Do you know what it means, down in New Orleans, to have a negative rumor circulating about a local restaurant? After all, it's a city famous for fine cuisine.

It can be such a big deal that Gene Bourg, the "Eating Out" reviewer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, devoted an entire column last month to denying the story that "a certain restaurant was shut down by health inspectors after they found skinned cats in the kitchen freezer."Bourg heard about the alleged cat scandal from a colleague, who heard it from a friend, who supposedly knew a lawyer involved in closing down the place. Although the same story circulated all over town, Bourg's inquiries to local health inspectors revealed no such violation and no required closure.

Authorities said that such rumors spring up from time to time, often concerning Oriental restaurants, but they have never been proven to be true. Once, however, a local Chinese restaurant bought newspaper advertising to deny such reports and limit their damage potential.

Bourg, prudently, does not identify the restaurant named in the current rumors. Nor does he give its general location or its menu specialties.

Rumors like this one have been around for years. Often they refer to what an English folklorist called the "animals-in-the-fridge" motif. In Great Britain the rumors attach themselves to restaurants featuring Chinese or Indian cuisine, while in Germany the target is Yugoslavian restaurants.

Another favorite restaurant-rumor theme is "the bone-in-the-throat": Someone is dining abroad or in a local ethnic restaurant when a small bone becomes lodged in his or her throat. A common enough occurrence - but upon laboratory analysis, the bone proves to come from either a cat, a dog or a rat.

In a variation, the person telling the story supposedly knows someone who dined abroad with a group of archaeologists working on a dig. They took a bone from a restaurant dish they were served, using it to practice their techniques of "faunal analysis" - but they learned more than they really wanted to know.

A version of the restaurant rumor sent to me from Honolulu tells of a cook who suffered from leprosy. Supposedly his finger was found by a diner in a Chinese dish the cook had prepared.

Sometimes the restaurant's terrible secret is discovered when cat or dog skins are found in the garbage by health inspectors. Or the inspectors may find numerous cat-food or dog-food containers in the trash; usually the implication is that these kinds of "meats" were used to make pizzas.

Two fast-food variations of these restaurant rumors are the urban legends I call "The Kentucky Fried Rat" and "The Wormburgers." 'Nuff said!

Recently developed are the stories claiming that Southeast Asian refugees are stealing and eating our pets. Typically, the eating of cats and dogs is said to be discovered when a social worker finds their skins in the immigrants' kitchens or their garbage containers.

Such stories go back to Charles Dickens' time, if not further. In one scene in Dickens' novel "Pickwick Papers," published in 1836-37, Sam Weller tells Mr. Pickwick about some meat pies made from kittens by an unscrupulous pieman.

A book of Australian verse published in London in 1888 contained a poem about the antics of a "Chinee" cook. Directed to make rabbit pies, the cook runs out of rabbits and makes puppy pies instead.

In their "One Hundred Years Ago" column in 1985, the British Medical Journal reprinted an item about a woman who was convicted of trapping and butchering cats, then selling them to people as rabbit meat.

She was caught, the 1885 article stated, when her house was found to contain "no less than 40 cats' skins, some of which have been identified by neighbors as the remains of their favorites."

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(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.