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There maybe a pilchard casserole in your future

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Sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches, apple-less pie, vegetarian hamburger, pilchard, tofu, and textured vegetable protein. Maybe they aren't words that inspire mouthwatering culinary images. But Americans -- whose budgets aren't as haute as they like their cuisine -- are stretching their food dollars and their imaginations with similar additions or substitutions in their diets. And they're coming back for seconds.

How can a nation raised on red meat and apple pie take the thought of, say, textured vegetable protein chunks disguised as "pepper steak?" Or maybe sunflower butter instead of the all-American staple, peanut butter?

"If the price of food went high enough I could get used to anything," offered one taste tester surveyed by the Monitor after sampling imitation bacon and pecans and substitutes for tuna and peanut butter.

Industry officials agree, saying inflation is the pressure-cooker that will encourage an American appetite for cheaper forms of food. And, they say, industry already has begun to respond with new foods and imitations of old ones: products that are lean on cost, rich in nutrition, and not too bad in taste.

For example, take pilchard. Ten Monitor testers did, and seven thought it tasted similar enough to tuna to substitute for it -- even though pilchard has a stronger fish flavor than tuna. Packed in water and priced at only 59 cents for a 7-ounce can -- 20 cents less than the cheapest brand of tuna and almost $1 less than the top-of-the-line tune -- pilchard is likely to become a part of their diets, several said.

Pilchard, a South American staple, has already found a niche in diets around Boston, where the Star Market chain advertised it as an alternative to tuna.

"We sold out in three days the stock we expected to last a month. And it's still one of our No. 1 sellers," says Janet Englund, a Star Market representative.

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