphylactic shock, but self-preservation is the responsibility of the consumer.

Closing a menu after placing an order is an act of confidence and resignation. The act of eating out involves putting your trust in an establishment, even when you know there's risk involved; risk of disliking the food, risk of wasting money, risk of getting sick. Part of what we pay for is the potential to derive pleasure from a transfer of power, from entrusting someone to feed you. A chef friend told me: "Happiness is one door to bliss, but not the only one." I think he was on to something. Knowledge is power, but power isn't worth much, and besides: you have to watch your appetite for it.