Intolerance: New Yorkers may not look lightly on racial intolerance or sexual intolerance, but one intolerance has recently become not only acceptable, but desirable, to the point that people who don't have it wish they did, and those who think they might have it discuss their prejudices endlessly at all public gatherings, drawing large crowds and exciting interest and sympathy. It is called "lactose intolerance", and it arises from the belief that the average American's body has been ravaged by a chronic overload of sweet fizzy drinks, choco-peanut-marshmallow fudge- brownie sundaes, cheese-caulked pizza, and fallout sheltersful of tinned pasta with zombified meat chunks (viz, "Spaghettios with Little Franks"). This belief is correct enough, but the stylish lactose-intolerant holds the further conviction that this state of affairs can be entirely fixed (for them) by avoiding all milk products.

Some, a small number, genuinely are lactose- intolerant. Most, however, are not. And yet at restaurants, butter goes untasted, wary diners lunge to fend off undesired dustings of parmesan, and creme brulee languishes in the kitchens. At groceries, soy cheese and milk substitutes - Rice Dream and VitaSoy - crowd the shelves, drawing in anti-lactose trendies with new age package art. In dining- rooms, hosts and hostesses wring their hands, never knowing how many guests will reject the quiche and send back the gateau St Honore. They are lucky if their guests' intolerance stops at lactose, because now that the spread of Prozac has devalued neurosis and depression as interesting ailments, New Yorkers have turned to food allergies as the new unifying topic of collective calamity. Every day, more high- living New Yorkers conclude that they are allergic to wheat, yeast, alcohol, salt, eggs, caffeine or sugar, and compete for the attention of choice nutritionists. Last week,when the American Cancer Society announced that alcohol causes cancer, along with beef, pork and lamb, vegetarians and teetotallers crowed in triumph; bon viveurs wept.

The death of the epicure may have arrived, but the tables are sagging at the wake. Redemptive health cuisine outlets have sprung up like crocuses across town, with deceitfully upbeat, Edenic names that hint at the real quest of the food- intolerant: immortality. At the Caravan of Dreams, diners munch on aromatic, soy-infused curds; at Paradise and Lunch, businessmen elbow past models and television execs to secure the last tiny parcels of steamed vegetables tossed in extra virgin olive oil. "I gotta eat, but the things I eat gotta be limited," one says to the other. At speciality grocery stores such as SoHo's Grassroots - a temple to safe food - health addicts stock up on everything from meatless corned beef to lactose-free dark chocolate with walnuts and raisins. "I believe in overwhelming the customer with inventory," the owner, Michael Fox, boasts. Sandra Bullock shops at Grassroots, and next week the store will provide an organic juice bar for those tireless slaves of health, the Grateful Dead. This is Utopian food, whipped up for a race of Titans with indigestion. At the very least, it has the advantage of making bulimia unnecessary.