A woman made chili for neighbors, and outrage ensued. Was she wrong?
Some took the critique further. One accused her of “coddling” and encouraging “man-child” behavior. One attributed her generosity to a “White savior” complex. And why not, some wondered, ask what kind of help her neighbors really wanted before making assumptions? The outrage flowed in the other direction, too, with people slamming the critics.
The social media food fight left us exhausted but also wondering: Have the rules for giving home-cooked foods changed? Does the simple act of baking a casserole or cookies for a stranger have to be so fraught? We asked two experts for guidance.
Do people cook for neighbors anymore?
Laura Malcolm, the founder and chief executive of Give InKind, a service that allows users to organize meal trains and other support, says that while gift cards for meal-delivery services have become popular, plenty of people still like getting a home-cooked meal from others. The practice of greeting new neighbors with baskets of cookies and a barrage of casseroles might not be as common as it once was, but it’s hardly gone extinct.
“It’s cultural and regional,” she says. “But there are absolutely communities where it still happens — think of all the hot dish in the Midwest.”
People might be warier than ever of their neighbors, thanks to Nextdoor culture, which can foster petty disputes and suspicion. And people may be more mindful of various dietary restrictions and allergies.
Nick Leighton, host of the etiquette podcast “Were You Raised By Wolves?,” notes that what’s deemed normal depends on where you live. “Etiquette is local,” he says. “I live in Manhattan, and people don’t do a pop-in here. It’s not a thing.”
Ask before cooking — if you can
Where possible, you might initiate contact with your intended recipient first. Malcolm suggests avoiding a generic question like, “Can I do anything to help?” because the most typical response is no. “Try something like, ‘Can I drop off dinner for you on Tuesday?’” she says. “Or ‘Can I walk your dog for you?’ if it’s someone who has trouble getting around.” You can then ask about any preferences or dietary restrictions.
The chili-making woman did make assumptions about her neighbors, which might have irked people online, Malcolm notes. “Its great to take more things into consideration” when offering any kind of help, she says. “But I don’t think we want to lose the idea that you can just show up and see a need and offer something, whether that need really exists.”
Leighton notes that it doesn’t matter what someone’s private reasons are for offering a gift — what’s important is how it’s presented. In the case of the chili, “there was potentially judgment — the motivation was they don’t know how to cook or they needed it, and that’s why people jumped on it,” he says. If she told them that when she gave it to them, “I don’t love it,” he says. “But if she said, ‘I made too much chili, here you go,’ that’s fine.”
And no matter what you make, it’s best to offer it in a container that you don’t need back (which just creates an errand for the recipient). And it’s best if it’s something they can slip in the freezer if they can’t eat it right away.
Give home-cooked food without expectation
If you make and give someone food, you have to accept that they might turn around and pitch it in the trash. But that’s no reason not to do it anyway — or to shame those who do.
In big disasters, such as hurricanes, people send packages of blankets and teddy bears that aren’t needed, or a diner leaving a restaurant might give her leftovers to an unhoused person who doesn’t actually want them. But even though the outcome isn’t what the giver intended, those impulses should be nurtured regardless, Malcolm says. “Do we really want to cut that off, just because there might be waste?” she asked. “Altruism can’t always be efficient, and do we want to cut back on well-meaningness?”
Receive food with gratitude
If you’re on the receiving end of an unsolicited food delivery, there’s only one way to respond, and that’s with a never-goes-out-of-style “thank you” — even if actually eating it would make you break out in hives.
“A recipient should accept gracefully, even if it’s not the right thing, like the sweater is the wrong size or ‘I’m a vegan, why are you giving me a steak-of-the-month club membership?’” Leighton says, noting that the giftee should focus on the presumably good intentions in play.
Also still in fashion: A handwritten thank you note is never a bad idea, he says, and if the dish arrived in a reusable container, be sure to return it — clean.