I went to a conference a few years ago where they let people pick a “dietary option” beforehand. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that 50% of people responded, 20% of whom (or 10% of the attendees) said they were vegetarian.
When they then ordered lunch, the organizers decided that, as only 10% of the attendees explicitly said they were vegetarian, that they would order 90% non-vegetarian meals. Unsurprisingly, they ran out of vegetarian food very quickly. Vegetarians went hungry. Meat eaters were just fine.
I can confirm from experience that this always happens at events where the planning is done for vegetarians, but not by them. In fact, the final decision was almost the worst one they could have made to resolve this problem. A few alternatives spring to mind, and here they are in order of decreasing awfulness and increasing validity and flexibility (the eventual decision is italicized):
- Ignore the dietary option selections altogether, and either make a percentage up or have 0% vegetarian (with maybe a desultory option for people to have “just vegetables.”). This is the option favoured by carveries and pubs serving Soonday Loonch.
- Assume that all the vegetarians attending have responded, so all remaining attendees must be non-vegetarian, whether they declared it or not. 10% vegetarian.
- Extrapolate from the fractions that responded, and estimate that the attendee population as a whole is 40% vegetarian.
- Play it safest, and most flexibly, by assuming that non-vegetarians can quite happily eat vegetarian food (they frequently do anyway, even when it’s in short supply); and therefore order vegetarian meals for the non-responses: so order 60% vegetarian meals.
If your priority was a smoothly running conference at all costs, and if you were vigilant to the possibility of attendees being miserable and hungry, through not having a lunch they can eat, you would go for the last item. But organizers rarely do. This is because food, especially in the context of uneven dichotomies like vegetarianism, is one of many territories of the culturally privileged Top Dog.
Top Dogs are those who weild cultural norms to manage social situations in such a way that their lifestyle is accommodated before anyone else’s: these might be exemplified by non-vegetarians, the patriarchy, or car drivers. If you’re not a Top Dog, you will probably have to work harder to get what you want, to achieve basic comforts, and to basically get an equality of treatment with the Top Dogs.
If you’re organizing an event, you have to remember that being a Top Dog (having privilege) makes someone weak, because they can rely on their culturally accepted Top Dogness to carry enough weight to make up for their own failings. This weakness comes in at least two forms.
- The first is habitual laziness, which makes Top Dogs a nightmare to plan for: they won’t answer questions you ask, if they’re used to the culturally default response leaving them Top Dog. And so non-vegetarians don’t feel the need to answer questions about diet, because they’ll just assume it will all work out fine: for them. They won’t give you the information; they don’t need to.
- The second is that Top Dogs are so used to the world organizing itself around their cultural superiority, that they will suddenly fly into confusion, rage but ultimately action, if you confound their expectations and infer a minority response from their passiveness. The good news is that this second form of Top Dog weakness can be used as a weapon against the first. People who joke about vegetarians being weak, and somehow deficient, will act like they’ve been deprived of their insulin injections, when faced with the prospect of having to do without meat for a meal or two: as if vegetarian food like – say – tea, beans on toast or ice cream were somehow a terrible punishment.
Last year, another event I was involved with encountered the very same problem. The logistics were being organized by spreadsheet, and one column heading read: “Vegetarian?” There were almost as many “yes”es as there were “no”s; and, of course, the real minorities had declared their food intolerances or allergies clearly. But a large number of cells in the column were empty; worse, it looked like the organizer was about to make the same mistake as the conference I went to: assuming all the empties were non-vegetarians. So I stepped in – rather boldly for me – and sent out an email saying something like:
“I’m changing this column heading to read ‘Dietary preference.’ If you don’t fill out your preference, then to make sure everyone gets food they can actually eat, you will be assumed to be vegetarian as the safest option.”
Result? The column was almost completely filled, with a couple of people emailing me in faint indigation at the way I took their Top Dogness out from under them. And the Top Dogs who didn’t fill in their preference? Well, they ended up with tasty, nutritious, warming, plentiful food; just like everyone else. In fact, exactly like my own choice. It just might not have been quite what they’re used to.