Spectator: Lucy considers modern eating habits

It’s almost mandatory to ask these days, when the children have a friend over, if the visitor is vegetarian. Or dairy-free. Or gluten intolerant. Especially, I have to say, among the girls. Among my own friends, I can immediately think of two who don’t eat fish, four vegetarians, one who’s dairy-free and two who eat no sugar. I’m leaving out the one who only eats raw food and the one who doesn’t eat cheese or garlic because I’m my mother’s daughter.

I was brought up by someone who’s pretty scornful about certain elements of so-called healthy eating. The household did once switch from sea salt to table salt because we were all being too liberal with the flakes at lunchtime, but, on the whole, vegetarians were dismissed as fussy eaters and allergies considered ‘tiresome’. It was reluctantly accepted that my brother can’t eat strawberries, but I’m not sure eggs would have been shown the same understanding.

On Saturday, Bel brought a friend to supper who lives partly in California and who mentioned he was gluten sensitive before he sat down (I’m not suggesting the two things are related). As the chicken pie was topped with pastry and he didn’t like salad-‘rabbit food’ (so not a skinny soya latte person)-his would be a lean dinner. Ice cream, which I offered as an alternative to profiteroles, can be chock-a-block with gluten apparently. He couldn’t have been nicer about it and I think filled up on mashed potatoes. This was a happier outcome than the first time I came across gluten as a health hazard.

Some Americans came to stay last year. He was a childhood friend of Zam’s, scarcely seen since.
I hadn’t met the wife or children and they wanted to see the house before we moved and to spend an afternoon fishing. I left lunch on the table before going on a school run of some sort and came back to find they’d left me plenty to eat. Zam took me aside and explained that three out of four members of the family were gluten intolerant and therefore unable to eat the quiche, bread or bulgar wheat. They had, in fact, brought their own food.

Our guests politely explained that we couldn’t use the bread knife to cut the salami, which, of course, makes sense in terms of gluten contamination, but was greeted with astonishment by our children, who have inherited the family approach to contamination in general.

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When I think of food hygiene, I always think of the house we stayed in every year as children, in which the same ham seemed to live forever and the shooting lunch was a mildly reheated stew that slopped about in the back of the car all morning before being given a last blast on a gas ring. The Americans, I suspected, had put me in the same camp.
‘I’ll make a cake for tea,’
I offered, feeling that perhaps our hosting was going a little bit awry. ‘Not for you, obviously,’
I added hastily. ‘I could make something else… And no gluten in the steak and chips for supper.’

Culinary success peaked when Zam made a jug of healthy cordial, which was much enjoyed until we looked at the label. They went off to fish and the phonecalls began. They wouldn’t stay the night after all, but would fish and return for tea and dinner. Actually, they wouldn’t stay for dinner as the children were very tired. In fact, they wouldn’t come back for tea, but preferred to head off. The visit had shrunk from a weekend to a night to a day to a lunch.

They’d left a coat behind and, as they were staying with their original hosts nearby, Zam decided to return it. It was the least we could do. There was no sign of the mother-the poor woman had spent the past three hours being sick, thoroughly poisoned by the most innocuous bottle in our kitchen from which Zam had made the refreshing cordial. The modern diet is a minefield, detonated in this case by lemon barley water.

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