When Loved Ones Don’t Eat Organic

Dear Helena,
Recently I was a houseguest at the houses of two of my aunts, who were so nice as to pay for pretty much everything (I'm 17, they haven't seen me in a while, so the "doting aunt" comes on superstrong). The one point of contention is that at the supermarket, they buy conventional produce, packaged foods, factory-farmed meat, caged eggs, and other not-so-good choices. I feel guilty and don't ask for the stuff I usually get, mostly because of the price and because lots of people see those who buy organic as pretentious and holier-than-thou. Restaurant-wise, they aren't much better (bad diners, overhyped restaurants, dull chains). What are polite ways to steer them to restaurants that they might not have tried but you want to go to?
—"Annoying" Houseguest

Dear "Annoying" Houseguest,
For advice on persuading your aunts to try better restaurants, check out this column. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to improve the fare at home. Since they're footing the bill, it would be rude to tell them what they should and shouldn't buy. You'd also be demanding they shell out a lot more cash, since organic produce and humanely reared meats are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Such items may not even be available. Shakirah Simley, founder of Slow Jams, says she too would like her family to eat better, but they live in the suburbs of Atlanta, "where there is no ... farmers' market, and they shop at Walmart for groceries." (Walmart now offers organic produce, sure, but your standards may favor locally sourced, seasonal food from small purveyors.)

Don't get me wrong—I sympathize with your plight. And you're certainly not the only one who considers your family's cooking inedible. Take Scott Frank, who works at a winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and who tries to cook with fresh, unprocessed ingredients whenever possible. "Last time I went home to visit in Waco, Texas, I took my then fiancée, now wife, and our homecoming dinner consisted of a cheese ball made from a spice packet and a couple of bricks of cream cheese."

But it's good manners to choke down what you are given. As you grow older, you'll learn, as Frank did, that your family might actually be just as attached to their cheese ball as you are to your free-range eggs or CSA box. "After years of resentments and fights and hurt feelings," he says, "you realize food is important to everybody."

Even if you tried to explain your dietary regime to your aunts, they might not get it. For instance, they might try to buy you Paul Newman's organic version of Oreos, Newman-O's, not understanding that you don't want any processed food. And it's rude to bother your hosts with elaborate dietary restrictions, unless it can't be avoided. This is so much the case that even people with religious justification for their diets may fib to make things simpler. Jeremy Dauber, a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, says he and his wife tell dinner hosts that they're vegetarian rather than that they keep kosher, because it's "easier than trying to explain the various [kosher] rules and regulations," such as not mixing meat and dairy.

That said, you can try to change your aunts' ways a little, using stealth tactics. Offer to cook a meal your way, and tell them shopping for the ingredients is part of the gift. Just know that when you make the offer, you must do so tactfully. Emphasize that you want to show your gratitude for their hospitality (rather than your hatred for their hot dog casserole). And don't make anything too different from what they know and like. Simley says she riffs on vegetables her family is already familiar with in canned or frozen form. For instance, she'll make roasted sweet potatoes or a roasted corn salad.

If you're not tactful, your gesture could backfire. Frank says he's tried making dinner at the home of his dad and stepmother in New York and "my stepmother interprets it as a veiled commentary on her cooking."

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