WITH TIME RUNNING out on 1981, let's devote a few moments for one last Bah, Humbug! look at the culinary year.
A friend returning from three years in Asia set us in the mood to rerun the reel. Her years in Thailand focused on food -- but on the lack of it. Her time and effort were concentrated on starving Cambodian refugees. Then, starting with her flight back, she was astonished at the attention Americans pay to food, attention of a very different nature. The movie on her flight, "The Four Seasons," began with shopping for weekend feasting and continued with an orgy of cooking. She began to notice that waiters in restaurants told her exactly what was in each dish as they recited the daily specials. "We don't want to know all this," she and her husband agreed, as they sat through details of herbs and sauce making. She was relieved, however, to find that Americans are eating less meat, that more Americans are vegetarians; she has been a vegetarian since before she left, and found much more company for her predilection when she returned.
Our mood of gustatory reminiscence was reinforced by hearing that it was Jan. 1, 1909, when Marcel Proust began his reverie that led to "Remembrance of Things Past." We have been disabused of the notion, though, that a sweet and buttery madeleine detonated his remembrance; instead, it was a piece of dry toast that he actually dipped in his tea to prompt his immortalizing the madeleine. In our opinion, dry toast does not make a very charming literary gift, so we are going to continue to believe in the myth of the madeleine.
This has been the year that has seen the marketing of "Gourmet Air" by a southern California company. It is the same year when we discovered that ketchup is not a vegetable even if the USDA considers legally declaring it one.
In 1981 the chocolate chip cookie threatened to overtake the hamburger as the most inescapable American food. And our national insecurity was exploited again with the promotion of the imported (from Denmark) chocolate chip cookie. Another of those if-it's-made-in-Europe-it's-got-to-be-good products.
But if we are never sure America can make it better, we know that America can make it faster. First, computerized checkout; next, robot waiters; now, computerized champagne -- Almaden has installed a computer that can fill, label and box 120 bottles of sparkling wine a minute.
The USDA, this same year, developed a machine that could measure the crispness of an apple. Thus the way has been paved for our fruits to be labeled for crispness. All this in the same year consumers, rather quietly, accepted their cans and boxes not being labeled with prices.
Labels continue to be topic of concern, from sodium labeling to beef labeled according to grade and ground-bone content, to designer-label jellybeans.
It has been a year of epidemics. From the Pacific, Medfly. From the Atlantic, Prince Charles' wedding plans.
We have also welcomed to our country a hundred-plus French chefs in one fell swoop, but we have yet to find chocolate chip cookies on French restaurant menus. We have spotted the French eating, on their home ground, American brunch and the same ham-and-cheese croissants that are chewing their way across America. (Take note that here a stuffed-croissant eatery calls itself Croissant Chaud; in Paris its counterpart is named Croissant Show. Pronounced identically.)
This was the year of Cuisinart vs. Robot Coupe -- apparently a standoff. In Washington it was the year of the haute carryout -- apparently carrying on. If it was a year that diet books dominated the best-seller lists nationally, it was also a year when desserts seemed about to take over Georgetown, with two new ice cream parlors, Cone E. Island and Hillary's, and A Piece of Cake dessert shop. And Spring Valley, long a wasteland of sit-down eating, now has two pastry-and-coffee possibilities within a block of each other.
We are cooking our vegetables again this year. And we are eating fish -- though, like last year's vegetables, a lot of it raw.
We have tasted our way through 1981 from the inauguration's A Taste of America to our holiday season recovering-from-the-party yogurt breakfasts. We face a new year of worrying about how much food the world will have available, and who will have the opportunity to eat how much of what. But along with the concern comes the fascination. That returning friend was right; we Americans are indeed obsessed by talk of food: the art of food, the politics of food, the economics of food, the science of food, the psychology of food, the culture of food, the pleasure of food. We look forward to another year of it.