Mom Food - the Menu for the '90s?

IF futurist Faith Popcorn is right - and she claims she is wrong only five percent of the time - one of the hot trends of the '90s will be a return to tradition. Calling this the ``Homecoming Decade,'' Ms. Popcorn predicts that women - some of them, at least - will leave the business world and go home. Once there, they will shun frozen dinners, carry-out pizza, and takeout Chinese in favor of hearty home-cooked fare, which she dubs ``Mom Food.''

``We want meat loaf,'' Popcorn has asserted, sounding like a USA Today headline. ``We want big, fat turkey sandwiches.''

We do?

Apparently so. Even Bryan Miller, the presumably sophisticated restaurant critic of The New York Times, recently praised a Manhattan restaurant for its ``motherly food,'' extolling the down-home pleasures of such dishes as roast chicken, crusty loin of pork, and ``pink and juicy leg of lamb.''

Probably never does the yearning for Mom Food - tradition! - run stronger than during the holiday season. This Thursday, when millions of cooks pop millions of turkeys into millions of ovens, many will be duplicating the Thanksgiving dinners their mothers cooked.

If Mom always served bread stuffing, they wouldn't think of serving the delectable-looking Five-Rice and Chestnut Stuffing pictured in this month's Gourmet magazine. If Mom made fresh cranberry sauce, they wouldn't dream of buying canned cranberry jelly.

A college friend of mine even went so far as to insist that no Thanksgiving meal was complete without sauerkraut, a surprisingly tasty dish that - you guessed it - her mother always served.

As one veteran Thanksgiving hostess admits in the current issue of Woman's Day, ``I haven't varied my menu in 17 years. ... I could probably recite my shopping list by heart.''

Please pass the salt - and the tradition.

Yet even tradition can produce its share of confusion - and fatigue - when the time-consuming rituals of the groaning board fail to coincide with the time-short realities of 1980s schedules. This is the season, after all, when plans for a simpler holiday celebration can be subtly sabotaged by newsstands filled with magazines featuring recipes and crafts - ``heirloom ornaments'' and ``new holiday traditions'' for the whole family.

From handmade calico wreaths to homebaked thatched-roof gingerbread cottages, Americans who have never set foot on a farm - or out of the country - are encouraged to celebrate an ``American Country Christmas (and an Old World Christmas too),'' as a current Good Housekeeping cover puts it.

For more than a year, Good Housekeeping has been running a series of ads promoting ``the New Traditionalist,'' a contemporary woman ``who finds her fulfillment in traditional values that were considered `old-fashioned' just a few years ago.''

The magazine ad describes one New Traditionalist, Monica Simon, this way: ``She loves to cook. She loves family dinners. She loves Christmas so much that she spends a whole week trimming the tree. She also loves her job - because it lets her contribute financially to `the family structure.'''

Alas, the editors don't bother to explain how Ms. Simon - a woman who ``is at the leading edge of America's newest life-style'' - manages to work all week and still have time to spend ``a whole week'' trimming the tree. They proudly label her a ``neotraditionalist,'' although she sounds suspiciously like the overextended woman Redbook calls The Juggler, and the rest of us think of as Superwoman.

Whatever the title, these keepers-of-tradition are left juggling their holiday dreams and holiday realities. It can be a demanding business - combining the state-of-the-art present with what one holiday magazine calls ``the idealized past.''

Let the old-fashioned stage set be as Dickensian as our sentimental hearts desire.

Let the high-tech Camcorders roll to record it all.

Let none of this irony escape us.

But let none of the deeper yearnings of the holiday feast escape us either - we jet-age pilgrims, hungry in every sense of the word for the sustenance of home and hearth, including Mom Food.

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