Once you win their trust, master chefs will sometimes fill you in on the three cardinal rules of the culinary arts: hot dogs taste best at a baseball stadium; fried chicken tastes best on a boat; and sardines taste best in a dark kitchen at midnight.

There are many corollaries to the third rule: the kung-pao-chicken corollary, the meatloaf corollary, the pasta salad corollary, the pizza corollary. In the dead of night, wrapped in cellophane, crouched in the far reaches of the fridge, most things look delicious.

Maybe you're just back from a party thrown by people who skimped on the food. Or you worked late, or a baby woke you. Or cable TV sucked you into a "Brady Bunch" reunion movie and now your stomach--not used to being up this late--is calling for another feeding.

Midnight kitchen visits are a time and a place for food served cold. Microwave beeps wake nosy people who know about your diets; ovens take too long. You need a stealth meal: quick and undetected.

The nutritionists are against this. Late-night snacks are the worst, sloshing around in your lifeless body all night, nothing to do but create fat and clog arteries. When those nocturnal urges hit, the nutritionists say, brush your teeth or suck on an orange rind until the cravings pass. Or write a letter to a loved one! Or organize a closet!

Good ideas all, but your will power isn't quite up to the challenge. So you succumb to your binge. You grab a slice of lean turkey and wrap it in a leaf of endive lettuce, then dip the whole thing in a no-fat raspberry vinaigrette.

It was an indulgence, to be sure, but you'll make up for it at lunch tomorrow by cutting your cottage cheese ration in half.

Hah! Did you think we were going to let you get away with that?

We know you really grab a stack of Ritz crackers and use them to scoop out gobs of beef stew from the pot left over from last night, then dunk a couple sardines in spicy mustard as a side. Feeling some heartburn brewing, you slurp down four spoonfuls of mint chocolate chip to cool things down.

Then, gorged and ashamed, you slog your bloated belly off to bed, vowing to eat half a pear for breakfast tomorrow--oops, make that today--walk an extra two miles, and head for a messy closet with an orange in your mouth the next time you find yourself in the kitchen at midnight.

Douglas Hanks III is a reporter for the News Journal in New Castle, Del.