Once in a while something comes along that makes one feel lucky to be alive at the end of the 20th century.

This month's something is the artificial truffle.To most Americans the word "truffle" refers to the black specks in a tin of pate. Too small to add flavor, they add only price. At that size, truly, they're a waste of time. But give a cook a truffle as big as a quarter and you'll get back paradise on a plate.

Trouble is, black truffles, which are found only near oak trees in two sections of France, often cost up to $1,000 a pound.

Now two former University of California professors, Moishe Shifrine and Randy Dorian, have copied the truffle in a laboratory, in all its scented glory. They're not telling how, and a patent is pending on the process. The artificial truffles are incorporated into various truffle products that sell for $10 to $20 each.

If the truffle becomes commonplace, will it lose its cachet? Judging by what's happened to the kiwi and lobster ravioli, yes.