DESPITE themselves, people all over the United States -- even those who normally announce they have better things to do than watch television -- will be planted in front of the tube for the next several weeks, memorizing the new cutetalk ("na-noo, na-noo," etc.) and predicting the People magazine covers for the next six months.
This phenomenon known as the New Season, which has all but replaced spring training as the great American ritual, demands from the accomplished host a kind of civil disobedience that the Mahatma Gandhi would have admired, as well as a cast-iron stomach.
In America's weaving and stumbling toward a national cuisine, we have drunk too deeply of the draughts of "modern technology." The country that invented polyurethane and Dacron and synfuel is, not amazingly, the home of freeze-dried coffee crystals, Cool Whip and imitation chocolate-flavored bits.
Even so, there are few American inventions as distasteful as the so-called "TV dinner"; deflowered, de-flavored meals packaged in aluminum foil and freezer frost and designed to give even Alistair Cooke a bad name.
There are rare occasions when it's permissible and even desirable for the two of you to eat dinner in front of the tube: during presidential nominating conventions, for example, or while watching "The Mac Neil/Lehrer Report" or "Gone With the Wind" or some such landmark. (Sometimes it may be inescapable, as when your date is a complete boor, or he's your kid brother, or one of you is recuperating from extracted wisdom teeth.)
At such times, however, you must retain some semblance of control over the situation by matching the meal to the material. For example, the only television program that really deserves a frozen dinner is "Three's Company," and that meal should be a tray of mashed potatoes and overdone beef. It is essential to master this variant of the haute insult.
Thus, if you must go slumming amidst the New Season, at least uphold the standard of skepticism. When "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" blasts into your living room, raise your Space Dust to old Captain Video and the mouldering Enterprise. "Buck Rogers" is nothing more than disco science fiction, and deserves no better than a Moon Pie.
"Struck by Lightning," which stars Jack Elam as what's left of Dr. Frankenstein's monster, is easy enough to match -- a beer and a Coney Island. And "Archie Bunker's Place" will be nothing more than a dish of leftover meatballs.
But on the whole, the established turkeys from previous seasons will be enough to give you plenty of ideas.
"Wonder Woman" is obviously a glass plate covered with ambrosia and turkey breast. "Happy Days" could be an Italian hero sandwich with American cheese. "Hello, Larry" would be popcorn, "Rhoda" a single cookie. "Fish" goes with "CHiPs."
Soap operas are anything hashed-over from the day before. (This is also appropriate for "Washington Week in Review" and "Agronsky and Company.") "Meet the Press" menus change according to the guest: George Wallace gets a pig-in-a-blanket, Jimmy Carter gets the open-faced sandwich and Jerry Brown the two-faced sandwich.
"The Tonight Show" opening monologue is a good dish of dry ribs, but the second course is all ham. "We Interrupt This Week" is a plate of fried brains. "Saturday Night Live" is a banana split with fruit and nuts (and boiled lamb for Gilda Radner).
Clint Eastwood movies are spaghetti and beef jerky, Mae West films are pork shoulder and cheesecake.
"Lou Grant" is scotch, "M*A*S*H" is bourbon, "Mary Tyler Moore" a Virgin Mary, "Dallas" is Lone Star beer and "Marcus Welby, M.D." could be either Alka-Seltzer or Sanka-Brand decaffeinated coffee. Burt Reynolds is a salty dog. "Carol Burnett" reruns get Harvey Wallbangers.
(This can also be adapted into a parlor game or potluck supper in which everyone must bring a dish honoring his favorite show. But no substitutions allowed: The "CBS Evening News" entry must be inspired by Walter Cronkite rather than Roger Mudd.)
In real life, TV dining is based on the premise that you should be able to insert the food safely into your mouth with your eyes fixed on the screen. Drippiness, although often associated with delight, is to be avoided -- no Reuben sandwiches and no lasagna. Tortellini, maybe.
Avoid any foods that require continuous wiping of the fingers and face, or you will be continually crumpling napkins. Therefore the barbecued spare ribs are inappropriate, as is most fried chicken (be honest with yourself -- how crisp is your thigh?), corn on the cob and heavily-buttered garlic bread. Mayonnaise is high-rish, as is sour cream.
However, a minimum of finger-licking is approved on such informal occasions, so less slavish finger foods would be allowed: plain shrimp or crab claws, for example, or artichokes.
Try small-chunk kebobs or cold roasted chicken with basil. Or perhaps a thickish soup in heavy-bottomed mugs. Or toasted bagels with cream cheese, or cold rare prime rib, or anything stuffed into pita bread. Or rumaki. Sushi and/or Sashimi; no sukiyaki. Wontons perhaps; no tacos.
A cheese souffle with the tang of cayenne. Croque monseiur. Skewered fruit and cheese cubes. Avoid mangos, the juice stains clothes. White wine is safer than red, molten chocolate is out. Hard bittersweet chocolate, on the other hand, is definitely in. So are strawberries and grapes. Coarse pate on melba toast. Miniature mushroom knishes. Country ham on beaten biscuits.
But the ideal TV dinner -- to be saved for the time when your best friend comes over to see "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "Dracula" in an all-night festival -- is cold lobster, preceded by a chilled fettucini salad and complemented by a dry, crisp white wine. After all, anyone good enough to be invited over to share such an extraordinary night should know how to eat lobster without looking.