Dear Prudence

Help! My Annoying Aunt Claims She’s “Allergic” to MSG, So I Slipped Some in Her Food to See.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

A close-up of a woman's eyes looking at an illustrating of something pouring into a mixing bowl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Piotrekswat/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. (R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave.)

R. Eric Thomas: Hi everyone! It’s my personal opinion that you should go to the beach. Right now. Drop everything. If that’s not possible, then we should have our chat. What’s on your minds?

Q. Didn’t Poison Anyone: My aunt has always been a hypochondriac and attention-seeker. A few years ago, she decided she was allergic to MSG, and since then every family gathering revolves around this “allergy.” She insists on approving ingredients in anything anyone cooks because she claims it’s in all kinds of products. She’s made events, including my graduation party, all about her by feigning illness and saying she knows there must have been MSG in something. I wanted to know for sure if she actually was, so I made a sweet and salty dessert with added msg, and lo and behold, she ate it and was fine. I never meant for her to find out, but I shared the recipe with a friend, it got back to my cousin, and now my whole family knows. My aunt accused me of trying to poison her and refuses to come to any events that I’m attending. My parents just want me to apologize, but to me, this is not a bad outcome. Am I in the wrong here?

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A. Whether or not you believed your aunt’s allergy claim, it’s very bold to conduct your own experiment in an uncontrolled setting just to find out. What was your plan if you were wrong? Also, no offense, but this was sloppy. You did a bad science experiment and then you got caught? Yikes. Hang up the lab coat. I think you’re wrong here and you should apologize because even though she may have been exaggerating her illness, you overstepped and made a mess.

How to Get Advice From Prudie:

• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)

• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.

Q. Photo Opt-Out: I quit being a wedding photographer after one too many bridezilla meltdowns over not getting the princess package for pennies. It wasn’t worth the stress compared to my office job—that had insurance at least. I still do have all my gear and have done some family events, but I draw the line at weddings. Well, my half-sister recently announced her engagement. We aren’t close (our father cheated with her mother while my mother was going through chemo). Over the years, I have tried to make peace with the past for the sake of my other family members. My half-sister talked to me about me being her free photographer as my wedding gift. Her wedding is out-of-state and would require me to fly and get a hotel. I offered a compromise where if they covered my travel, hotel, and food expenses, I would do it. Otherwise, I would just attend as a guest. She told me that offer was outrageous. I wished her luck, then, in finding a local photographer. She went crying to her parents, and now I am getting pressure on all sides to relent. How do I get out of this without blowing it up even more?

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A. You’re in a tough spot because, as you know all too well, many people don’t understand the work and energy that goes into wedding photography. Your half-sister may think you’re just trading the cost of doing the gig for the cost of a wedding present (which, in and of itself is a little hard to believe—wedding photographers cost quite a bit more than any wedding gift I’ve ever given). But what she’s failing to account for is that in addition to the cost, you’re also sacrificing your ability to enjoy the wedding, to be a guest at the wedding, or to be off your feet for any portion of the evening. That’s a lot to do for free. And it’s darn near outrageous to do while also paying for your travel and hotel. As a kind gesture for a loved one you’re close to, it’s fine. But that’s not the relationship you have. She may not see reason, but I encourage you to talk to her or to her parents about the reality of what she’s asking of you. Run the numbers. And ask her if what she really wants is for you to spend her entire wedding lugging around equipment and working.

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Q. Savory Hoarding: I’d like an ethical gut-check here: I happily do almost all of the cooking in my house, and focus on making creative and well-balanced meals, and my husband happily eats absolutely anything I serve. He steps up when I don’t feel like it or don’t have time, but his meals are very basic—like a heap of red sauce and noodles basic. Which is fine! He’s totally free to cook as he likes when it’s his turn. I have no complaints about that, but it does show me that while we both love food, he takes great pleasure from the sheer quantity of it, and I tend to enjoy the details.

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So my question is: When I cook, is it okay to serve myself the best parts? I’m talking the brownie edges, the asparagus spears, the extra jammy onions, the roastiest carrots and so on.
As long as he gets a huge mound of food that he enjoys, it’s okay for me to take all the special little flavorful and textural bits, right?

A. I think this is fine because you both define “best” in different ways. If he was also clamoring for the brownie edges, we’d be having a different conversation. But if that’s not what brings him joy, then you’re not robbing him of that joy by indulging. I know it probably feels a little selfish because you instinctively want to share life’s pleasures with your husband. But if he’s finding life’s pleasures elsewhere on the table, you should dig in to what makes your happy without reservation.

