Op-Ed: How vegetarians, gluten-frees, grain-frees and other L.A. food tribes ruined my BBQ tradition
Friday Night Barbecue — or #FNBBQ, because everything in Los Angeles needs a hashtag — began as a simple affair. It suited my preference for a lazy style of entertaining, one where you hose down the furniture beforehand and the melamine plates afterward. The tagline — because in L.A. even barbecues need a tagline — was: The weekend’s longer if you start on Friday.
The underlying FNBBQ philosophy was open-invitation effortlessness. Anyone who knew my wife and me knew that on Friday night we would be on the patio, grill fired up. Just show up with a side dish. Human beings have been gathering around fire to roast meat since we first sharpened spears to throw at wildebeest. This is the essence of community: If you grill, they will come.
The very easiest form of cookout — burgers and hot dogs — was off the table from the start. My wife, some years before we met, stopped eating beef. I’ve long abandoned trying to explain her political or social or dietary positions to others, but I think it had something to do with the Ogallala Aquifer. Still, that left plenty of options.
Our friends next door, not surprisingly, very quickly became FNBBQ regulars. Co-hosts, really. But one of them had narrower meat options: no mammals. So that first summer we grilled a lot of variations on chicken and turkey sausage, and filled in with salads and slaws.
Then the circle expanded to include the first semi-vegetarian. Cracks began to show. I am an omnivore raised in the Midwest, where barbecues are, by rights, bring-your-own tofu affairs. My assumption that this held true in California was, I thought, reinforced by the self-sufficient behavior of nondrinkers, who always arrived carrying seltzer or iced tea.
In what I considered a propitiatory gesture, I added salmon to the grill — but the semi-vegetarian didn’t eat fish, or like it, or something. My wife gave me a look that said “What in the world is wrong with you?” She then added aloud, “There is nothing here for her to eat.” Apparently my fallback position, that vegetarians should fill up on bread and cheese, was not hospitable.
I want very much to have the kind of home where people can just stop by and feel welcome no matter what food tribe they are in.
Shortly after this faux pas, the no-mammal neighbor developed a mysterious stomach ailment that required avoiding hard-to-digest fibrous vegetables, such as lettuce, kale, spinach and pretty much anything else you’d use as the basis for a salad. And corn on the cob.
Poor thing. She ate little as we pressed on with FNBBQ into summer three. Her husband began contributing barley or bulgur grain salads. Around the same time, the book “Grain Brain” became a bestseller, blaming whole grains for everything from Attention Deficit Disorder to dementia. He took home a lot of leftovers.
My wife and I had copious leftovers too. Alongside grains, a general fear of gluten and sugars had taken hold, and there were nights when no one touched the La Brea Bakery rustic bread I’d toasted on the grill, to say nothing of dessert.
My communal barbecue was now fully populated by people who would not or could not eat the same food.
FNBBQ went on hiatus.
As this summer began, I considered trying to revive it. I miss having a standing date with my friends, the bonhomie of sipping rosé under lights strung up in the tree. I want very much to have the kind of home where people can just stop by and feel welcome no matter what food tribe they are in.
And then I thought about my brother-in-law. He’s been paleo-leaning for years, but has now adopted a full-on ketogenic diet. (You can Google it.) All I know is that vegetables are just carbs in his book. He’s got reasons — something about blood sugar and making his brain function better — but the upshot is he prefers bone broth.
I could try again. But it would never be effortless.
Robin Rauzi is a freelance editor in Los Angeles.
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