I am considering throwing my next birthday party at a restaurant where you can reserve a private room for a whole-animal dinner that is shared by everyone at your table. I hope to avoid many of the typical etiquette gaffes for parties—I will pay the entire bill and send out invitations well in advance. But here’s the problem: A couple of my friends are vegetarians, and one is a fairly new convert who is a bit of a nose-wrinkler (and is also convinced that if her food is cooked near meat her stomach won’t be able to digest animal protein). Must I choose something that suits every preference, or would it be acceptable to invite the vegetarians, warn them that the centerpiece is a whole suckling pig, and let them know that we can meet up for a celebratory drink or meal some other time if they’d prefer not to attend?
—Fried Ears and Stuffed Trotters
Dear Fried Ears,
First off, you deserve much credit for exercising lovely manners (paying the bill when you throw the party, giving plenty of notice). But on the topic of including all your friends at the table: Let’s face it, even the most laid-back vegetarian will freak out when confronted with the idea of sitting in front of a freshly roasted corpse. But when I called around, I found that most so-called whole-animal dinners don’t force diners to confront the entire head-on carcass. You need either an open fire or a giant barbecue grill to cook a large animal like a full-sized pig, lamb, or goat, and the fire codes of bigger cities often don’t allow open fires. In New York, for instance, the only grills allowed are ones that are less than 10 square feet, and are 10 feet from any combustible material, like a building wall. Therefore, you’re mostly going to be eating the animal in parts, unless you go to a restaurant that serves you roasted suckling (baby) pig.
But even when the animal is in parts, some pieces will still be recognizable, and may shock the most hardened carnivore, says Bobby Hellen, the chef at New York’s Resto, who prepares what he calls “large-format” dinners several times a week, offering veal calves and goats as well as pigs and lambs. He says, “When the head gets dropped on the table, some people are like, ‘Oh my God, it has eyes and teeth!'”
If your vegetarian friends could get past that, it’s important to find out if there are vegetarian side dishes they could eat. Generally, the chefs I talked to say, a whole-animal dinner is pretty much what you’d expect: a meat-fest. Yes, there are vegetables and side dishes, but here’s how Hellen described one: “With the head, we serve late-summer squash so when it’s cut open all the fat from the pig’s head gets onto the squash.”
Of course, you could call ahead and arrange separate dishes for your herbivore guests. But that’s missing the point. A whole-animal dinner isn’t just about eating together. It’s about the primal bonding that comes from everyone sharing the same food. Think of how our cavemen ancestors probably felt when devouring a freshly killed mammoth.
Tell your veggie friends you wouldn’t dream of forcing them to watch this grisly spectacle. Instead, you’d love to celebrate your birthday “with some quality one-on-one time.” Be specific about when and where (“Next week let’s check out that new Malaysian place that just opened in your neighborhood”). Then it will sound like you really do want to hang out—and aren’t just trying to console them because they can’t gorge themselves on crispy pig ears.