The neglected guest
Let’s be honest, many of us get anxious when we hear that one or more of our guests are vegetarian. We wring our hands, scratch our heads and wonder what the heck to make for them.
Tell me you’ve never been embarrassed when a guest sits down at the table and says, apologetically: “I’m vegetarian.” We start to fumble, apologise and scan the table for the dishes that they can eat.
Most vegetarians will let you know beforehand that they don’t eat meat; however, this is no guarantee of a vegetarian-friendly meal. There are many people in the Caribbean, especially the older generation who believe in meat.
Do you remember that line in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the aunt learns that the groom doesn’t eat meat?
“What do you mean you don’t eat meat?” she asks. Then she decides on what she thinks is a workable compromise: “Oh that’s okay. I make lamb.”
Many of my vegetarian friends have similar Vege Horror Tales. Like my friend whose aunt used to try and hide the meat under the rice on her plate. Or the other pal whose mother felt that once she took the pig tail out of the rice before she served it then that was okay. Perhaps the most common Vege Horror Tale is arriving at a celebration, being assured there will be vegetarian dishes and finding one lonely, wilting garden salad on a buffet-table of meaty riches.
It seems to me that if we take care in ensuring our meat-eating guests are happy and satisfied, and if we make certain that guests with allergies are happy healthy and satisfied, then we should be equally interested in guaranteeing that our vegetarian guests are taken care of.
One of the first things you should find out is what type of vegetarian your guest is. Confused? Let me explain.
* Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume dairy products and eggs.
* Lacto vegetarians consume dairy products but no eggs.
* Ovo vegetarians eat eggs but not meat or any dairy products.
* Vegans do not consume animal products of any kind.
Do note that there are no chickotarians on this list. My friend Julia says that when she was thinking about becoming vegetarian she met a lot of people who said: “Yes I’m a vegetarian too, I only eat fish and chicken.” When did a chicken become a vegetable?
Once you’ve established what type of vegetarians there are among your guests, set about giving the food you will make for them the same amount of thought, attention and care as you would for the dishes being prepared for your other guests. Do not let your vegetarian dishes be an afterthought! Don’t let it be a case of always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
Spend as much time looking for vegetarian dishes and ideas as you do browsing through cookbooks and the Internet for new and different ways to make your meat, poultry or seafood dish. Think of the meal you will prepare for them as a whole meal and not just a side dish. Many of us have been guilty of preparing only starchy side dishes.
Let’s use the opportunity to learn about something new, like cooking with tofu, soy chunks, various legumes and unfamiliar vegetables. Let’s turn our attention to herbs and spices, they offer depth and character and can elevate almost any dish. One never wants their guest to hesitate in accepting an invitation because you are going to make the same thing you made the last time you had them over last month, the week before that and the time before that too.
And one does not even have to be vegetarian to feel that way! There is nothing more boring than to eat the same thing every time you’re invited out. Mix it up, if you made vegetable lasagna the last time make a vegetable pelau this time or something else.
A frequent complaint some vegetarians have is that everything made for them is smothered in cheese. Yes, cheese is delicious and tasty and I think people add it to vegetarian meals as an easy way to add protein. But there’s more to vegetarian food than cheese, and there are many other sources of protein from string beans to zucchinis, from almonds to walnuts.
We really have little or no excuse as most cuisines offer elegant and gourmet vegetarian dishes. We just need to make the effort and time to learn and practice and not see a vegetarian dish as a burden to go along with the stress of entertaining but rather as an opportunity to show our vegetarian guests how highly they are thought of.
This week I made a few dishes just to flex my vegetarian cooking muscles. You can visit the blog for more vegetarian ideas.
I encourage you to make at least two dishes and don’t forget that the garden or tossed salad does not count.
Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
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