Last week, I went to a dog dinner. No, I wasn’t eating dog food, but it was close. Purina has a fancy new line of dog cuisine out, so they asked a human chef to cook up a seven-course meal inspired by it. Since I’m a consistent sucker for free dinner, dog things, and the air of exclusivity, I went.
They cleared up any confusion about the menu right away, as Chef Amanda, our almost absurdly friendly host, assured us: “Everything you’re about to eat is human food.” That said, everything else, from the conversation to the bowls of kibble sitting on tablecloths, was 100% canine.
Each course was a mini-lecture on dog nutrition. “Roasted salmon with smoked white fish and black rice cakes” was about why dogs benefit from varied protein. (Charmingly, someone said that because of all the different components in kibble, "every meal is a seven-course meal for dogs.") In a more literal interpretation, our appetizer was beef chips with chicken hummus to mimic a new invention called Additions, which are little packets of puree that you squeeze onto your dog's food like a condiment.
Dining along with us — an assortment of pet-site editors and PR dinner opportunists — were two Purina embeds, a vet and a scientist. Both were real doctors, two from the almost 400 or so Purina employs. Dog-food companies have bigger academic departments than many universities.
Dr. Francoise Martin, a nicely dressed French man, is an animal-behavior scientist who provided a lengthy explanation of the concept of “palatability.” He talked a lot about the ways dogs enjoy the ritual and context of their meals. For example, they like food with different textures because it reminds them of the crunchy bone and soft organ meat they’d get while eating a dead animal. (At this point, we were eating kale with a lamb chop.)
It’s worth noting the food was actually delicious; road-kill vibes aside, the lamb was a perfect medium rare. But, the best part was the dog talk. As a new dog-father myself, who’d probably have mocked the kind of people who talk excessively about their pets just six months ago, I felt kind of free. I was finally at a dinner table where everyone really did want to see more iPhone pictures of my little guy. And, since the table was full of doctors, and we’d all had some wine, the pet questions flew.
The author and his dog Oliver.
Is it OK to microwave your dog food (Yes!) Can dogs be vegetarian? (Not really!) Can you give your dog a blanket? (Of course!) How does Purina know which dog foods taste good? (Professional dog-food tasters who are themselves dogs!) At one point, I felt almost drunk enough to try out one of the dad puns I practiced with my boss beforehand. (“Can I get a doggie bag for this?”) I got an indulgent smile.
One thing I could never quite get my head around (maybe it was all that wine) was how my enjoyment of all this fine human cuisine translated to my dog’s enjoyment of his. Deep into a plate of beef short ribs, I remembered the past weekend, when a friend’s dog had to be dissuaded from eating a paper towel, a clam shell, and some small rocks that barbecue sauce had spilled on. My own pup is often more interested in eating the cotton in his dinosaur toys than any sort of food.
The group was more concerned with another big question that we returned as the meal came to its end: rather than training our dogs, are our dogs actually training us? It was a Planet of the Dogs-type fear that many of us shared. Given that we were 12 dressed-up adults sitting at a candle-lit table eating dog food, it might not be that far-fetched.
And yes, the meal ended with doggie bags, full not of leftover short ribs but all sorts and flavors of kibbles and wet foods and gourmet-seeming canine meals. The next night, my dog enjoyed Grilled Salmon Entree With Real Sweet Potatoes. I had leftover Chinese.