Making not-eating interesting is a project that requires as much ingenuity to solve as one of those murky Chinese riddles in which one must make a rope out of ashes or catch the moon in a bowl. The trick is to create a dish that has the appearance and savour of real food without containing any. Furthermore, the process of ordering must be made doubly intricate in order to fill time that would otherwise be spent cutting something into pieces and consuming it, wiping crumbs off the mouth etc. And the price must be as high as or higher than the price of a genuine meal, so no one feels they have been cheated out of buying lunch, or being bought lunch.
A number of sleekly clinical, chrome-countered soup boites have opened up to spread the magic. Fashion Soup is typical. It offers eight soups, which can be ordered V, DF, NF, or LF - meaning Vegetarian, Dairy-Free, Non-Fat, and/or Low-Fat, and a fashion model can slurp up a tankful without having to fret that she might need loosen her Elastoplast micro-mini. The more deluxe no-frills originator of the craze, Daily Soup, also offers GD (garnish with dairy) on the soup. This garnish is also available dairy- free for sticklers. SFS, or soup-free-soup costs extra. But for only $12.95, the devout adherent of the soup sect can rejoice in an artichoke-mushroom consomme, V-DF-NF with DF-G, complete with husk of bread, piece of fruit and Cookie-of-the Day (just for show, like the paper frills on a turkey), which agreeably fill out the bag of the virtual lunch.
Glimmerings of the divinity of soup began a couple of years ago, when the popular New York television show Seinfeld began running episodes about a West-Side souperie which the Seinfeld cast referred to as "The Soup Nazi", although its real name is Al Yeganah's Soup Kitchen International. The Soup Nazi not only provided delectable soups in a wide range of fat and calorie counts, it had the additional charm of refusing to serve some customers on whim, whether on grounds of taste, spite or simple irritability. The advantage was obvious: if Yeganah chose to ostracise you, you could not-dine-out on the tale for months.
This week, when medical reports revealed that lifelong semi-starvation promotes longevity (as well as, eco-friends noted, helping the environment by requiring the destruction of fewer trees for coffins, down the line), there was no joy at Yeganah's. If the prospect of a fat-free lunch had not been enough of a draw, there was now the promise of soup-led eternal life. The queues, which already wrapped around the block, were bound to grow still longer, while any attempt to rebuff soup-cravers would only intensify their hunger to linger.
Soup's apotheosis is assured in any case, but this week's new edition of the Zagat Guide (the Debrett's of New York restaurants), has clinched it by awarding the Soup Nazi 27 points out of 30 for its fare, which beats out Le Cirque 2000, Four Seasons, Lutece and other culinary romper rooms of the gilded set. "If you ask me, really 11 is the most I could get," Al Yeganah mourned. Tell that to the hundreds of New Yorkers who will be lining up outside his doors, clamouring to be turned away, for months to come.