Religion & Jewish Life

With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — There’s a scene in the 1991 film “L.A. Story” where a waiter in a trendy eatery takes increasingly complex coffee orders from a table of Hollywood types, ending with the sublimely ridiculous “half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.”

What caused a guffaw back then might hardly merit a chuckle in today’s world of low-carb, no-sugar, gluten-free and locally sourced food preferences.

Add in kosher laws, and this laundry list of dietary restrictions can make hosting Shabbat and holiday meals a real headache.

“What we see in the Jewish community mirrors what we see in the larger community,” says Morlie Levin, CEO of Birthright Israel NEXT, which has subsidized nearly 12,000 home-hosted Shabbat meals for young alumni of its 10-day Israel programs over the past three years. “You can even get gluten-free challah now.”

In order to receive their subsidy, hosts in the program have to fill out questionnaires detailing what they served. The data show that 25 percent of the meals are vegetarian, 5 percent are vegan, 20 percent are organic and 30 percent are “local.” When the meals are meat-based, at least half of them offer a vegetarian option.

Staffers say they don’t hear many complaints about hard-to-handle dietary requests.

“My impression is that the people who host the meals are people who eat that way anyway,” says program manager Emily Comisar. “A vegetarian will host a vegetarian meal.”

In today’s society, it has become commonplace for hosts to ask guests about food restrictions ahead of time. The old standard, “Are you vegetarian?” has morphed into the broader query, “Is there anything you can’t eat?”

The change reflects a growing awareness of morally and spiritually motivated diets as well as actual food allergies.

Public relations consultant Gary Wexler was putting together a meal for a group of Jewish professionals in Los Angeles recently.

“This one doesn’t eat dairy,” he wrote in mock frustration. “This one doesn’t eat meat. This one only eats vegetarian. This one only eats vegetarian from a kosher restaurant. Is there anything I’m missing before I buy the food tomorrow???”

As someone who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, Wexler says he sympathizes. He belongs to an “empty nesters” Shabbat group that eats together one Friday night a month. While they are careful to prepare food he can eat — no legumes, low on dairy and leafy greens — there is always something he can’t eat.

“It’s become very PC and fashionable for people to ask if I have any food restrictions, especially younger people,” Wexler says. “But when they ask, what they mean is am I vegetarian. They’re not expecting some guy turning 60 to say yeah, I’ve got irritable bowel syndrome.”

Younger Jews certainly seem to be more attuned to particular eating, from those who want their produce to be locally sourced and pesticide-free to those who insist their meat be sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered. And it had better taste good, too.

“What’s changed in recent years is that many more people are presenting various food restrictions and preferences to the host with the expectation not only that they’ll be accommodated, but that the quality and sophistication of the food will be comparable to those without such restrictions,” says Rabbi Rebecca Joseph, chef-owner of 12 Tribes Kosher Foods in San Francisco.

In addition to her catering business, Joseph regularly hosts groups of up to 40 friends for Shabbat and holidays meals. Years ago the most common restriction she would hear was from people who did not want bread or dessert because they were dieting.

“We don’t hear that much anymore, but we do hear stand-ins,” Joseph says. “People who say they’re vegan or gluten-free, which often means they’re on a diet.”

While she says she would never dismiss a food allergy, Joseph says the growing awareness of such allergies leads some people to “medicalize” what are really food preferences.

“If they don’t like almonds, they think they have a physical reaction to it and they’ll say they’re allergic,” she says.

On the East Coast, Tamar Fox matches up people with hosts for Shabbat and holiday meals at Kehillat Hadar, an independent minyan in New York that caters to Jews in their 20s and 30s. Hadar has a published kosher policy that hosts are expected to follow.

Beyond that, Fox asks people whether they have dietary restrictions, and then tries to send them to appropriate hosts. It doesn’t always work, especially when food worlds collide.

“If someone is vegan, we try to give the hosts notice, but there are some hosts who can’t or won’t accommodate them,” she says. “The host might be lactose-intolerant, so prefers to serve a meat meal and can’t accommodate a vegan.”

Fox says she doesn’t get many ethically based food requests, although she recently hosted a guest who said he ate organic eggs only.

“He told me at the meal and there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” she says. “Generally I don’t hear people say they only eat organic or local. People do say, I’m vegetarian, I’m vegan, I don’t eat gluten.”

Fox says that recenty she has come across more and more people with food allergies. One person she hosted was allergic to dairy, fish, poultry, sesame oil and cantaloupe.

“That was pretty hard,” she says.

In general, Fox and her peers say they’re used to fielding such requests. It’s par for the course, especially in the under-40 generation.

Alix Wall, a personal chef in Oakland, Calif., says things have gotten out of hand. She loves to host Shabbat meals with a friend, and says the two of them sometimes don’t invite certain people because they don’t want to deal with the dietary restrictions.

“Sometimes we have to rule out certain combinations of people,” she tells JTA. “This one doesn’t eat meat, this one doesn’t eat wheat, so you’re left with nothing. You just have to throw up your hands.

“All the dietary stuff you have to deal with in the Bay Area is really annoying,” Wall adds. “Some of it is allergies, but a lot of it isn’t.”

Chalk it up to affluence, says Joseph.

“We live in a world of such abundance that we have the luxury of having a long list of things we won’t eat, and we still eat very well,” she says.

“This is a problem of an affluent society and,” referring to the Jewish community, “an affluent group within that society.”