Vegetarians at a Barbecue

Dear Helena,
I’m a vegetarian. When I get invited to barbecues, there’s nothing to eat but chips and coleslaw. If I bring my own grillable item, should I bring enough to share? And am I being too high-maintenance if I email the host in advance and ask him to keep a meat-free zone on the grill?
—Grill with Kindness

Dear Grill with Kindness,
Before you go to a barbecue, you should let the host know you’re vegetarian and offer to bring a veggie item to grill. Your host isn’t obliged to furnish the Gardenburgers. If he were inviting you to dinner, it would be rude if he said, “Well, I’m making spaghetti Bolognese, so you’ll have to fend for yourself.” But a barbecue is traditionally a meat-fest, and most people know this. If you accept the invite, the ball’s in your court.

Don’t demand that your host cordon off a special meat-free zone on the grill. This is inconvenient, especially if the grill is small. Share the grill if that’s what it takes to make people think vegetarians or vegans can be low-maintenance. Kristie Phelps, an assistant director at PETA, says: “As an ethical vegan, I don’t feel it’s about being a purist. My goal is to help animals. ... I want to show that as a vegan you can throw a [veggie] burger or kielbasa on the grill and eat tasty food and have a good time without making a big stink about it.”

But some people would rather eat a gallon of Vegenaise than a Gardenburger contaminated with traces of dead animal flesh. Nava Atlas, a vegetarian cookbook author, says she couldn’t share a grill with carnivores even if her tempeh was wrapped in foil: “I’m too sensitive. I would freak out. ... And I do worry about E. coli nowadays.”

You could bring a little hibachi, or ask the host if you can use his stove or oven. But be sensitive to the fact that you may then be underfoot. Better to do as Atlas does and present your own dish, one that doesn’t need any additional preparation, like a grain or pasta salad. And bring enough to share. You’d look a little strange eating from a personal-sized Tupperware of chickpeas.

But be aware that you may have skewed judgment in terms of what constitutes a crowd-pleaser. Kim Sturla, cofounder and executive director of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farm animals in Northern California, says she’d bring her cashew-cheese “lasagne” to a barbecue. I don’t recommend that. No self-respecting carnivore is going to take a dollop of vegan mystery glop when he could have a second burger.

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