Are Americans health conscious? Of course, but only until it's time for dessert


We all know someone like Georgia Banyai.

Tell her there's dessert and she can't say no.

She talks about the Tower of Chocolate served at a local restaurant as if she ate it yesterday. It was almost a year ago. She also has fond memories of fudge brownies and zuppa inglese.

"I think I like to eat dessert out because it's more exotic," says Ms. Banyai, a full-time mother of two who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. "They're things I wouldn't make for myself at home."

Besides, at home, she's got her very thin, very in-shape husband, Joseph, watching the extra 10 pounds she's carrying these days. So she plays tennis or walks several miles every day and watches her fat, cholesterol and calorie intake at every meal.

But then there's dessert. "You know how people talk about something being too rich or too sweet?" she says. "I have no conception of that. I don't know what they're talking about."

Like many Americans who've altered their diets, Ms. Banyai is not about to give up the final and sweetest dinner course. She is a committed dessert eater.

"People will have a salad with dressing on the side. They'll skimp on the entree and then they'll go absolutely wild with dessert," says Richard Vincent, owner of Traffic Jam & Snug in Detroit.

Indeed, restaurant dessert orders declined in the early 1980s, according to the National Restaurant Association in Washington. But dessert orders rebounded in 1987 to the point that we ordered something sweet in 13 percent of all restaurant meals.

At home, Americans may never be the kind of Aunt Bea home bakers we once were, but Nestle Foods Corp. reports that 59 percent of American women are still baking from scratch, down from 70 percent in 1983.

Dessert, some say, is an integral part of American life. We celebrate Easter with chocolate, birthdays with cakes, Thanksgiving with pumpkin pie and Christmas with cookies and Rosh Hashanah with honey cakes.

"I think Americans, in general, vacillate between the sin and repent syndrome," says Lisa Ekus, owner of a public relations company in Hatfield, Mass., that deals almost exclusively in cookbook authors. "If you repent, you're good with main dishes, you eat your vegetables, you have the right amount of calcium, you have no fat in your diet. Then somehow it's OK to eat sweets."

At Season to Taste in Chicago, one of a handful of bookstores across the country devoted to cookbooks, the big dessert sellers are "Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts" by Alice Medrich (Warner, $35), "The Cake Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Morrow, $25) and "Rose's Christmas Cookies" (William Morrow, $19.95) by the same author.

"I sold two or three dozen of the cookie books throughout the summer," says Barry Bluestein, co-owner of the store.

Natalie Haughton, author of the just-released "365 Chocolate Desserts" (HarperCollins, $16.95), says she knew desserts were here to stay when white tablecloth restaurants started promoting their pastry chefs just as they would a regular chef.

Ms. Haughton, food editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, says at Wolfgang Puck's new restaurant, Granita, in Malibu, Calif., the pastry chef works in full view of the restaurant along with all the other chefs. One of the latest pastry chefs turned cookbook author is Jim Dodge, former pastry chef at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco. His photo-packed cookbook of all-American classics will be released by Simon & Schuster at the end of the month.

"Even in California," says Ms. Haughton, "where they're obsessed with weight and sticking to diets during the weeks, when they go out to a party or out on weekends, they indulge."

Shirley Robertson, chef and co-owner of Malibu in Michigan, says high fat appears to be a mark of a dessert's popularity.

"We laugh sometimes because all of the articles we read say people are health conscious. That might be true when they're ordering the main course but when it comes to dessert, give them high fat content, give them chocolate and they're thrilled."

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