Food and other allergies

We’ve been talking, in terms of group work, about how to handle things like food allergies.

Why relevant?

Food allergies are relevant in a couple of ways.

We share some kind of food and drink in ritual.

Generally, this is bread and wine (or mead, or maybe beer or ale), but generally alcohol. I generally make the bread, which uses white flour (wheat based). I’ve done cornbread, but I haven’t experimented with gluten-free baking (and because of the relative expense of the necessary ingredients and storage issues in a tiny kitchen, don’t anticipate doing so, honestly, on any kind of regular basis.)

I feel pretty strongly that the altar food should include food and drink transformed by living beings in the cooking process – so as risen breads and alcohol are. However, having other options as well is fine by me. (My current student suggested mango lassi or other yogurt drinks as a great alcohol substitute, too.)

We make a point of shared food after ritual.

Good food and drink is actually an explicit value of the group, and we like paying attention to where our food comes from, seasonality, and other details like that. Currently, we’re just planning a shared meal (as it’s a little weird to do potluck with 2 people) – you’ve seen the photos of our Ostara meal. Our new moon meal last weekend involved cold roast chicken (roasted that afternoon), herb bread, baked mushrooms, salad, and oatmeal cookies, along with wine.

The trick is, people have food allergies. In our previous group work, we’ve seen everything from people who can eat anything, but who show up with a bag of chips, to people who can only eat 2 or 3 very specific foods – and the people who (despite being prompted twice beforehand) don’t mention they have food allergies until 2 minutes before ritual.

Clearly, we want a way to handle all of these competing issues in a way that is sane for us, and sufficiently healthy for others. Equally obviously “Do you have any food or other allergies” is a necessary part of our pre-ritual questions for guests.

Ritual food:

I have two major goals for ritual food.

1) That we do our best to come up with an in-ritual food alternative that they can have at the same time.For example, we might have alternate chalice with juice or water for those who don’t drink alcohol, or a small bowl of apple slices for someone who is gluten intolerant.

2) That the alternate be appropriate to the season and ritual. My preference for this is to talk to them in advance, figure out an alternative they can eat (by running through some options) and provide it in the same way we provide the bread. (Either I provide it, or whoever does has it ready to go when they arrive.) This reduces pre-ritual fussing. If that’s not possible (their diet is so restricted they need really specific foods), then I’d ask them to bring what made the most sense.

Advance warning:

Obviously, this means they have to let me know in advance – so “Do you have any food allergies or other medical needs” is high on the list of things to ask when inviting a guest.

That said, I’ve seen more than one situation where people have been told clearly they need to let people know about allergies – and not mentioned it until they show up in ritual. This leads to my own personal policy:

If you don’t tell me at least 24 hours in advance of ritual (barring truly last minute changes) of an issue, I’m not going to run around trying to accommodate it by running out to the store, trying to find an alternative in the cupboard, an appropriate size bowl to put it in, etc. It’s important to me that the immediately pre-ritual time be as calm as possible.

If someone doesn’t tell me, they still have options – the most obvious being to simply bow their head over the food and drink to acknowledge the blessing. Again, I’m not expecting them to know they need to mention it: I’m just expecting they’ll tell me when asked, or cope with the consequences of not doing so.

Post-ritual feasting:

My current favorite phrase for this is ‘additive, not restrictive’.

In other words, if you can’t eat something, but it will not cause you physical harm to be in the same room with it, then other people may bring it. And, of course, if it will be unhealthy for you to be in the same room, we want to avoid it.

On the other hand, if it’s just something you can’t eat (but can be around) or just don’t like, we will do our best to make sure there are at least 2-3 foods that any given person can eat. And if we have people with restricted food choices even from what’s there, perhaps that they get first dibs at the food in the very sensible tradition of alt.polycon’s Decadent Brunch.

L and I do not have food allergy issues, but all three of the guests for our Beltane have foods they can’t eat or shouldn’t have. I just sent out the email for that, which is somewhat complex (because it includes both “Don’t bring at all” lists and “Here’s specifics for stuff that must be carefully labelled/someone can’t have” but at the same time, means people can see for themselves whether something will work (and know who to contact in case of questions. I believe this will work – update when we get past May 3rd.

General theory of ritual food:

As it says in one of my info-documents-in-draft: “If you bring a bag of chips, you may be teased.”

There is encouragement to bring ‘real’ food (few preservatives, perhaps from the local area/your garden/the farmer’s market/other sustainable sources.) I can’t always afford to do what I did for the New Moon, and spring for a free-range no-hormone chicken to roast (or the equivalent) for all my food needs, but I do try hard to do so for ritual and post-ritual foods. There are a surprising number of inexpensive but filling post-ritual options (must do a post about those, too.)

That said, people have different resources – money, time to cook, ability to get to local markets. I would be quite happy with almost anything *except* “I stopped by the gas station on the way here and got a bag of chips” (which shows lack of forethought). Even a deli salad or fresh fruit (assuming it’s seasonally appropriate) makes a lot more sense.

My real concern is that people are thinking about it somewhat in advance, and trying to find something that will be lovely and suitable for the day. (i.e. bring a food you yourself will enjoy, and that is not served miserably out of season. Supermarket tomatoes in winter are an okay ingredient, but they shouldn’t be served like you’d serve a heirloom tomato warm from somone’s garden in the summer – which, okay, needs very little help or additional preparation, in my book. Maybe a little basil and olive oil. Mmm.)

You get the idea, I hope – it’s mostly about attention to what you bring, and how you wrap that into the total ritual experience, for me. There are many paths to that goal.

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