Not long ago, a typical hotel banquet meal consisted of a fat-marbled cut of beef smothered in gravy, vegetables drenched in butter and gooey desserts piled high with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
And it wasn't unusual to find this kind of artery-choking menu at fund-raisers for organizations battling heart disease and cancer.
But now groups such as the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society realize that their reputations are at stake when they serve a meal to hundreds of supporters. If their dietary guidelines recommend high-fiber, low-fat foods, how good can it look to serve fatty red meat and ice cream cakes?
"We do our best to work with hotels and caterers to provide meals that are consistent with the American Heart Association guidelines," said a spokesman for the association's Los Angeles chapter. "There's nothing wrong with eating red meat, as long as it's lean red meat. But I must say that it's probably unusual for us to serve beef these days; most of the dishes are chicken or fish."
At Heart Assn. functions, margarine is substituted for butter, cream sauces are verboten, chicken is served without the skin and desserts are low in fat. Changes like these have been taking place in the last five years, thanks to diligent dietitians and savvy public relations executives who see the value in not serving bacon and eggs at breakfast meetings.
The American Cancer Society has "no written policy" on what to serve at official functions, said Gail Luhmann, communications director for the Desert Palms unit.
But that hasn't stopped the organization from adhering to unwritten guidelines, such as no fried, high-fat or high-cholesterol foods and no heavy sauces and dressings.
"I have a background of 20 years as a caterer and event planner," said Luhmann, "and I know that things can be presented to caterers so that you can get them to serve things the way you'd like. They may want to serve potato salad and cold cuts, but you don't necessarily have to."
In the Palm Springs area, where events take place "every night of the week" during the winter months, "People are very health-conscious," she added. "They're all aware of what they're eating. And a lot of people who have retired here are former corporate executives coming from high-stress jobs. They're more aware of their diet, especially if they've had a health scare (like a heart attack). It is important to them."
Lenore Shapiro of Rancho Mirage was one of the planners of the Cancer Society's fund-raiser last December. On the menu was a lobster appetizer with melon balls and a ginger dressing; a salad of mixed field greens with olive oil vinaigrette; a veal chop with morel sauce, steamed vegetables and a dessert featuring fresh raspberries and strawberries in a light puff pastry with an optional zabaglione sauce.
Contrast that with a Cancer Society dinner eight years ago in Anaheim, where filet mignon with bearnaise sauce was the entree with tarts for dessert.
'Everybody Loved It'
"It seems most of the chefs now are trying to prepare healthier meals now," Shapiro said. "The reaction from people at this dinner was good; everybody loved it and said that they felt good after a lighter meal."
Hotel banquet chefs and caterers are in sync with the public's new eating habits and most are willing to work with groups with special dietary needs.
"We just had a diabetic foundation in for a dinner, and they wanted us to do a meal with no sugar in it," said Biltmore hotel executive chef Roger E. Pigozzi.
"The challenge was the dessert, and they said everywhere they go they get fresh fruit. That's the easy way out. I started playing around with ideas, and I ended up poaching a pear, took the core out, stuffed it with raisins and slivered almonds and cinnamon and served it with a raspberry sauce. We'll be featuring it at our restaurant Bernard's for our summer menu as one of our lighter desserts."
Health organizations aren't the only ones concerned with better menus. The trend toward healthier foods is spreading across all groups who are heeding warnings about high-fat, high-cholesterol and salt saturated foods.
Pierre Gilron, director of catering at the Century Plaza hotel, another favorite of the banquet set, serves only "two or three" prime rib dinners a year, far less than he served years ago.
Although beef is still popular, Gilron says it's a less fatty cut that's being served, along with veal, another frequently requested entree.
"Of course," he added, "chicken has always been popular, but if there's a stigma attached because of chicken being cheaper, then a group may spend more money on the starter course and the dessert. We're also serving less rich desserts, and things like a goose liver pate sauce--that's gone."