My friend just got engaged. I am, of course, thrilled for her. We spent some time the other week looking at photos of venues and talking about the merits of round tables versus square and all that fun stuff. It’s good times, but it got me thinking:

What are the rules when you’re a gluten-free guest?

There’s no easy way to fit this into one post, so for now let’s just think about being a guest at a catered party, one that you’re at for social reasons. We’ll get to the other topics – business events, house parties, being the host, etc. – another time.

For now, though: imagine a wedding. Maybe you don’t need to imagine, because you’ve been faced with this very problem: an invitation arrives in your mailbox announcing the wedding of your husband’s friend from grad school or your second cousin once removed. Details on the ceremony, the cocktail hour and the reception. A nice little RSVP card offering you the options of beef or fish and one of those cute pre-stamped mini-envelopes. The whole 9 yards.

What to do?

What to do?

Do you:

  1. decline to attend, based on the fact that you won’t be able to eat
  2. make an arbitrary selection knowing that you won’t eat it, and get your sustenance from the olives in your martini(s)
  3. treat the RSVP card like a write-in ballot, and request a gluten-free meal and a list of gluten-free hors d’oeuvres
  4. none of the above

Of course, the correct answer depends on the situation and how close you are to the hosts, but the first three are almost always wrong answers. You shouldn’t have to go hungry, but nor can your hosts always guarantee you are taken care of as well as you’d like. Here’s my general recommendation:

Call first. Pick up the phone! Compliment the happy couple on their beautiful invitation and let them know how excited you are to attend their event. If you’re really not comfortable contacting the hosts directly, call someone close to them to suss things out.

Have an easy request. Of course the hosts want you to have a good time, but that doesn’t mean they can spend a lot of time ensuring that you’re taken care of. They may not even know what gluten-free means – and that’s OK. They don’t need to. Try saying something like:

“I have a gluten intolerance, and there’s some foods I can’t eat without getting sick. Would it be alright with you if I contact the caterer to ask a few questions?”

The hosts may offer to take care of it, or they may just give you their blessing to figure your own meal out. They may have other guests with similar concerns – the number of people on a gluten-free diet continues to grow – and already have something sorted out.

Follow up. If the hosts offer to take care of it, thank them profusely and make a little note on your RSVP card just to remind them. You might even enclose a disposable dining card, for them to pass on to the caterer.

If the hosts give you the go-ahead to contact the caterer, make sure you do. If they don’t have experience with gluten-free guests, that disposable dining card may come in handy. At worst, you’ll find out that you absolutely must eat beforehand. At best, you’ll have a special meal and an idea of what’s safe at the cocktail hour.

Gluten-free? Only one way to find out.

Gluten-free? Only one way to find out.

Once you’ve spoken to the caterer, go ahead and put your hosts’ minds at ease. They don’t need to know the details really, just that things are taken care of and you’re looking forward to seeing them.

Follow up again. Once you’re on-site, find a maîtré d’ and explain that you are the gluten-free guest who called ahead. Once again, a disposable dining card in your pocket or purse may be a nice insurance policy.

Make merry. It’s a party! Enjoy as best you can, and remember that most wedding cake doesn’t taste that good anyway.

Say thank-you. Your thank-you may need to go to the host, to the caterer, to a third party altogether – but if someone took care of you, make sure they know you appreciate it. Wouldn’t want anyone to say us gluten-free guests are an impolite bunch of pains in the you-know-what, right?

What have your experiences been like as a gluten-free guest? What strategies worked or didn’t work for you?