FOODS CAN HAVE fans that rival those of rock stars and sports heroes. This favoritism is the natural outgrowth of the fact that the palate and our sense of taste are subjective matters, but we all have the tendency to regard our choices as the standard of excellence.
Squaring off to compare different people's favorite versions of a dish can become the basis for an interesting dinner party, and one at which the hosts' participation need be little more than a few side dishes and setting the table.
Barbecue -- with rep from all its regional variations -- was the main event at a recent dinner hosted by Susan and Mark Caraluzzi at their Vienna, Va., home. As a restaurant and food consultant, Mark suggested the idea a few weeks before, when many of the same people were gathered at a party, and began arguing the merits of Sonny Bryan's hickory smoked beef brisket from Dallas versus the North Carolina smoked pork with a spicy mustard sauce asserted as the best in the country by a devotee of that style.
Over the years, Caraluzzi has done tastings with everything from hams (which he says can be "as different as night and day") to various onions (Vidalia, Maui and Walla Walla). He turned the onions into standard dishes such as fried onion rings, saut,eed onions to top steaks and delicate onion tarts.
There were four entries in the barbecue tasting. In addition to the offerings from Texas and North Carolina, one guest had the audacity to suggest that the best barbecue was not to be found in the South at all, but came from Stick to Your Ribs in Stamford, Conn. Barbecued ribs from Kenny's in Mount Pleasant was the only local entry.
The logistics for this particular party were elaborate. Shipments were ordered by phone, packed by the various restaurants and picked up by air freight companies so they would arrive on the day of the dinner. Each restaurant was asked for reheating instructions.
Guests who had sponsored certain restaurants lobbied on behalf of their favorites, but most participants were open-minded and sampled small portions of everything.
To accompany the barbecues, the Caraluzzis started with fried catfish, an hors d'oeuvre they frequently serve with a glass of champagne before more formal dinner parties, but one that proved most compatible with the meat to follow. For side dishes, steamed corn on the cob and an incredibly rich and flavorful baked bean casserole were all that was necessary. And the beverage served, of course, was beer.
There was no unanimous decision, but the consensus seemed to favor the upstart Connecticut barbecue as the most tender and flavorful meat. But none of the other sauces could compare with the slightly smoky tomato sauce from Sonny Bryan's in Dallas.
While flying in barbecue from around the country could be considered the ultimate in comparative dinners, there are many categories of food that lend themselves to sampling in this fashion. The only rule is that people have to bring their favorites, and then everyone gets to comment.
For a fall picnic, the meal could be gathered from a number of dif- ferent fast-food chains rather than just one. There is tremendous variation between brands of fried chicken, for example.
Ethnic foods are definitely the fodder for food fights. It seems that everyone has a favorite Chinese restaurant. The comparison could be made between appetizers such as egg rolls or fried dumplings or entrees ranging from moo shu pork to fiery kung po chicken.
Or the center attraction could be pizzas -- to judge everything from crispiness of crust to herbs in the sauce, or the comparison could center on various pasta dishes.
Do not forget about desserts and baked goods, if you want everyone to eat a dinner you've prepared and add the taste test at the end of the meal. Any form of cake, pie or cookie is fair game. BARBECUED BAKED BEANS
1 15-ounce can kidney beans
1 15-ounce can butter beans
3 tablespoons butter 3 strips of bacon, cut into 1-inch
11/2 cups coarsely chopped red
1 14-ounce can baked beans (or
pork and beans)
2/3 cup prepared barbecue sauce
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon white cider vinegar
1/4 pound Monterey Jack cheese,
2 small ham or smoked pork hocks
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Drain the kidney and butter beans in a colander, and wash them under cold water, allowing them to drain well.
In a skillet or dutch oven, melt the butter and add the bacon pieces and chopped onion. Saut,e for about seven minutes, or until onions are soft.
Combine the onion mixture with the beans and all remaining ingredients, stirring gently to blend but not break the beans.
Bake uncovered for one hour, and allow to sit for 20 minutes before serving so the juices will be reabsorbed. Discard the ham or smoked pork hocks before serving.