Pears are the raspberries of 1987.
Poached and pampered, pears now occupy the place on the gilt-edged, gilt-embossed menu that was reserved for kiwi fruit two years ago, raspberries last year, says William A. Homan, as partner of Design Cuisine, an expert in such matters.
The trendy fruit comes to the table as a still life, rivaling the centerpiece, beautifully dressed for the evening, sometimes in a ruby tiara of raspberry coulis, or an overskirt of sauce anglaise.
But little do the black-tied and jeweled diners at those grand parties at the National Gallery of Art or the State Department or the White House suspect what joys and sorrows lurk within these desserts.
A pear seems to sit solidly on the plate, resembling a plump and pleased donor. Only when attacked with a silver dessert fork or spoon does it become tough, resistant, even aggressive, threatening to spin like a bowling pin across the table and into someone else's lap.
Once subdued, the pear poses other problems. The unsuspecting diner -- having welcomed the fruit as cholesterol-free, nonfattening and consistent with the Ten Commandments and the American Constitution -- suddenly realizes these pears are drunk with sauterne or burgundy, sometimes carrying within their secret centers irresistible sins of chocolate or gorgonzola.
The National Gallery of Art, always in the forefront of delectable chic, has served poached pears for dessert twice in the past year.
They appeared at the opening of "Sule yman the Magnificent" in January, as "Poached Pears Kaati," after Topkapi Palace's famous garden. Appropriately, they were flavored with spices of Turkey (saffron, cinnamon and clove), sailing like a sultan in the midst of an inland sea of honey and crushed nut.
And they starred at the Georgia O'Keeffe opening this month as "Pears Lake George," after one of O'Keeffe's favorite places, where pear trees grow in profusion. This time they were toasted in champagne, and stuffed (as were the diners) with a chocolate and nut mixture.
"I selected the dessert because it has a classical simplicitythat reminds me of Georgia O'Keeffe," says Genevra Higginson, the National Gallery's special events director, who always selects foods and names courses to honor the exhibits.
"Clients like pears because they're fresh, elegant, but simple," says Homan, who poached the Sule yman and O'Keeffe pears. He has also, for a dinner in the Benjamin Franklin banquet room, State's great hall, poached pears in burgundy and decorated them with a pistachio creme.
Design Cuisine isn't the only one to pear down its menu. Sutton Place Gourmet (known to its friends as Glutton Place) is a prime purveyor of pears, in both the store's ready-to-eat traiteur section and its catering operation, says Mary Puglisi, catering director.
"We poach them in white wine sauce in cloves and cinnamon, sugar and lemon juice -- they turn a beautiful color -- and serve them with vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of lime zest."
Puglisi says the pears must be served "a` la Russe," which she defines as being arranged on individual plates in the kitchen (a` la restaurant) before being offered to the guest, instead of "a` la Franc ais," which is huddled together for protection on a platter and presented for diners to take their pick.
"Sometimes," says Puglisi, "we arrange the port pears on a white plate with a gold border. Or the white wine pear on a black plate with a sauce anglaise, with a raspberry sauce dribbled as on top of a Napoleon, blooming with a crystallized violet -- $4.25 a person."
Without the sauce and the service, the poached pears are $2.69 each at the Sutton counter.
The White House, setter of trends in fruit as well as foreign policy, produced perhaps the perfect pear temptation with an easy-to-eat dessert served last week at the dinner for Israeli President Chaim Herzog. The menu described it as "Hot dried pear souffle', served with cinnamon whipped cream and caramel pear sauce."
Pears have even invaded foreign diplomatic menus. At Algerian Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun's dinner Thursday night for the Capital Area UN Association "pears flambeau" followed couscous.
Homan, meanwhile, has already gone beyond pear desserts to a white wine-poached pear stuffed with gorgonzola as a first course, served with venison as a main course.
And what will be the pears of 1988?
"Food is fashion," says Homan, with a replete smile. "Perhaps nuts are next."