DON'T BE FRIGHTENED, but a ton of radicchio enters this country every week. For awhile, it looked as if this bunch of red and white leaves posing as lettuce might be stamped out. "White Trash Cooking" and Jane and Michael Stern's "Square Meals" became best sellers by reminding people of the far-off joys of pot roast, string beans cooked for days with a slab of bacon, and fried chicken. Even steak had a brief renaissance at toney restaurants on the Upper West Side of New York.
But the food industry fought back hard, not wanting to forgo the huge markup that could be taken on alien plant life that costs pennies to grow, as opposed to the more modest profit to be made on actual food. Having taken a page from Seventh Avenue, which has always known that if you play to people's social insecurities sufficiently you can get them to buy what they don't like at prices they can't afford, the food stylists continued to push the New Vegetables as the sine qua non of fashionable eating.
They enlarged and expanded the choices to include hundreds of varieties of squash, peppers, peas and beans, some of which even taste good. This movement wouldn't be so bad if radicchio and the other parvenues weren't pushing out sensible food like baked potatoes. The last time I had a baked potato outside my own house was about five years ago when the rules of the new eating were temporarily lifted during a cookout at the beach with children present.
As a result of this aggressive marketing, the average number of items in a store has gone from just over 10,000 in the 1970s to an average of 19,000 today. The Georgetown Safeway alone has 25,000 different items, and the increase isn't in the cannedlima bean section. Across the country, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, 18.4 percent of all supermarkets have established gourmet sections and all of those carry items like kiwi, a fringe fruit confined to a bicoastal claque of New Age eaters until a few years ago.
Statistics show the startling growth of the mass-elite market. Imports of kiwi shot from 2,400 pounds in 1962 to 4 million pounds in 1981, largely on the strength of its press clipping from Gourmet. Imports shot up to 12 million pounds in 1983 when the fringe fruit debuted in the Living Section of The New York Times.
It became completely mainstream by 1985 when a recipe for kiwi tart appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Imports topped 18 million pounds that year and stayed there in 1986.
Until the '80s, the only mutant vegetable most of us had ever known personally were those miniature pieces of corn on the cob that showed up at Chinese retaurants. Now you can go a week on the K Street restaurant belt without encountering a full-grown tuber. Even dessert has been ruined with altered forms of fruit like carambolas with raspberry sauce. Liberal establishments sometimes allow white chocolate mousse onto the menu as a bone to retro-eaters but everyone knows it really isn't chocolate, even if you close your eyes.
For awhile, it looked like vegetables would keep their low profile and avoid making a fool of themselves, as the other three food groups had done. Let quiche and brie go for the cheap thrill of a profile in Connoiseur, only to be the butt of jokes in Johnny Carson's monologues a few years later. No, vegetables shunned the limelight, going for staying power, even though it meant a hard life in the produce bin, miles away from the soft lights and the easy money of the gourmet section.
But by the mid-'80s, the food industry was casting about for a new Fashion Food. Everything that could be done to the chocolate chip cookie had been done. The less said about blackened fish the better. Goat cheese had fallen from favor once people remembered that goats consume twice their weight in garbage, like rusty tire irons and old baling wire, every day. The American Heart Association ruined the triple cream cheeses when it was pointed out that a dollop of tomma della valcuvia is akin to pouring wet cement into the arteries. Wine-upsmanship went out when drinking fell into disrepute. There was nowhere to go but vegetables.
We've come a long way in making our social distinctions since Thorstein Veblen, writing of the leisure-class tendency toward conspicuous consumption and invidious display, talked in terms of such consumer durables as cars, jewels, and a house in the country. He never thought to mention the size of your eggplant. But, with a house such as the one you grew up in (in the right zip code) topping the million-dollar mark and the cost of a BMW moving into the neighborhood of the gross national product of Chad, new ingenious forms of invidious display had to be discovered. Last decade it was Rolex watches, Oscar de la Renta and paper-thin, milk-fed nouvelle veal. This decade it's Swatch, Williwear and designer produce.
