I have come pretty much to what I call zero-based desserts. Most people have eaten fancy desserts here and there that are nasty, and we must learn to just say no.
Once I had a dessert of pureed avocados with sugar and a garnish of sour gooseberries. Bad stuff. And the number of chocolate cakes I have eaten that had no chocolate in them is very considerable. Why do people serve, and why do people eat, desserts of no merit? When even the dumbest or poorest hostess in town can manage raw bananas.
Recently I ate a lousy dessert somewhere and it occurred to me I would be happier eating a piece of my wife's excellent whole-wheat bread with raspberry jelly on it. That was when I hit on the idea of zero-based desserts and now if the dessert is not as good as bread and jelly I decline to eat it.
Most hostesses know how to cook hot dogs and hamburgers or, if they mean to do themselves proud, rib roasts of beef. And any nitwit can learn to broil a fish. Potatoes are not an esoteric dish; neither is spinach, collards, turnips, string beans, broccoli or Brussels sprouts but some hostesses consider them too ordinary. They got this impression from overpriced restaurants that learned there is little money to be made on vegetables.
I shall describe a typical supper served in houses of the middle class in Washington. First there are drinks and with these the hostess commonly knocks herself out preparing things to nibble on. Never, under duress even, eat anything suspicious-looking such as marinated raw mushrooms. It is generally safe to eat braised chilled cucumbers stuffed with chopped tomatoes and basil, then sliced into circles. They don't taste good but they rarely kill you.
Anybody who eats raw scallops soaked in lime juice at somebody else's house needs no comment from me. If a guest has a death wish or likes to play daredevil stunt man, fine, but I address normal guests. How often they have ingested strange foods accompanying drinks, merely because they thought it rude to refuse.
It is never rude to refuse food that's no good. Or if it is rude, better rude than dead.
Once in New England our hostess served a huge platter with what must have been a thousand raw mussels laid out in a design. Two days later I read in the local paper that nobody should eat mussels from those waters.
But apart from health hazards, there is no reason to eat stuff that tastes bad. In an America that comprises 250 million souls, many of whom have nothing to do but read balderdash in cookbooks, the search is on for food that no guest has ever laid eyes on before.
The ideal dish in Washington is one that can be fixed the day before, and that costs no more than 30 cents a serving, and that has some dreadful strong flavor from a weed newly procured from some hellhole beyond our borders.
It is possible to smell all food before eating it. You do this inconspicuously by getting the fork near the nose, as if briefly distracted. If it smells strange, then it is strange.
If you venture a mouthful and find it unpalatable, raise the napkin to the lips and delicately get it from mouth to napkin. Later, it can be eased onto the plate. The remainder of the food can be cut with a fork, stirred about a little toward the edges, and left.
The sensitive hostess will notice you didn't eat it, but then the sensitive hostess probably would not have served it.
Once a couple came to our house for supper. The menu was costly, simple and superbly cooked. The female guest gobbled along but her husband ate nothing. My wife worried several days about that, but I said not to worry, he just didn't want to eat it, and this is a free country.
It turned out the man, who had had polio and who walked with crutches, liked to drink scotch, which has calories, but because all his weight was thrown to his arms and shoulders he had to avoid getting fat. To accommodate the scotch in his daily regimen, he had to get all his vitamins and goodies with the fewest possible calories. He ate only lean beef, horseradish, brewer's yeast and a few other things, none of which we had that night.
My theory was that we wanted to please those guests. I would hate for anybody to sit at my table and eat something he didn't like. That guest did the right thing, not to eat a mouthful. He could go home and eat his horseradish and brewer's yeast, and neither he nor his hostess should be embarrassed.
Chicken is cheaper than many other things, so the hostess nowadays seeks recipes for chicken that she hopes will disguise her primary purpose, to feed her guests without going broke. There is a quite nasty strong oil the Chinese like, and it does indeed conceal any flavor the chicken might have had (which was little enough) and if a few burnt nuts from the Seychelles are added, with a few sprigs of something brought back from the side of the road just outside Aix, the dish will indeed be something you don't get every day. The typical dessert goes crunch, has imitation chocolate and far too much nutmeg in it.
I do not disparage unusual ingredients. Mango chutney should have tamarinds in it, and you jolly well find them. Or if a dish requires cream too thick to pour, you get it. I knew a Virginia woman who worked for years on a certain professor who had a Jersey cow, sending him little remembrances on his birthday and so on, and at the last she got a steady supply of cream that had to be spooned out. She was abstemious and very thin, but if something needed rich cream then by God she got rich cream. None of this nonsense about not being able to buy it at the Safeway.
The French, who cannot be charged with subsisting on boiled potatoes, sometimes serve complicated dishes but they are invariably good. Once I wandered all about France and in several months, whether eating at a hole in the wall in Arles or a great restaurant in Lyon or an el cheapo dive in Paris, I never left even half a forkful on my plate.
That is because they meant the food to taste good and saw to it that it did.
In Washington, I am sorry to say, too many hostesses neither know nor care what food tastes like. They want it to make guests squeal and they want it to be convenient to fix and they want it to be cheap.
Fine. And you damned well don't have to eat it. You do, of course, want to be polite about it.