Essay 8: The Sweat on the Brow of the Poor Hostess

by rosalyster

Type “Gluten intolerance is” into Google, and autocomplete gives you the following:

  • Gluten intolerance is fake
  • Gluten intolerance isn’t real
  • Gluten intolerance is it real?
  • Gluten intolerance is a myth

The first thing you get with “food allergies are” is “Food allergies are bullshit.” One of the first search results for that term is “Fuck parents and their brats with peanut allergies.” There is a long reddit thread called “Your gluten allergy is fake and I hate you.” There are hundreds of Daily Mail articles with a headline that is some version of “The Great Food Allergy Myth”, in which the writer gleefully reports the results of a recent study that is only marginally relevant. Blog post after blog post titled “Stop Lying about the Soya Allergy of Your Baby Who Sucks.”

Food sensitivity makes a certain type of person furious. It makes them hopping mad. You feel sad for them, because their life must be getting harder all the time. People are weirder about food now than they ever were, and of course it will only get worse. I do not believe there is anything that will change this, but it does not stop a certain type of person from trying. They call into the radio. They talk to me about it at a party. They write many joke articles. These are most often found in the back pages of in-flight magazines. They start like this:

 “I went to a dinner party the other night and there was one woman who said she was off gluten (whatever that means), a man who said he was a lacto-vegetarian (whatever THAT means), his daughter who was eating macrobiotically (seaweed?! The milk from a bee in the prime of her life?!?! One shudders to imagine), and an old friend who leaned confidentially across the table to assure me that my ongoing consumption of foods from the nightshade family were responsible for my divorce.”

In their explanation of what a nightshade is, the writer incorporates a reference to the witches in Macbeth. Depending on the magazine, it’s either something about “eye of newt” or Gwyneth Paltrow. Then an enraged description of a restaurant in Los Angeles where the bartenders are making Overpriced Cocktails out of whey. Then a few swings in the direction of future food trends: “In 2022, we will all sit down to a hearty supper of rust.” If the writer is feeling especially abrasive and clear-sighted, she will say something about “the body of a fourteen year old supermodel from Eastern Europe, fresh from the gulags.” I imagine her sitting at her little computers, legs swinging freely. Her cheeks are flushed with the joy of calling it like she sees it. She emails a first draft to her friend with the subject heading “Couldn’t resist making a quip about eating disorders! Naughty me :).” She is not smiling in real life.

She says, “The poor hostess had tried hard to accommodate us all.” When she says “us”, what she means is “Everyone except me.” It is usually at this point that the brakes are released. She stresses how much she loves food. Just all kinds of meals, from morning to night. Is it a kind of food? She loves it. She eats the whole thing right from the fridge. You know Nigella? Like that. You say a food, and the writer will say how much of it she can eat in a single sitting. She can do this because along with loving food, she loves to live, understand? Unlike the effete anorexics who were sitting next to her at supper, the writer knows how to enjoy herself. A clear causal link is made between not wanting to eat a bowl of cheese and not wanting to have sex or fun.

She talks about the sweat on the Poor Hostess’s brow. She says, “She finally brought forth a meal from the bowels of her kitchen. It was indescribable.” She goes on to describe it. She says, “It was carb-free, fat-free, nightshade-free, sugar-free, low in salt, high in fibre, and chock-full of anti-oxidants.” She says a thing about tiny portions and expecting that she will now live forever, such was the purported healthiness of the dinner. The punchline at the end of the article is that despite the efforts of the Poor Hostess, the food tasted gross. It tasted like dogshit. Pow. The last sentence is something about “stopped for a cheeseburger on the way home.” Zoom.

There were a lot of these sorts of articles being written in about 2013. I have noticed a definite drop-off in the last year or so.  Moaning about people with imagined food sensitivities seems quaint and somehow right-wing, now, like complaining about text speak. Not something that a sturdy adult should be worrying about too much. That ship has entirely sailed, and everyone on board thinks they are allergic to beans. It’s not so bad. I have never been to supper at someone’s house where the food has been ruined by these sorts of problems.

I can be all lofty and magnanimous about this because I have my mother’s old recipe books from the seventies in front of me as I write this. What I mean is: we should be grateful. We have never had it this good. Whatever is going on with the current weirdness about food, it is as nothing to what was going on there in the seventies. People forget.

Here is a recipe for “Nut Sauce”, in which the four ingredients are as follows:

  1. Nuts
  2. Lemon Juice
  3. Sugar
  4. Mayonnaise

That’s Nut Sauce. If you feel like making a dish of Mock Sausages, the things you need are:

  1. Beans
  2. A cup of cream
  3. 1 egg
  4. Half a tsp of sage

Don’t worry if you don’t have the sage.

My mum once went round the table and asked everyone what their scariest movie was. Three people said The Shining. Someone said Rosemary’s Baby, and someone said The Ring. I said The X-Files, which everyone said was a shitty answer, because The X-Files is neither scary nor a movie. The best answer was from my parents’ best friend, Allan. He said Cape Fear. I asked him why, and he said, “The part where he is holding on to the bottom of the car. That’s when you realise Jesus Christ, this guy will stop at nothing.”

That’s how I feel about the recipe books of the seventies. These guys will stop at nothing. If you would like a recipe for “Savoury Veal Birds”, I can tell you how to make it. The suggested dessert pairing is “Toffee-topped grape cream.” Everything with mayonnaise. Everything with a tin of tuna. Everything with fruit in, and if you don’t have an apple, you can just swap it for a tin of pineapple. If you need to make a pie, and have none of the ingredients to make pastry, it doesn’t matter. A pie is when you soak bread in milk and mix it with your old vegetables.  Everything with straight cream in it, or tinned soup. If you want to make something taste better, you should add Aromat.

I bet you if I was in the seventies it would be me in the back of the in-flight magazine, spreading the word. I would not be afraid to tell the truth. It would be me, moaning and complaining about how disgusting everything was. Yet another dinner party ruined because people are such freaks with food now. With what they think is normal to make me eat. Describing the sweat on the brow of the Poor Hostess as she brought forth a supper of hot fruit in meat. I would write hundreds of joke articles, and I wouldn’t mind that they were not funny.