Social critic Paul Fussell says food is as much a signal of class as the sport you choose (one that consumes goods and services rapidly, like skeet shooting, is a favorite of uppers), the school you go to and the house you live in -- and better in that you can display it under the guise of entertaining people: "When you give a dinner party for friends, the minute they sit at the table they cease to be friends, or even equals. They become an audience, and it's now your obligation to impress them with the grandeur and sophistication of the arrangements and the cuisine and thus establish your class superiority."
The old and the organic are desired in all things since they convey both a sense of history and of using up scarce resources. The number of different items in the produce section leaped from around 60 in 1970 to 200 by 1986. The fruit and vegetable sector now brings in $23 billion a year in sales, compared to just $12 billion in 1974. Stylish eating has become so treacherous in New York that you can't even snack safely on the Upper West Side.
What does it take for a vegetable to make it? It must be hard to grow, incredibly small, unavailable at Safeway, tricky to pronounce, and expensive. It can never show up in the grocery ads, like some cheap imitation from the Jolly Green Giant. Nothing as domestic as an agricultural marketing order or a price support should ever be associated with a stylish vegetable. But the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which allows foreign fruits and vegetables from certain countries in here duty-free, adds a certain cachet. The word initiative makes it palatable to the free-market types; imports of tomatoes from the Dominican Republic shot from l,000 tons in the late '70s to 9,989 last year.
How you look is as important as how you taste, since most meals are color-coordinated, and the plate coverage of a fanned display of six each of sugar snap peas, bleached infant eggplants and fiddlehead ferns is a lot more cost-effective than a second piece of cold, poached chicken. Usually a vegetable turns chic after its debut in Gourmet magazine. By the time it shows up in the Living Section of The New York Times, you have to stop eating it. If it trickles down to the low-rent section of the grocery store, it's finished. Cajun ended when Kraft Foods announced a line of frozen dinners and a man who can't get his subjects and predicates to agree began advertising Cajun-flavored Ruffles potato chips on prime-time television.
Radicchio played the food game exactly right. It needs near-laboratory conditions to grow; its tiny little leaves are hard to pick and you need a staff in the scullery to get the grit out of the leaves. The unevolved go around saying "radicCHio", exposing themselves to the ridicule of the cognoscenti who know it's "radiKio." At $5 a pound, it costs about 10 times as much as off-the-rack lettuce.
When asked how radicchio was priced, a spokesman for Sutton Place Gourmet said, "Whatever the market will bear." When asked what the market will bear, he said, "Sophisticated people have sophisticated tastes and they will pay anything to satisfy them."
And radicchio is just the tip of the iceberg. It opened the floodgates for other designer vegetables. In the last six years, Jicima imports have gone up 400 percent, chayotes 300 percent and yucca 200 percent -- while made-in-the-USA corn has grown a paltry 1 percent in the past 15 years and full-size domestic carrots1.5 percent, according to Shannon Hamm who charts the growth of imported foodstuffs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Indeed, the specialty produce market is one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry, going from $12 billion in 1974 to $23 billion today. The average number of items in the produce section has tripled in the last five years to about 200.
It isn't easy to keep up with the rules of the New Eating. Mary Zimmerman, of Creamer, Dickson, Basford, a public relations firm specializing in food clients, and director of Innovations '87, a food exposition in New York that tells chefs and the nervous hostesses what is right to serve during the next year, says, "People who like to keep up are bored easily and so what is in is constantly changing." She mentions goat cheese and cajun cooking ruefully. "For a few minutes, thick steaks were back, but now it's southwest. That may stick around for awhile, since there are several hundred varieties of peppers to discover."
