Nuts To Jell-O

...And To The Rest Of This Century's Culinary Clichés.

GASTRONOMIC GAFFES have filled the annals of restaurant and home cooking since the first Neanderthal accidentally charbroiled his dog. Growing up in America during the 20th century has meant taste-testing items that would have made Cleopatra cringe. Consider the madness of marshmallows, the wasteland of Wonder bread, the folly of fondue. Canned grapes and candied yams? Did we really need to revive zuppa Inglese and replace it on menus everywhere as tiramisu?

We come today not to praise Waldorf salad, but to bury it -- along with chef's salad, fish sticks and Cool Whip. Let's recall briefly some of the more vapid food clichés perpetrated by hucksters, promotional hysterics and just plain stupid cooks throughout the last century.

Though it was a Frenchman who dictated a chicken in every pot, it was Americans at the turn of the century who took him up on it. Sunday was chicken dinner. That would be tasteless, tough boiled chicken whose neck had just been wrung by Grandpa, served with gooey dumplings and plenty of gravy thickened with lard and flour. Chickens were like hookers -- cheap, available and adaptable -- so the domestic fowl turned up in myriad American dishes, graduating from Sunday dinner to diet food, banquet food and school cafeteria food. Chicken Kiev, into which -- gasp -- a slab of butter was inserted before breading and frying -- was the final insult and became the number one wedding entrée in the country for most of the century.

Did we really need Jell-O? Or those Jell-O mold salads in Day-Glo colors filled with canned fruit? Related more to aquariums than food, these anti-gravity jigglers enchanted two generations of housewives.

The first halting step toward today's convenience meals began with the casserole, an idea somebody brought back from a trip to southwest France and reinvented with stuff available in cans. A prime culprit was the tuna casserole. Though bored after the second bite, everybody insisted they liked it so much that cooks just kept making it. We all know the tuna casserole was really a canned mushroom soup and crushed potato chip delivery system. If you crush potato chips over mildewed Styrofoam, Bubba will love it.

Lobster Newburg was another ubiquitous hostess dish. Even with its shellfish upgrade and that crucial splash of cooking sherry, this dish was about moist salt and fat.

Curry powder, Spam, soda pop -- the list of persistent and unquestioned "essentials" that filled America's larders would mystify archaeologists of the future. "Did they all have their taste buds removed?" a 22nd-century Louis Leakey might exclaim. Historians will chuckle over such mindless kitchen accessories as milk chocolate, chewing gum, Redi Whip and instant oatmeal.

Instant cereals -- and their evil twins, sweetened and flavored cold cereals (Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, Trix, Frankenberry -- ugh!) continue to haunt our kitchens.

The entire arsenal of "instant" foods was one of those conceptual blunders that hypnotized the masses. Not once asking themselves whether any of these time-savers were actually edible, consumers dutifully stocked instant coffee (blech!), instant mashed potatoes (a capital offense) and instant oatmeal. There is a special circle of hell reserved for the manufacturers of such garbage, right next to the spot where the makers of Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-Roni will burn eternally.

Consider the cheese clichés that held us captive. Tubes of processed cheese spread, pimento-flavored cheese in those little jelly glasses, cheese balls of questionable pedigree given some cachet with massive infusions of nuts and brandy. Velveeta may take top honors for sheer grossness, with fondue holding a very close second.

Ice-cream sundaes still show up on unimaginative restaurant menus as some giant joke on the very idea of dessert. Iceberg lettuce -- a genetically underendowed botanical the only virtue of which was crispness -- outlived its usefulness the moment it showed up in a Crab Louie. Can we please recover from our enslavement to its sheer superfluousness?

The same goes for margarine, one of those "better living through chemistry" nightmares that began clogging palates right after WWII.

Chewing gum -- probably rediscovered as an alternative to smoking -- was another tale told by an idiot.

And while we're covering clichés of the 20th century, let's not forget White Zinfandel -- which is really little more than Ripple in drag -- and Chardonnay. Convincing millions of Americans that they did too know something about wine, Chardonnay abused our taste buds and ruined many a dinner of Chilean seabass, itself another cliché worth tossing.

My hope for the year 2000? That I may never, ever, have to suffer another bite of tiramisu. That crème brûlée will be outlawed. That crab cakes will take a hike, and sun-dried tomatoes will be beamed out of our solar system.

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