SOME PEOPLE peer into a crystal ball; I look into a shiny aluminum baking pan.
All the better to spot a culinary trend the instant it enters the kitchen.
Why should I be any different, after all? Just about every glossy home magazine worth its salt this month printed its list of foods that are "in" and foods that are "out."
The "in-est" thing of all is itemizing gastronomical pluses and minuses line by line.
And the "out-est" thing may well be eating the stuff that is touted.
Oh, do you remember, Maggie, when folks just ate what they liked because they were hungry? That was so long ago.
Much more than hunger enters into our decisions now. Include basic insecurity, politics, ecology, health -- and geography, too. The Pacific has become the culinary ocean of choice -- Pacific Rim food will be a big thing next year, the lists all say.
As will Pacific Northwest food (nobody really knows what that means yet, but we will learn). Also, the foods of the Pacific Basin.
My question is this: Did explorer Vasco di Balboa know what he was doing?
Speaking of Balboa, did you know that Spanish food is "out"? (In Western New York restaurants, it was never "in" -- a sobering thought.)
Also "out" (this is a compilation of several national lists): Southwest food, Cajun food (so "out" that it may soon be "in" again), French haute cuisine (too rich), Mexican (too lean?).
Butter, beef and -- say it isn't so -- chicken wings.
Fair enough, then, what foods are "in"? Obscure vegetables (invest in celeriac futures if you have extra cash) and Italian food (what else is new?).
Also "in": borscht; eggplant; "roasted" vegetables, meat and fish. (Same as "baked," but sounds better.)
Another group you'll be seeing a lot of: the "frees." And this has nothing to do with the Third World. We're talking about "fat-free," "cholesterol-free," "sodium-free" and "sugar-free."
"Taste-free" may be the natural result, but will probably not be mentioned.
Other trends have to do with eating out and restaurants -- logical enough. There is no guru in the Western world who doesn't now believe that cooking at home from scratch is on the decline.
What kind of restaurants are we likely to see in the next 12 months? Cheap ones. Basic ones. Serving meatloaf, potatoes and canned peas and carrots to guys wearing baseball caps. If the menu and ambience doesn't seem in tune with the items listed above -- so what?
That's the food biz.
Some culinary predictions are really sharp commentaries on the American scene. Tim Zagat, the compiler of the Manhattan-based Zagat Restaurant Guides, firmly believes that in years to come actor-waiters will be replaced by investment banker-waiters.
He's also sharp enough to predict that cafeterias will become more numerous as baby boomers age. (Older people are the chief patrons of cafeterias.)
Aging baby boomers, huh? Anybody want to talk about early bird specials or prune juice?
At least part of the fun behind identifying food trends is testing how outrageous you can be. Why else call something like designer ketchups "in"? Surely Mr. Heinz is not worrying.
With that in mind, here are some personal predictions for the food world, 1991. Some serious, some not. The wholesome "ins" include no-fat ice cream, organic food, high quality take-out and restaurants that deliver. Also, restaurants that really welcome children.
But in case all those noble comestibles make you feel too smug, look for a resurgence, too, in sales of Jell-O. Nostalgia may even bring back sweet potatoes with marshmallows.
"Outs" include decaffeinated coffee, cultivated white mushrooms, pasta salads, overpackaged frozen entrees and snacks, and overdecorated food.
Also out -- definitely out -- any food too trendy.