March 11, 2013

“No Cheese, Please!”: A Guide to Attending Catered Events as a Vegan with Food Sensitivities

I've been vegan for a long time, and though some family and friends have yet to fully understand what veganism is – I'm always offered cake and ice cream at birthday parties – they are always concerned that I'll have enough to eat at special events. They are Italian, after all ;) It is very sweet of them, but I do my best to be responsible for my own eats so that they have one less thing to think about.

When I attended parties before I got sick, they'd ask me if I could eat anything there, and I'd tell them not to worry. If I didn't bring a veggie burger to throw on the grill (in foil!), there was always lettuce, fruit, and pretzels, and sometimes I'd even make a sandwich with a mountain of vegetables and a squirt of mustard. It wasn't ideal, but I could always eat later.

Post-sickness, I've had to be more diligent about eating well and not skipping meals. I abstain from more foods than I used to, and I need to have a balanced meal in order to feel like a sane person. I can't survive on bread anymore – my intake of gluten and yeast would be in the “rarely” category – nor can I survive on a tiny iceberg salad or roasted potatoes – neither will satiate nor give me enough energy, and the latter is usually covered in hydrogenated vegetable oils.

If I am going to a casual get-together, it's easy to call the host up beforehand to discuss options. Most often I'll offer to bring a dish that I can share with people. Getting proper food accommodations is more tricky when the event is formal and the food is catered. When I am invited to a catered event, I have 2 choices: Ask the caterer to accommodate my dietary needs or bring food for myself. I've done both. Here's the low-down on the former.

How to Ask for Accommodations:

1. Make 2 lists: "What I don't eat" and "What I do eat".

Write down foods and ingredients that you don't eat like meat, seafood, soy, gluten, sugar, MSG, food coloring, etc. Include foods that the chef or caterer may not realize have animal products or your offending allergens in them. For example, soup broth can be made from animal stock, pasta sauce can have cheese in it, and salad dressings are often made with egg yolks.
Jot down “safe” foods to show what a suitable meal for you may look like. Try not to get too fancy here. The more basic, the better. 

2. If it is being held at a restaurant, check to see if the menu is available online. 

Take note of what they normally offer and what foods are likely to be regularly stocked in their kitchens. For example, if you see that they have portobello mushrooms in a dish, they may be able to prepare an entree for you with marinated portobello caps.

3. Call the catering company/restaurant and explain your dietary needs, giving suggestions of foods that are acceptable for your diet.

For example, if you are a gluten-free vegan you can say, “I am a vegan and am sensitive to gluten products. Would it be possible to substitute a sweet potato for the pasta in the vegetarian option of penne pasta with roasted vegetables?”

Call well in advance. For a larger event, you may want to call a couple months ahead of time, and then check in with them again two weeks before the event.

4. When you arrive at the event, be sure that the catering staff is aware of your dietary needs.

This is last minute insurance in case there was a break in the lines of communication within the company (it happens). If so, it gives them time to whip something up before the meals are served.

5. No matter what happens with your meal, be gracious to the host.

Hosting an event is hard work, and the host is often buzzing around from corner to corner to insure that everything is just as it should be. If the caterer messes up your meal, take it in stride. It's one meal and you will survive! Take this moment to remind yourself that there are many enjoyable things about the event that aren't food related. If yours is a scenario in which you must have an acceptable meal because of a medical condition, pay attention to the second example below where I'll give you some ideas of how you can turn around a meal experience gone bad.

My Personal Experience, The Good and Bad:

The Wedding Shower at a Quaint Italian Restaurant

Eating at Italian restaurants, with their glutenous dishes smothered in pounds of cheese and chunks of processed meats, can be a challenge for vegans with gluten sensitivities. The chef was open to suggestions but skeptical we could put together a meal that fit my criteria. This is when the trusty list comes in handy!

When I had scanned the online menu, I noticed that they had a pasta dish with white beans and escarole. I also noted that many of their salads were vegan. After some discussion, we came up with a balanced, filling meal for me. Since gluten-free noodles weren't available (I knew it was a long shot), I asked if I could get a plate of vegetables – a variety of any he had in the kitchen – with the beans and escarole. I told him a toss in olive oil, salt and pepper would suffice, but he did me one better. He told me he could fix up a marinara sauce that would meet my needs (their house marinara had cheese in it).

On the day of the shower, I arrived and let them know I was the gluten-free vegan. My salad was really fresh, not dried out and flavorless like premixed bags of salad so often served in restaurants. It came with a side of their house dressing, but because the it tasted so great already, a spritz of lemon was all the dressing I wanted! When the main came out, my jaw dropped. The super-sized vegetable saute made two large meals for me. He added zucchini, bell peppers, and onion to the beans and greens. The garlicky, sweet fire-roasted tomato sauce was incredible and the beans made the dish especially filling. I was the garlic princess that day ;) Everyone else at the shower kept saying, “Wow, that looks delicious. I should've ordered that!”

Potato Patch-to-Table: A Wedding Meal Gone Wrong

Last spring, I called the contact for the company that was catering a wedding I was to attend in the summer. There was no menu available online, so I relied solely on my food list. When I spoke to the owner, he did the whole “uh-huh....uh-huh” thing; that passive-aggressive habit people have when they think they're too busy to listen to you but won't tell you so. It was pretty rude, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I know food service and catering can be really overwhelming. (Not that it's an excuse to be rude, but maybe he was having a rough day.) I gave him a few options that I'd be able to eat like vegetable stir-fry with brown rice, gluten-free pasta, and fruit salad. Keeping it short, he said, "Okay,"and hung up. 

A few weeks later when bride asked if I had spoken with the caterer, I told her that it was all sorted out. She said she'd once more remind him about my food when they had a final meeting before the wedding.

The wedding day came, and I had a funny feeling that I may not get a meal I could eat. Before I left the house, I made a collard wrap with a sunshine burger and vegetables and packed some snacks like granola and fruit. The dinner was buffet-style, so I let the waitstaff know which table the special meal was to be delivered to. Blank stare. They had no idea what I was talking about. They sent the manager out who told me that my request (and the bride's reiteration of my request) was never relayed to her. She said that they had ready-made meals for gluten-free (chicken) and vegetarian (cheese lasagna) people. Umm.....I was not pleased. Thankfully, she was extremely nice about it, and as I explained my health issues, she told me she'd try to put something together for me. A few minutes later, a server presented my plate. The entire plate was full of roasted white potatoes (at the time, I was having problems balancing my blood sugar if I ate high glycemic carbs, and eating a whole plate of them was out of the question) cooked in vegetable oil (they said olive oil, but my taste buds begged to differ) and a couple shriveled, raw baby carrots. Thanks to my collard wrap and snacks, I didn't go hungry that night.

It's important to trust your gut, pun intended, when you're requesting a special plate. If it sounds like they aren't listening, they probably aren't. Sometimes you deal with crappy people who don't care about an unhappy customer or two. There's no need to be paranoid that in every social situation you'll get ignored, but it's a good idea to come prepared after odd exchanges like the one I had. I have friends with low blood sugar problems and diabetes that always have a snack with them no matter where they go. It's a habit that pays off when you end up in a situation like this.

Lastly, I must reiterate again how important it is to be gracious to your hosts and to remember that the experience is not all about food. When the bride and mother of the bride asked me about my meal, I told them it was fine. There was no need to trouble them with such trivial problems. I wasn't there to gorge myself on food. I was there to celebrate with the bride and groom and to visit with people I hardly ever see. I was there to kick off my heels, treat myself to a glass of wine, and dance with abandon, and that's exactly what I did.

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