Your Order Is Politically Incorrect

Dear Helena,

I was thinking today about the terrible situation of sharks, which as I’m sure you know are now an endangered species thanks to burgeoning demand from all the newly rich Chinese, and lack of government enforcement of their harvesting. I was wondering what I’d do if I was out to dinner with someone who ordered shark fin soup—what is the correct etiquette in this situation? To say nothing as someone right in front of you contributes to the demise of this species, or to speak up? —Ocean Lover

Dear Ocean Lover,

Consumption of shark fin soup is on the rise, but it’s still a pricey delicacy, so this particular dilemma won’t be one you encounter often. But these days, due to issues like overfishing, the inhumane treatment of farm animals, and fossil-fuel-intensive industrial agriculture, many foods are ethically suspect. So whether it’s shark fin soup, foie gras, or just out-of-season strawberries jetted in from New Zealand, what should you do if a friend orders a dish you despise?

Chowhounds are divided on how best to educate others about food politics, but most agree on one thing: No lecturing at the dinner table. It’s especially irksome to your companions if you launch into a tirade right before ordering, a time when blood sugar is low and tempers can flare. Even if you persuade your friend to switch his order this time, he’s unlikely to forgo shark fin soup for good.

A more subtle approach is to pretend you want the same thing, and then ask the waiter for information, says Polly Legendre, culinary director of CleanFish, a broker of sustainable seafood. When your friend says, “Oh, the salmon teriyaki looks good,” simply agree, and then ask the waiter whether the fish is farmed or wild. If the waiter doesn’t know, or says it’s farmed (or whatever the equivalent ecologically incorrect answer is for the food in question), you can change your order. That way you draw attention to the issue subtly, without directly admonishing anybody.

If your friend doesn’t take the hint, just let him enjoy his politically incorrect dish. After all, at this point, the damage is done. As Alison Barratt, associate public relations manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Northern California, says, “It would be different if you were standing by in a fishing boat while they were killing it.”

If you really want to address the topic with your friend, do so at a later date. As when discussing any sticky subject, it helps to use “I” statements. Isa Chandra Moskowitz, a vegan cookbook author, says this is the approach she’s found most effective when trying to convert her nonvegan friends, as in, “I used to eat meat too, but then I found out this, this, and this.” It works much better, she says, than “forcing them to watch video footage.”

Ultimately, however, people will make their own decisions about what to eat and what not to eat, and they will give you cues as to how open they are to change. The best practice is to answer questions they might have when they see you leading by example.

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