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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Fruit of the Doomed: All too often, the most lusciously teasing fruit fails to deliver a true taste treat.

Oral Outrage

Food disappointments can rank right up there with lousy sex and an IRS audit--we'd like to share a few of ours with you

By Christina Waters

IT'S HAPPENED to each of us. We've been eyeing that gorgeous slab of pie at our favorite bakery. Finally, we break down and buy a slice, rushing home to eat it while it's still fresh and warm from the oven. But no. With the very first bite, our hopes and dreams throw themselves into the dumpster.

All of that mouth-watering anticipation, the fantasizing and then--thud--the underwhelming reality. This is a case of bona fide Food Disappointment.

Think about it. How many of our food fantasies have ended badly? Either the visual presentation had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual flavor, or else the hype was so enormous, so wildly inflated, that nothing short of the Second Coming could have lived up to it.

Endless are the categories of Food Disappointment. Let's take the Childhood Archetype. Pitifully simple, actually. It starts with your first bite of lemon meringue pie. It was baked just an hour before, and you were spellbound by the miracle of anti-gravity meringue suspended, weightless, over the intensely tart lemon interior. The first bite sent your young neural nets into overtime. Lemon and sweet meringue went mano a mano in your mouth, as it were, and your little pulse raced madly.

Let's fast-forward to the present day. You are now firmly into your adult years. You get a craving for lemon meringue pie, the classic pie, made from scratch. You talk your girlfriend into making it. You remain calorically celibate until that first taste.

Eyes closed, you wait for the magic to take effect. Nothing. Just some lemon, some sugar and some baked egg whites. Flat and ordinary, it doesn't even come close to your remembered youthful encounter.

But then remember your first kiss? The first time you saw Paris? The first time you rode a wave all the way in to shore? Lightning usually doesn't strike twice, folks. The reason for this entire category of Food Disappointment is obvious--nothing can ever match that first encounter. The very attempt to recapture the first taste is wrong, wrong, wrong. Don't go there.

IN FACT, a large segment of the Food Disappointment menagerie is taken up with what I'll call "The second time you order anything syndrome." We've all been down this road.

We had a great meal at Bistro X. Killer duck, outrageous Caesar salad, a crème brûlée to die for. Naturally we want to take our sweetie to experience this very meal. Bad idea. No matter how wonderful it is, it will not be able to re-create that exact set of existential coordinates involved in the Very First Time. Yes, many Food Disappointments are our own fault.

But there's another category: The Overhyped. In this case, the fault lies with Them.

Fast food is a big offender here. The TV ads are practically irresistible. Yes, dammit, I would kill for that gorgeous double cheeseburger, dripping juices, loaded with melting cheese, thick patties of ground beef and a fresh, thick bun.

But when I get to my local purveyor of junk food, what do I find? A big fat Food Disappointment. Anything but thick, the patties are practically invisible. The bun is a monument to the Dry and the Stale. The cheese refuses to melt. Somehow all the flavor has been extracted from this fiasco.

Another category of Food Disappointment involves flavor redundancy. You know, that slice of fresh-from-the-oven pizza. It's got all your favorite toppings, melted cheese, generous tomato sauce. That first bite is terrific. The second bite is, well, less terrific. And by the third bite, not only is the whole thing boring, but room temperature has set in and the cheese has started to congeal.

Pizza might just be better from a distance than it is in person. Like salsa. Or ribs. I mean after the third rib, what's the point? Disappointment takes over, and your senses begin to wonder, "Is this all there is?"

Angel food cake, mercifully no longer a fixture on menus and in kitchens, was once somehow a required item in the American dessert repertoire. Before there was Martha Stewart, there was Betty Crocker. Ms. Crocker, like many proponents of the Puritan ethic, believed that angelic foods should be austere, dry and devoid of richness.

Angel food cake always looked like it was going to deliver, but never did. Devil's food cake, on the other hand, was sinfully rewarding. Loaded with butter, chocolate and thick layers of frosting, it was never disappointing. Chocolate rarely is.

On the other hand, all these new "low-fat" or "lite" foods--the ones that promise they're "almost like butter" or "taste just like real cream," invariably tease but seldom satisfy.

Like many consumers determined not to expand into the next dress size, I keep my eyes peeled for acceptable, low-fat, low-calorie substitutes for big ticket items like butter, half and half, sour cream, ice cream and cream cheese (yes, you do detect a theme here).

I buy them. I try them. I toss them. Great packaging and upbeat, perky ad slogans sabotage our intelligence. You can almost convince yourself that, oh big deal, it's not that bad. Until you realize that you're avoiding the fake stuff and sneaking "little" tastes of the real thing.

Finally, tired of feeling seduced and abandoned by every new "Almost Real Cream" product, you just give up. (For what it's worth, I pass on wisdom given to me several years ago by Julia Child. The great culinary mentrix told me that she'll never give up her gin and tonics, or the pleasure of a rare steak with cheesecake for dessert. She just enjoys these things in moderation. It's the "don't cut it out, just cut back" theory--and it definitely reduces the disappointment factor.)

MY PERSONAL LIST of Top Food Disappointments includes these three big categories: fruit, pastry and buffets. How many times have I taken the bait and bought beautiful, deep crimson cherries, only to get home and discover that they were only Imitation of Fruit?

Peaches have been a lifelong source of disenchantment, ever since those archetypal Elbertas of the Catoctin Mountains in Pennsylvania. No other peach really delivers. They cajole and wink. They practically flirt their way into your shopping cart. But get them home, and they fail to put out. All show and no go.

Pastries, the kind that look like a Baroque opera, are invariably cloying, monotonous and deeply, tragically disappointing. Even though we can't help ourselves, we always suspect that the strawberry tart or the almond-encrusted cheese Danish isn't really going to take us to the stars.

Clearly, the imagination far outruns the biological facts. As for buffets, ha! That endless table laden with a king's ransom in food groups, sizes, colors, textures. All of our favorite items assembled in one place. We load up our plates with a dizzying assortment--probably the sheer irrational placement of cheese next to salmon, or pâté next to tiramisu, accounts for some of the problem. At any rate, we end up stunned, wishing for a simple plate of pasta. Or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now there's something that never, ever disappoints.

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From the August 1-8, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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