Monday, 13 February 2012

Food For Thought

In the course of normal academic life, there are many circumstances in which we become aware of the medical, religious, or other restrictions on which foods our colleagues and students can or will consume (or not). The dietary needs and preferences of people in even a fairly small group can be quite varied, and can become the concern of those organizing professional or socio-professional events.

Examples of academic activities that may involve an awareness of dietary issues for others in our profession include:

- the organization of conferences, workshops etc. that involve meals or refreshments for all participants;

- the hosting of meals for visitors; e.g., during a visit by others to our institution for a talk or interview; or

- the arrangement of meals -- either at restaurants or in self-catering situations -- during research-related travel (visits to other labs, some conference travel, field work etc.).

Although there are some obvious ways to accommodate the needs and preferences of most individuals, it can be very difficult to find a good solution for everyone. Even the option of eating in a restaurant may not accommodate everyone, unless the restaurant has a very diverse menu and/or the ability to make the necessary modifications.

I am a rather omnivorous person, but there are a couple of food items I need to avoid owing to allergic reactions. My two food allergies are only rarely a problem in professional settings, but over the years there have been some memorable situations, such as:

- Years ago, during a job interview, the department chair hosted a dinner for me at a restaurant that specialized in a food item that I cannot eat without experiencing a rather severe reaction. He did not ask me if I had any food preferences. He had a favorite restaurant and wanted to take me there, so that's where we went. Although I explained about my food allergy, he seemed annoyed when I did not eat the specialty of the restaurant and kept talking about how unfortunate it was that I could not eat his favorite food. I felt very uncomfortable during and after that dinner.

- A few years ago, at a professional luncheon at which I was to give a speech, everyone was served something that contained this same food item. There probably was a mechanism by which I could have indicated my food allergy in advance; I am sure that the organizers of the luncheon were willing to make arrangements for those with dietary restrictions or preferences. So rare is it for me to encounter this food in a professional setting, however, that it didn't occur to me to mention it in advance. I was very anxious about the possibility of having a dramatic medical incident while on stage in front of an audience, so I didn't touch anything on my plate and instead just nibbled on some bread. I was very hungry when I gave my speech, but that was better than the alternative.

- More recently, I encountered my other food allergy for only the second time in decades. This one is quite rare, does not provoke a life-threatening reaction (just an annoying rash), and is typically easy to avoid entirely. In certain parts of the world, however, the food in question is ubiquitous, and people commonly offer it to visitors. Particularly when there are issues of culture/language, refusing this food would be seen as rude and unusual. I therefore took the approach of trying to manage the situation (limiting contact with the food but not refusing it), and I succeeded until the last day of a research visit, when this approach failed catastrophically, alas for me.

Compared to what others experience, my issues are very minor and easily managed. If you have more serious and extensive dietary restrictions, you probably get pretty good at managing the socio-logistical issues involved. I think it likely, though, that dietary issues are quite often a concern in professional settings, and perhaps continue to be anxiety-inducing for early-career people who worry about being negatively judged as a result, despite an increase in awareness in recent years.

As an occasional organizer of events in which I need to be aware of the food issues of others, I have found that it is extremely difficult to accommodate (not to mention please) everyone. What I continue to explore is whether there are limits to my responsibility, and if so, where these are.

Would you draw a line, and if so, where (and how)?

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