Back in those gentle days of the '70s, eating right was ever so much easier. A couple of cloves of garlic, thick cream and a bottle of brandy in the stew proved you'd been to Europe, or at least tuned in to Julia Child on public television, even if afterwards all the guests were sick. Since the advent of Thomas Cook tours to the south of France, competitive cooking is much more subtle than that. Offer boursin cheese, serve cream sauce over, not under, the poached dolphin, or overcook the kobacha squash and your guests will avert their eyes in nervous embarrassment, as if you'd just dragged out last decade's fondue dish and told them to dip bread cubes in it. Pour second-press olive oil over off-the-rack lettuce and you better have your Waste King warmed up.
To be fair, the advent of the New Vegetables has brought about some much-needed reforms. Zucchini, for instance, got what it was asking for. Breeding indiscriminantly in backyard gardens, forcing their owners to press them on innocent bystanders at the office, they could no longer find good homes. The zucchini needed to be cut down to size, which is now about the breadth and width of a toothpick. Out-of-season domestic tomatoes needed to be taught a lesson as well, particularly the ones in the cellophane package which are beneath contempt. Israeli tomatoes are taking over the market: 1,500 tons were imported last year. Even the bloated hydroponic, which consists almost entirely of water, is an improvement.
But while it's good to eat lower on the food chain, there is such a thing as eating too low, which brings us to nopalitos, making the rounds of restaurants on the Upper West Side of New York, about to hop on the Eastern Shuttle any moment. If God had wanted us to eat cactus leaves, he wouldn't have covered them with thorns and planted them hundreds of miles away from civilization in the desert. We have enough from the thistle family in the artichoke, which makes up for its lack of nutrition and its pointy leaves with its ability to transport twice its weight in melted butter to the mouth, defying all the laws of aerodynamics.
And while nutritional value is not the strongest argument in favor of the Old Eating, where deep-fried chicken and hot fudge sundaes are important elements, it, nonetheless, bears mentioning that vegetables pulled out of the earth 10 minutes after they are planted have no time to soak up useful minerals and vitamins, which is the point of eating vegetables in the first place. Edible flowers, the latest travesty to show up in expense account restaurants -- calling themselves a main dish at $6.95 -- won't grow hair on your chest, either. That being said, no one wants to be serving last year's food when guests come to dinner this year.
In case your subscription to Town & Country has run out, reprinted below are some of the Rules of the New Dining:
As a general rule, strike brussel sprouts, potatoes, anything grown to maturity and anything green that you recognize from your menu.
Don't serve anything you remember eating as a child. Retro-greens such as spinach and peas can be slipped in, if they are rendered unrecognizable by the Cuisinart.
Forget wild mushrooms, which come and go every five minutes. With the enoki, chantrelle, and shitake strains already passe, you may be tempted to guess what's currently in vogue, perhaps to pick something from the wild ones growing in your own backyard. But, remember, you just want to impress your guests, not kill them. Concede the latest fungus to Jean Louis at the Watergate.
Add jicama, chayotes, and rabe to your menu. Learn how to pronounce them and practice using them in a sentence before the first guest arrives. If you have to serve meat, make it as much like a vegetable as possible. In vogue are animals not kept in captivity, but free to roam. This doesn't mean the cat. Free-range chicken, buffalo, and the snake are possible choices.
Avoid raw fish (see wild mushrooms above). Don't worry about trying to match the wine to the meal. This is the situation Perrier had in mind when he decided there was money to be made in bottled water. It's still important to grind your own coffee beans if you can do it within earshot of your guests. But eschew the crop from has-been countries such as Jamaica and Colombia in favor of a regime mentioned in the Boland Amendment, like Nicaragua.
Pretend you don't have tea. The New Eaters aren't thinking Lipton's Flo-Thru but camomille, ginseng, Red Zinger and beyond, as if they'd come to your house for the cure, not dinner.
The New Eaters shun dessert, especially if it is sweet and delicious, so you will be admired for your stylishness if you simply ignore it. If you go ahead anyway, poach a hard fruit, like prickly pears, from outside the country in marsala. Add raspberry sauce.
By the way, undercook everything. Margaret Carlson is a Washington writer and former bureau chief here for Esquire magazine.