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Before Cuisine and Waiters, We Got By on Food

April 22, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot next week.

If you're at all like me, you probably like a little food now and again. And if you're also single, you know that usually boils down to having cold cereal, Trader Joe's microwave Cannelloni With Hot Black Plastic, or dining out. I like the latter, since it's always nice to get something warm from another human, even if it's just a plate.

Back when all our restaurants around here had names like McDonald's or Mr. Huge Steak, dining was a simple enough proposition: You order food; you eat it. With the past decade's infusion of fine trend-food restaurants, though, I find all the old rules are changed. For starters, it's practically useless looking at a menu because no matter what you order, they're probably going to bring you something that looks like a Klingon's foot.

At one place in Santa Ana I was given a plate so craftily arrayed with tropical shoots, decorative greens and a well-disguised modicum of actual food that I had to ask the waitress, "How often should I water this?"

But even getting water out of these people requires a choice. When one person at our table requested a glass of it, the waitress asked earnestly, "Sparkling or still?"

At least she was doing her job, which might get her thrown out of the wait-person's guild. What she should have been doing was letting us know that waiting tables isn't her real job. There are many subtle ways of conveying that: One guy at one trendy grill recently did his whole abrasive stand-up comedy routine for us.

Their most common true vocation, though, must be "narcissistic male model." These seem to predominate in the stern new Italian restaurants here. Whether these people are off preening somewhere ignoring you or are overweeningly solicitous, they do so with a superior air, giving the impression that if one of their hairs got in your soup, they'd expect you to pay extra for it. If I chilled dessert forks for a living, I'd probably have an attitude too.

Not that I'm the perfect diner. I've been known to drink from a fingerbowl or two, and I still like to make mashed potato castles. Big deal.

Who said eating has to be so complicated? I have a physicist friend who used to organize some remarkable camping trips--up rivers, down mines, you name it--and when we first started doing these back in high school, he took a perverse pride in seeing just how little it could cost to keep us alive. For one trip, he planned a menu by which he was able to feed us the minimum nutrient requirement for 27 cents a day.

The meals largely were shaped from oats, a brick of some "processed cheese-like food product substance" that looked and smelled like a bunch of fused-together Shell No-Pest Strips, and a warm cup of equally artificial sweet liquid.

"What's this?" we'd ask, swirling it around suspiciously in our canteen cups.

"It's warm Jell-O. Drink it. You'll need the silica on the march tomorrow."

He might have continued on with this concentration-camp cuisine had not he and another guy spent a summer driving across the United States. Somewhere along the way, the other guy impressed upon him--with a hunting knife, if I recollect--that cooking with flavor is not a bad idea. By the time they made it home, my friend was making duck a l'orange and flambed spinach salads on the Coleman stove.

I think the human race has made roughly the same progression: We started off eating grubs, bark, raw meat, Necco wafers and anything else that would keep us alive, and somehow transformed this basic need into an art form requiring trousers and a dinner jacket.

Maybe it is because eating is such a life-or-death thing that we choose to tart up our meals, to celebrate bounty, to flaunt our crucial need for nutrition.

I'm not so sure about that. One global rule I am sure of is that the farther you get from the Equator, the more people overcook their food, the less they spice it and the more they drink, which you probably would too if you lived on a diet of petrified reindeer.

I've had reindeer in Finland, and even the radiation from Chernobyl wasn't enough to tenderize the stuff. It's even worse than English food, which, considering blood puddings and kidney pies, is saying a lot. In the '60s, American youth bought the Beatles, James Bond, Jaguars, Yardley lipsticks and everything else British, but we stopped up short at blood pudding. It's a damn lucky thing England oppressed so many other cultures during its empire days, because if it weren't for the Indian takeouts and other ethnic restaurants that have come there to roost, the British would have starved long ago.

The absolute worst food in the world is in Russian restaurants, though. I went there back when Russia was a formidable and frightening place, instead of just a Third World state with ballet.

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