America is undergoing its greatest culinary crisis since McDonald's discontinued the bacon double cheeseburger.
The problem has been simmering -- or possibly stewing, no one is quite sure -- for several years now. But recently it came to a boil when I attended a luncheon at one of those hotels that serve Pretty Food.
In epicurean parlance, not to mention plain English, Pretty Food is any dish, order, serving, entree or alleged meal that looks better than it tastes.
This means it is served on a plate looking as if it had been designed by either a landscape architect or an interior decorator. Often it is arranged in neat rows or cute patterns that bear a strong resemblance to an aerial view of the New York Botanical Garden.
Maybe that's why Pretty Food is frequently served with a flower. Not on the side or in a little vase, mind you, but on the food itself!
This raises a question that can, at the very least, unnerve the inexperienced modern diner. That question is: Should the flower actually be eaten?
My best guess is that, if it does not contain a swarm of killer bees, or if there is no discernible sign of poison sumac, then, yes, go right ahead. But don't pick your teeth with the stem.
Aside from this, Pretty Food can be distinguished from Real Food in three ways:
*It has no aroma.
*It has no flavor.
*It makes you want to run to the nearest vending machine for a Snickers bar.
That pretty much describes the meal I was served at the aforementioned luncheon. And the worst part was: There was nothing else to eat! It wasn't as if I could order something different. It was either eat it or go hungry.
So I ate it. And went hungry anyway.
The appetizer, which wasn't very appetizing, was chilled cucumber soup with dill. (As in: Dill hell freezes over.) I refused to touch it on the grounds that if I wanted cold soup, I'd buy some Campbell's Curly Noodle and spoon it out of the can.
The entree (a French word meaning "overpriced serving") was, and I am quoting from a little table card here: "Chicken galantine with wild mushroom mousse presented on a symphonie of summer greens accompanied with marinated asparagus."
Naturally, I was a bit apprehensive upon reading this. For one thing, galantine sounds suspiciously like some kind of unpleasant ointment. ("Use doctor-tested Galantine to soothe the painful itching of athlete's foot!") For another, isn't mousse something you put in your hair? And the last part -- "a symphonie of summer greens accompanied with marinated asparagus" -- not only is a felony of spelling and grammar, but sounds like a concert in the park.
The dish turned out to be three pieces of cold gray meat the size of subway tokens surrounded by a forest of bloodshot lettuce and a couple of shiny green twigs.
With a flower, of course.
The guests at my table stared briefly at their plates, then looked incredulously at each other, as if to say: "This is it???"
Sadly, it was. Hunger being more powerful than incredulity, however, we all tentatively poked forks at our lunch. Whereupon someone (probably me) said: "Are you supposed to eat the flower?"
This raised considerable debate, inasmuch as some flowers (like mine) were yellow, some were pink and others were white. Since the yellow flower clashed with my jacket, I couldn't very well wear it in my lapel. Neither could I bring myself to eat it, despite no evidence of killer bees or poison sumac. So I dropped it in my water glass.
Then I sat there trying to envision the scene as the hotel manager interviewed applicants for the chef's job:
Manager: Do you know anything about preparing food?
Applicant: No, but I used to do flower arrangements.
Manager: When can you start?
Ten minutes later, the Pretty Food was gone and my stomach was still growling. This would have been embarrassing except that everyone else in the room had the same problem, which accounted for a small seismic disturbance that rattled the chandelier.
When the luncheon was over, I rushed back to the office and headed for the vending machine to get a Snickers bar. Next time, I think I'll go to McDonald's.