I Made that Spam Pudding You Love!

There’s no question from a reader this week. Instead, Helena will tackle a dilemma presented to her at a recent TV appearance.

When I was interviewed on The Rachael Ray Show in January, a studio audience member had this question for me: “The first time I went to my sister-in-law’s, she served banana cream pie, and I said I loved it … but I hate banana cream pie and now she makes it every time I am there and expects me to eat it. How do I tell her I was just being nice, and I don’t like banana cream pie?”

My answer: When someone cooks dinner for you, it’s not like going to a restaurant, where you can order exactly what you want and send it back if you don’t like it. A home-cooked dinner is a gift, which means you should act as if you love it, whether you do or not.

But you may not have to choke down banana cream pie for the rest of your life. Try focusing your sister-in-law’s attention on another dish, which you can do by using what I call “strategic praise.” Often when we thank someone for dinner we speak in general terms, calling the food “great” or “delicious.” Strategic praise is different because it’s very specific. That makes it more memorable, and if the cook remembers that you loved a particular dish, she’s more likely to make it again. For instance, if your sister-in-law makes a pumpkin pie, you might say: “The filling is so lush and creamy and you’ve added just the right amount of spice.” If you really want to drive your point home, send a thank-you email a day or two later: “Still dreaming of that amazing pie you made. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to top the banana cream pie, but I think this may be even better.”

As a side note, your “new favorite” doesn’t have to be dessert. As long as your sister-in-law’s need to please you is satisfied, it won’t matter whether she does it with pie or lasagne.

Until your new favorite has been established, you may still have to conquer another slice or two of banana cream pie. Here are some tips on how to swallow a food that disgusts you.

Don’t lie or hide. It’s tempting to excuse yourself by pleading fullness—”I had a huge burrito at lunch”—but that will disappoint your host. You might also think of hiding half the item in your napkin or shoving it onto your spouse’s plate when the cook’s back is turned. But if you’re caught it will be so embarrassing (not to mention hurtful) that it’s not worth the risk.

If you can’t eat it, distress it. If you leave the food in pristine condition, it will be obvious you took one look at it and rejected it outright. So once you’ve eaten all you can, break up the remains. That way, it looks like less food. Jeff Greenwald, author of several travel books, such as Shopping for Buddhas, has faced many unappetizing dishes around the world. He advises: “Spread it out on your plate so it’s of molecular thinness and your host can barely see it.”

Take tiny bites. A relative of mine whom I’ll call Aunt Millicent (I’ve mentioned her before) used to bring a traditional English fruitcake when she came to stay every Christmas. It was very heavy, literally. It felt like it weighed 10 pounds. None of us liked it. But she got so much satisfaction from bringing it that everyone polished off a big wedge. I learned that if you take tiny bites, you can swallow each morsel almost without tasting it. And often when people don’t like a food, what they object to is its texture. If you take small enough bites, you need not even chew.

Have a chaser handy. As if you were swallowing pills, have a drink ready to wash it down: a big glass of iced water, a cup of coffee, wine, beer, or whatever. If the host looks askance at your nibble-and-gulp routine, just say you’re taking your time eating because you want to savor every bite.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.