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Q. Regretful Sleuth: I purchased a membership to a public records/background check website to look up a loved one. The membership included unlimited searches, and I ended up going down a huge rabbit hole, reading reports on several family and friends. The results were innocuous, though somewhat interesting, until I came across something I really wish I didn’t see. My best friend of decades, “Nancy,” has a father who has always been weird, narcissistic, and mysterious, but according to the reports site, it goes deeper than that. Apparently, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter! According to the record, it occurred 37 years ago (a few years before Nancy was born) and he pled guilty. While other parts of the extensive background report are true (such as job history and residences), I have some doubts about the criminal part—the spelling of his first name is different on the court record (think Louis vs.
Lewis) and it occurred in a different part of the country. Should I tell my best friend about this? I think I’d like to know if I were her, but who am I to say? She may even know already if it’s true. She’s stressed and depressed with two young kids, and I don’t want to upset her. Her dad helps her with the kids a lot, though not usually alone … he’s challenging but an important part of the picture. I can’t see him hurting the kids even if it is true, but who knows? What do I do here?!

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A. There’s no reason to bring this up to your friend. If Nancy is curious about what her father got up to, she’s perfectly capable of purchasing her own membership to the records site. It doesn’t sound like you have a reasonable concern about her kids’ safety, so I struggle to see how this would rise above the level of gossip. You have to ask yourself what you think Nancy is going to gain from getting this knowledge, particularly now. If he isn’t a danger and he’s paid his debt to society, there isn’t anything you need to do in the present. I sense from your letter that you get a weird vibe from this guy, and what you found may answer some of those vibes questions. But I think those are your questions right now. I doubt Nancy has the same ones; if she ever does, you can help her out then.

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Q. Emotionally Overloaded: I’ve been dating a guy for about four months now, and it’s been mostly going well, or so I thought. After spending a great weekend at the beach together this past weekend, he was going to break up with me as I walked out the door. Because I was so confused and caught off guard, I tried to understand what was going on and without getting into every detail, I think he was overwhelmed emotionally but through the process of talking he realized that breaking up was a drastic response. I have not met his family, but he has met mine. Also, both of our birthdays are this coming weekend (his Sunday and mine Monday). I had a hard time nailing him down for plans, and turns out that’s because his parents have been planning to come into town this whole time and he was withholding that from me because he thought we would be broken up.

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Now, he wants me to come out to have dinner with them on Saturday night. We do not live in the same place, but he lives in my hometown about 3.5 hours from mine that I am about to move back to. I’m torn because this feels like a lot to go from “I don’t want to be with you” to “come meet my family.” But, his parents don’t come around often, so this may not be an opportunity that will present itself again anytime soon. My mom and my sister have also suggested us just taking a girl’s weekend because we haven’t done that in forever, and it just so happens our schedules align for the first time, and I just want to do that. I don’t want to punish him for what happened, and I know I’m going to have to forgive him for all this, but it all just feels raw right now. Do I need to just suck it up and go to this dinner? Or should I just tell him thanks but no thanks, we will do it again next time. I’m such a people pleaser that the idea of refusing this invitation fills me with dread and anxiety. Please help!

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A. Your boyfriend has a lot going on that he needs to work through before taking the step of introducing you to his parents. And you need time to work through your own feelings of emotional whiplash. The girl’s weekend sounds like the perfect out that keeps feelings from being bruised but still gives you something positive to look forward to. If you were to go meet the parents, I’m afraid you’d spend the whole time stressing out about his responses and trying to tamp down the raw feelings you’re still having. If you stay together, his parents will come around again, and you’ll hopefully be in a better place to start a relationship with them.

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Q. Re: Didn’t Poison Anyone: Yes, your aunt is annoying and difficult, yet you still seem to think it’s okay to adulterate food to see if someone is going to have an allergic reaction. You still seem to see this on the level of prank, when it isn’t. There are much better ways to handle the situation, including telling your aunt to bring her own food to family get-togethers since she has such concerns. All you have done is given her more material to make everyone else’s life difficult.

A. Agreed completely. I try to approach every letter with a lot of empathy and equanimity, but this LW not only chose the worst possible way of handling this non-issue but doesn’t feel any remorse. Sheesh!

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Q. Re: Didn’t Poison Anyone: I think it’s worth reiterating: Never, EVER test somebody’s claimed allergies by feeding them the purported allergen. If you’re wrong and they have a severe reaction, they could end up in the hospital (at the very least). If you think somebody is exaggerating or faking an allergy to seek attention, then try a simpler, more direct route: Stop inviting them to social occasions.

A. This comment reminds me of an incident from middle school—I have an allergy to nuts that got worse as I got older. Once a friend told me—after I’d eaten a bite of a snack—that it had nuts in it. The anxiety alone prompted some symptoms to begin. She then told me she was kidding, but that didn’t stop whatever my adrenaline was doing to my body. Unless you’re an allergist, keep your tests to yourself.

Q. Re: Regretful Sleuth: OMG. Keep this to yourself. You could be wrong, it was 37 YEARS AGO, he pled guilty to INVOLUNTARY manslaughter (think hitting somebody with a car), and has paid the price. Since then, it seems he’s been an upstanding citizen.
MYOB.

A. It’s rare that anyone is going to react favorably to the prompt “would you like to hear some weird news I learned about your dad on the internet.”

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