Slate recently reposted an article by J. Bryan Lowder arguing that chicken stock isn’t “real meat” due to the small percentage of animal flesh actually present in the ingredient. The author then goes on to recount a time when, even though he was cooking for vegetarians, he added chicken stock. Lowder defended his actions by stating, “The addition of my carefully crafted homemade stock to the risotto was not malicious.” He goes on to note that his kitchen operates on a strict, “don’t ask don’t tell policy.” Translation? He unwittingly served a meat byproduct to people who have for religious, health, or ethical reasons, chosen to abstain.
Needless to say, the post reignited a fierce debate online. Even though my last cheeseburger was sixteen years ago, I’m still the proud granddaughter of a (plot twist!) cattle rancher. I know bullshit when I smell it. I would like to pretend I met this absurdist confession with the Gandhi-like calm of someone who was in the right. But no matter what way I slice it (not like vegetarians have much experience slicing anything) Lowder’s strange advocacy for chicken stock doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
For starters, when did dinner parties become an excuse to stroke the host’s ego, even if he’s capable of making food with ingredients that can be described as “classic 12-bar blues chord progression, somewhat blank on its own yet pregnant with infinite melodic possibilities?” Look sir, I know hipster bistros. I love hipster bistros. Just ask Little Pine and Real Foods Daily, which at this point are probably the twin reasons I’ll never be able to afford to retire. If I want a word salad of ingredients (or actual salad), they’re on speed dial. (And may or may not be marked as “boyfriend.”) But if I want human contact, a chance to catch up with old friends, and maybe—just maybe—to eat something enjoyable, I’ll give up an evening, fight traffic, and haul myself across town to a friend’s house. Don’t sweat the menu too much Mr. Lowder, you already have friends willing to brave the New York transit system during rush hour. In adult terms, that’s right up there with declaring yourselves blood brothers.
Given that, no one is going to ask you to “whip up some creepily earthy vegetable stock to make a special, separate batch of risotto.” I promise. What we persnickety vegetarians might do however is forego the main course in favor of extra salad and dessert, bring a veggie friendly dish to share, or eat before or after the party. (Pro tip: If you’re worried about our mood, provide wine.) Rarely do I feel right in speaking for a whole group, but this is a rare exception. With a proper heads up, we’ll happily take any of these actions, especially if it means escaping meat poisoning. As established, we already like you enough to sit and make small talk while our TiVos fill up with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
But when you take away my right to decide what to eat or not eat, that’s when things go pear-shaped. It doesn’t matter if chicken stock will “literally kill you via a spectacularly violent allergic reaction,” cause a night of unpleasant toilet activities, or simply make someone shudder at the thought of unknowingly eating animal. I don’t care if the culinary subterfuge is in the name of a dish that’s, to quote Lowder, “freaking delicious.” I don’t care if it’s like when my dad told me he was taking me to Disneyland and instead took me to botanical garden instead because “yea educational experiences!” Hell, I don’t even care if you fancy yourself Jessica Seinfeld for the carnivorous set. As a host you have an obligation to make someone feel comfortable in your home—which no one will be if they’re wondering what’s really in the secret sauce.
Just in case you missed it, I’ll say it again: It is important to gain consent before administering the meat in any form.
As a woman who will turn her nose up at chicken stock, I will agree with the author that there are times when refusing a dish on the basis of its ingredients is rude. Like, if I’m in rural Mongolia and a family has slaughtered their prize goat in my honor. (A hypothetical I’m plucking directly from “An Idiot Abroad.”) Dinner with an affluent white man living in New York claiming hardship because a guest politely declines a dish that has ingredients in it that could make her emotional/physically ill? This is why the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems was invented.
But perhaps the most troubling element of Lowder’s article was the implied definition of friendship. Is it naïve to believe the friends I’ve chosen to surround myself with actually have my best interests at heart, even if they don’t always understand my choices? Lying to each other, even about banal issues breaks down the circle of trust. And in case you missed it—adding even the smallest ingredient that contains 5 percent “gelatin and other soluble proteins and amino acids (e.g. MSG), minerals, traces of fat, and aroma chemicals, mainly aldehydes derived from the fats” isn’t exactly banal.
But hey, who am I to judge? Maybe Lowder’s dinner party was a strict foodies-only affair and he knew his friends were the kind of vegetarians that will occasionally turn a blind eye. (No judgment!) Maybe he omitted the bit about a man in a baklava, holding a gun that forced him to invite vegetarians to his gathering. Or maybe he’s just fearlessly upfront about his stance on dietary absolutism. (He did write this article after all.) The fact remains that even though it’s not a morally neutral ground, he can do whatever he wants in the privacy of his own home.
Just don’t invite me over.
Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles-based writer. Sometimes she can go several hours without a cup of tea. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo by Gloria Cabada-Leman CC BY