I’m Vegetarian but I Eat Bacon

Dear Helena,

I’m vegetarian, except I like to eat bacon. As you can imagine, explaining this ain’t easy. I told a friend about my eating preference, exactly as I’ve just told you, and he served me beef. But I’m no more a carnivore than a straight woman who occasionally makes out with other girls is a lesbian. Should I just tell people I’m a vegetarian, to make things simpler? Or is there a clear and polite way to tell the whole truth so as not to rob myself of future spaghetti carbonara? —Ba-curious

Dear Ba-curious,

Even as we become increasingly fastidious about what we eat, your bacon-friendly vegetarianism is a little unusual (though there’s a new word circulating for people like you: flexitarian). But it raises the same questions as any other personal eating practice would: How do you politely ask the host to respect your diet? And how far must he or she accommodate you?

The former chief of protocol at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Pamela Eyring, who has experience hosting military ceremonies and presidential visits, says you may ask the host to respect dietary “restrictions”—foods you cannot eat for religious, ethical, or medical reasons. An email saying, “Please note that I am kosher/vegan/fatally allergic to shellfish,” is acceptable. But unless you’re morbidly obese, you may not send an email saying, “Please ensure that the meal is South Beach Diet–friendly.” Or “I don’t like vegetables.”

The rules relax a little at occasions other than state banquets. Your friend does want you to enjoy your dinner. So try to minimize your quirks. Mary Burnham, a friend who is a consummate hostess, has a useful rule of thumb. She allows each guest two “ingredient vetoes” or one “category veto.” In other words, “I avoid mushrooms and eggplant” is acceptable. But you can’t add, “And I don’t eat meat.” Or you could say, “I don’t eat meat,” but you can’t add, “And I don’t eat blue cheese.”

You may not send an email saying, “Please ensure that the meal is South Beach Diet–friendly.”

So should you confide your ba-curiosity to your friends? According to Mary’s Rule, no. “I don’t eat meat” is a category veto, which means that’s it for you. Sure, when you confess, “But I eat bacon,” you are adding to the list of things you eat, rather than subtracting from it. But from the host’s point of view, it’s just something extra to remember.

Above all, keep in mind that when someone cooks a meal for you, he or she is giving you a gift. You shouldn’t tell that person what to cook, any more than you would tell someone what present to give you. Unless, of course, he or she asks.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.