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Diet Another Day

"What if," my husband began recently, "we both followed different diets -- like, I could do Atkins and you could do the Zone or something -- and then you compared them? Isn't that a good idea for an article?"

Let me think about that for a minute.

Mmmm... no.

Not for an article. Not for a lifestyle. And certainly not because it's that time of year when everyone else, sedated by the double dose of Thanksgiving and Christmas tryptophan, commits to a nonrefundable, ten-year gym membership. Indeed, the only diet I've ever considered, aside from a purely liquid, wine-based one, is Laura Corn's "Great American Sex Diet," which truth to tell is much more like a feast than a famine.

But I digress. The point is, I don't think a column about dieting is a good idea because I doubt many of us are going to be interested in following any sort of prescribed program in 2003. Under our current regime, setting personal limitations in addition to the sociopolitical ones we're already bound by is bound to backfire: More war plus less money makes Americans want to binge on junk food, not exercise.

Personally, I always advocate excess. But I'm not alone. A fellow writer who also loves food and drink in various forms at a variety of functions e-mailed me a telling quote to kick off the new year: "Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit."

In fact, I know many folks who long to return to the era when immoderation meant you were rich or at least implied you wouldn't starve to death during the leaner winter. Our restaurateurs have already taken note of our current unspoken belief that a size 12 is svelte and a 42 waist is more manly than a Manwich, providing us with a proliferation of steak houses, all-you-can-eat buffets (Sunday brunch or otherwise), and high-end concepts like Barton G. in Miami Beach and Brasserie Mon Ami in Boca Raton, where the fat-laden fare is not for the slim-waisted (or tight-fisted, for that matter) and the portion sizes are more appropriate for a monster than a monsieur.

Some of the food-related books that have just come on the market seem to support the theory that in times of strife, abundance equals life. Like The Century in Food by Beverly Bundy, which features the most popular fads in prepared foods from the last millennium, ranging from Swanson's frozen dinners to chocolate-chip Rice Krispies Treats. Or Linda Everett's Retro Diner: Comfort Food from the American Roadside, a lovingly nostalgic look at chrome-rimmed stools, truckers, and recipes like "Fatty Patty's Country Omelette" (not to mention at least ten kinds of meatloaf). The suggestions for altering recipes are just as unabashed. For "Indiana Buckwheat Cakes," breakfasters should "pour on that wonderful honey." Red flannel hash? "A nice poached or fried egg on top." And the rhetoric sums it up: "What's a great sandwich without a heap of creamy Maynard's Potato Salad? Lonely!"

Naturally, as unflattering trends go, gluttony isn't the only one in our dining future. I'm also anticipating a great deal of deliberate stupidity, if weird-but-true stories in the gastronomic vein from around the world are any indication. For instance, a hamburger restaurant in Sweden recently used the dishwasher to clean the toilet seats from the men's room along with the cutlery, an action that lends a whole new meaning to "mad cow disease." Speaking of, a French steak house chain apparently needs lessons in risk management after buying and serving British beef, which is banned due to that very fatal sickness. And here in the homeland, two separate fast-food employees have been arrested for selling drugs via the drive-through windows. 'Course, here in South Florida, we've always had a use for "I'll have a Coke with that." But here's a tip for aspiring Miami Subs cashiers-cum-dealers: Slip in a little Valium with the kids' meals and you'll develop such a local fan base that no one would turn you in when you mistake the phrase "extra ketchup" to mean a pair of nickel bags.

We're going to have to deal with lawbreakers on another level, as the smoking-in-restaurants ban goes into effect. Here's the escalation as I see it: Ciggie puffers go into restrooms for a quick fix so often that restaurateurs install smoking detectors above toilets (with optional video camera). Smokers disable said detectors with nail clippers they keep in their pockets and butter knives they snag off the tables, which they also use to threaten impertinent servers. Restaurateurs respond by replacing host stands with metal detectors and offering fare pre-cut into bite-size pieces. Oh wait, those are the airports I'm talking about. Forget I said anything.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, recently published reports have indicated that 98 percent of all food-industry workers still consider their jobs temporary rather than vocational. Which means that we have a 2 percent possibility of seeing the service in our restaurants actually improve. In turn, I'd say that gives me a better shot at greeting Ed McMahon in a stained nightie and curlers on Super Bowl Sunday than getting a water refill any given night of the week.

The predictions aren't all grim. Wine lists have been on the upswing, and bars and restaurants specializing in the vino have begun to appear, like, well, Vino in Coconut Grove, Joseph's Brasserie & Wine Bar in Sunny Isles, and Bin 595 in Plantation. By this time next year, it's entirely possible that more than ten people in South Florida will be able to pronounce "gewürtztraminer." The rest of us will still believe it sounds like tiramisu did to the main character in Sleepless in Seattle, who thought it was a new sexual practice.

That's where Laura Corn comes in handy. The author of The Great American Sex Diet has come up with an equation to live by, one I'll be taking to heart -- and bed -- for the whole of 2003: Anticipation + Variety = Great Sex. Replace one or any of those words with "food," and it'll be a year of good nights for all. A four-letter word has been uttered in my home that I never want to hear again: diet.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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