Chock Full of Nuts

The American Heritage Cookbook

by the Editors of American Heritage
Simon & Schuster (for American Heritage), 629 pp., $12.50

Harvest of American Cooking

by Mary Margaret McBride
Putnam's, 453 pp., $7.50

The Chamberlain Sampler of American Cooking

by Narcisse Chamberlain and Narcissa G. Chamberlain
Hastings House, 232 pp., $5.95

If the sources which have contributed to the world’s highly developed cuisines are often difficult to disentangle, one can scarcely hope to find one’s way with ease through the labyrinth of American cooking. The vastness of the United States, the prodigal output of its dairies, farms, lakes, rivers, and oceans, would be enough to discourage investigation by any but the most intrepid of culinary scholars. And when one thinks of the still barely assimilated influences of the American Indians, the Africans, French, Dutch, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and a host of lesser nationalities, the task becomes a formidable one indeed.

Yet, quite undaunted, cookbook writers by the hundreds, with little culinary and even less literary skill have, since the early 1800s, written and have had published scores of books on American cooking. Humorous, folksy, arch, or nostalgic in turn, few of the books have had anything really American to offer but the bare bones of standard recipes already picked clean by multitudes of writers before them. Unfortunately, the best of the books, among them Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook and Marketing Guide, Mrs. D. A. Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook, and Mrs. Rorer’s New Cookbook have long been out of print. But the two which have endured, Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook and The Settlement Cookbook, whatever their virtues may have been in their day, are in their most recent editions a tasteless pot-pourri of quasi-international recipes dotted here and there with bits of culinary Americana. They barely indicate what really good American cooking can be.

A BOOK WHICH MAKES a determined and decidedly successful attempt to do just that is The American Heritage Cookbook. Its title is misleading; only the second half of the book is a cookbook, Its subtitle describes it more precisely: An Illustrated History of American Eating and Drinking. Compiled by the editors of American Heritage magazine, this scholarly yet lively book is concerned, not surprisingly, with the development of American cooking more from the sociological viewpoint than from a culinary one. And the editors have assembled for the first half of their book a group of ten writers, only two of whom have written on culinary matters before. The others, a poet, several sociologists and social historians, bring to their task considerable insight and literary skill, and an honest appreciation of good eating and drinking untainted by even a hint of commercialism.

Particularly notable is a short piece by Marshall Fishwick on Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Fishwick explores in his essay a side of this extraordinary man too often ignored by his biographers: his love of fine French food and wine, and the astonishing amount of time, money, and energy he spent cultivating it. In 1785 Jefferson went to France to serve as American minister, and, as Mr. Fishwick describes it, “to wed Virginian and French cooking in one of the happiest unions recorded in the history of cooking.” That the marriage was indeed successful is evident when we read of Jefferson’s brilliant dinner parties…

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