Salad whodunit

Salad was being served. Barely. ''Hmmmm,'' muttered the portrait painter on my right, ''this is carrying nouvelle cuisine too far.'' She moved her lips imperceptibly. Her voice was lowered. So were her eyes - to the three small leaves of ruby lettuce on her plate.

But our hostess could read even veiled lips - or eyes - or thoughts.

With chin defiantly up, she plinked a few times with spoon on water glass and said crisply, ''Attention . . . attention . . . achtung . . . I have an announcement to make. . . . No, it's a confession.

''Tonight's super low calorie salad is made possible by a grant from Arthur.'' (Arthur is Hostess's husband.)

That caught Arthur's attention at last. He halted a lecture on his backhand grip (his audience was the perplexed non-tennis-playing real estate lady on his left) and cast a puzzled look at his wife.

She obliged: ''Two weeks ago Arthur told me he had ordered an ingenious new safe to keep my most precious jewels in. He said it was a clever plastic copy of a head of lettuce. Take the top off. Put your jewels in. Place it in the refrigerator, and no thief - not even a hungry one - would ever imagine it was anything other than iceberg lettuce.

''Well, half an hour ago I discovered Arthur's mail order lettuce has come. And I can report that what's good enough to fool the thief is also good enough to fool the cook.

''Have you ever tried to get dressed, stir the Stroganoff and run to the market for more lettuce - all in 29 minutes?''

Portrait Painter leaned forward, pleased. ''Why didn't you just reach into the lettuce and cast your pearls before us?'' she asked. ''They would have gone rather well with the ruby lettuce.''

''No comment,'' replied the wearer of Arthur's anniversary gift of artificial pearls, again plink-ing spoon against glass. ''Bon appetit . . . and if anyone is into eating plastic, you may have seconds.''

Arthur looked sheepish. But also rather proud of being the first in their crowd to have a fake-lettuce safe.

Pride, in fact, seems to be the attitude of all those Americans who have passed beyond wrought iron window grills, double night locks, and motion detectors in their campaign for home security. The Nouveau Secure are proud that they have transcended the Maginot Line mentality and moved along to ingenuity. Camouflage is their bag - not the civilian equivalent of a ''Star Wars'' missile defense represented by all those electronic detectors hooked to sirens and spotlights.

And venture capital is keeping pace with this switch to camouflage.

Consider, for instance, the fake rock now sold in upscale mail order catalogs. It is a gray-black molded plastic imitation rock that contains a secret compartment where the forgetful householder can stow his/her key.

The first person on our block to get one plunked it down amid similar small stones in a drip trench beneath the garage roof. She had not stopped to think, she said, about her dog, a golden retriever who likes to move sticks and stones around like pieces in a shell game. So she came home one afternoon, sans key, and went for her genuine fake rock. It wasn't in the middle of the band of stones in the trench. It wasn't anywhere near the middle.

One by one she began to turn the hundreds of similar-looking rocks. Minutes passed. Suddenly an aphorism flashed through her teleprompter: ''A plastic stone gathers no moss.'' It hadn't. She found the no-green rock, slid her key out of the secret compartment, and headed toward her door, wondering whether to tell the manufacturer to add plastic moss to the disguise or let well enough alone.

If your earlobes don't take to earrings fresh out of the lettuce at 36 F., there's always the fake electrical wall outlet as a place to hide the pearls and zircons. Its front plate swings open to reveal a mini-safe.

Just don't plug the vacuum into it.

That receptacle is simply a more up-to-date version of the safe behind the painting and the hollowed-out book with the Florentine leather binding, both so beloved of movie scriptwriters.

Some home-grown favorites in this camouflage category: the man who kept his spare cash hidden in the middle of a pile of Monopoly play money. The woman who hid her jewelry in the false bottom of a laundry hamper, beneath the family's dirty clothes. (Talk about laundered money!) And the man who kept a roll of 20s, wrapped in a plastic baggie, in the ceramic grotto at the bottom of his goldfish tank.

While much of the Western world has moved out of cash into credit and debit cards, out of jewelry into costume jewelry, and out of sterling into stainless, these simple dodges from the early Agatha Christie school of detection and counterdetection do have a certain ingenious charm. As long as no one confuses true security with such exercises in domestic ingenuity, there seems little harm in treating them as a one would a jigsaw puzzle.Fun, unless taken too seriously.

Or unless one likes to eat a hearty salad.

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