No Special Treatment for Vegetarians at Barbecues

Dear Helena,
I'm throwing a barbecue and want to know how much I'm supposed to bend over backwards to accommodate vegetarians. Thanks.
—The Meathead

Dear Meathead,
Don't stress out about what your veggie guests will eat. Just tell them the same thing you're probably telling all your guests: "Bring something to grill." As I said here, it's up to the vegetarians to bring their own tofu dogs or homemade sprouted-chickpea–lentil patties. And there's no need to cordon off a special area on the grill. As Willie Cooper, author of On the Grill: Adventures in Fire and Smoke, points out, when you're grilling, you already need two zones, one for direct heat and one for indirect. Don't complicate matters by adding any more. Most vegetarians—myself included—don't expect a barbecue host to bend over backward to ensure that no cross-contamination occurs, any more than they expect you to section off a special area upwind of the barbecue so they don't have to smell burning flesh.

Some vegetarians won't want to eat a Gardenburger that has jostled shoulders with a dead animal, but they won't go hungry. The good news is that you can ensure this without doing anything differently from what you normally would do. Presumably you plan on serving more than hunks of meat—that is, you'll be providing sides. Most of the usual suspects, like potato salad, are vegetarian anyway. But try to do better than a gallon tub of premade coleslaw and a hacked-up watermelon. Take it up a notch with one of these CHOW recipes. Don't think of this extra effort as kowtowing to your vegetarian guests. Your meat-eating guests will appreciate your wild rice and edamame salad* and your blue-cheese coleslaw too.

This is strictly optional, but for extra credit with your veggie guests, grill an ingredient or two in advance and use them to make a side. The item won't have touched any meat, and the vegetarians can still enjoy the smoky umami flavor of grilled food, which will make them feel included. Chef Cooper suggests making a salad with grilled stone fruits, arugula, and goat cheese. Or try this CHOW recipe for Grilled Greek Salad.

Finally, don't agonize about your gluten-free guests either. If you try to accommodate them, you'll have to keep a zone free not only of buns but also of any marinade with soy sauce (unless that soy sauce is gluten-free). In fact, when you're hosting a barbecue, don't even ask about anyone's dietary restrictions. If you try to make sure everyone's needs are met, like this worried Chowhound, your grill will have so many zones that you'll need to do pencil sketches in advance. Grilling is supposed to be fun and casual, not an exercise in geometry.

Dear Helena,
I recently threw a barbecue and invited guests to "bring something to throw on the grill." At the end of the party, there was a bunch of stuff left in my fridge that had never been grilled, including fancy sausages and five whole ears of fresh corn. I felt really bad and guilty that the guests hadn't gotten a chance to grill their food, and now it was in my fridge. Should I have asked around to see whose food it was and returned it to them? Or is it OK that I just kept it and ate it?
—Unintentional Mooch

Dear Unintentional Mooch,
Here's a rule of thumb for party leftovers: If you can eat it all in the next three days, you can keep it. It's your reward for hosting. On the other hand, if you find yourself with Thanksgiving-worthy quantities of food, you should divvy it up. Hosting a barbecue is not an excuse to stock your fridge with groceries.

*This is a correction. As Chowhounds quickly pointed out, the German potato salad originally suggested contains bacon, and serving it to your veggie guests would definitely be a faux pas!

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.