Dining tableIs there something inherently rude about not eating meat? For those of us who try to balance our ethics and our etiquette, the answer can be a bit tricky.

For some omnivores, there is no question at all. “It’s just not polite to be a vegetarian when you travel,” accordingto celebrity chef (and longtime vegetarian-basher)  Anthony Bourdain. “”When somebody is giving you food, they’re giving you a part of their history.”

Michael Pollan, in his bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, sees problems as well, writing, “I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners…”

Pollan’s argument is the less persuasive. I can’t help but suspect his problems with dietary prohibitions only applies to vegetarians. After all, would Pollan really consider it rude for an observant Jew or Muslim to refuse to eat pork if it was the main course at a dinner party? If not, does that mean religious dietary restrictions are fine, but personal, ethical ones are not?

While I find Anthony Bourdain’s relentless pro-meat attitude very tiresome, I admit his argument has some validity. In his travels, Bourdain frequently finds himself dining in the homes of very impoverished families. For these people, being able to serve meat to a guest is no doubt a source of pride, as meat is often seen as something of a luxury in less-developed countries. It most likely would be insulting to the hosts not to partake of whatever food was offered. What would be the right thing to do? For an omnivore like Bourdain the answer is easy, but these types of situations could prove difficult for all but the most strident vegetarians.

For many American vegetarians, it is getting easier to balance ethics and etiquette. There are options for those who don’t want to seem rude. You can let your host know you are a vegetarian, a policy Pollan frets about, writing “if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad.” Really though, any host who truly cares about the comfort of his or her guests would want to know about any dietary concerns they may have. Isn’t that part of being a good host?

There is also always the option of bringing your own meat-free dish, which is what I tend to do in these situations. It’s possible to argue that this is somehow insulting to the host’s cooking, though I think most people would be understanding. As a bonus, it’s a good chance to show others how tasty meatless food can be.

Really, I think it all comes down to being civil and understanding. No omnivore wants to be harangued by an angry vegetarian yelling “How dare you try to serve me meat! Murderer!” at dinner. And no vegetarian wants to feel pressure to eat meat just because everyone else at the table is.

Emily Post described manners as a “code of behavior based on thoughtfulness.” As long as both meat-eaters and vegetarians remain thoughtful of one another, they can dine together without worry.

Photo Credit: Average Jane’s photostream