A new cookbook promises satisfactions beyond those of the table, promises both order and change, security and self-improvement. It is the ultimate readerly text; between its lines one glimpses unfamiliar worlds; compelled by its imperatives, the mind occupies itself in homely tasks, in imagination restocking the cupboards with raspberry vinegar, filling the freezer with brown sauce, veal stock, fish fumet. This gives a pleasant sense of prudence, a hoarding satisfaction, and notions of magical hope. The season’s new cookbooks suggest that hopes this year are entirely social and economic; mere eating is not the thing. Like lowered hemlines in hard times, the glossy and expensive volumes announce anxiety, the austere food a certain loss of appetite.
Perhaps every season brings dozens of showy new cookbooks filled with shiny pictures of elegant dishes. But a recent cover story in US News and World Report* informs the business community that we are in a food boom, spending more money than ever before on restaurant meals, kitchen gadgets, and “gourmet” foods; that we are newly attentive to freshness, “real” food, lightness, healthfulness, and quality. And most of us can verify from our own attitudes to food and approach to cookery that a change has been going on and that we have in some degree, voluntarily or not, been a part of it. But what is it?
One of the handsomest big books, entitled The New American Cuisine, by the editors of Metropolitan Home, “successor to Apartment Life” (two magazines I had never heard of and rather question the authority of), boldly announces what most of the other books suggest, that there is a new American food attitude whose characteristics are “the freshest ingredients in the most stylish presentation with the most ingenious and efficient use of time.” This cuisine develops from a “truly American food sensibility…neither chauvinistic, regional nor diluted international, but the sum of our food experiences over the past three decades,” which were, we are told, the convenience food revolution of the Fifties, an interest in health food in the Sixties, “gourmet” experimentation in the early Seventies, and more recently the introduction of the nouvelle cuisine or cuisine minceur. The New American Cuisine (clearly based on the French) does not involve “snobbish rejection of the heritage of American food…. Tuna, rescued from bland noodle casserole, has new life in mousse and vitello tonnato.” And, finally, we have learned “that rapid preparations…could be as elegant as an elaborate all-day ordeal.” This accurately summarizes the dominant mood of the new cookbooks, but one might wonder, first of all, who “we” are, and what is meant by “elegant,” and, for example, what is being done with tuna now?
“Elegance” is undoubtedly the operative word in jackets and prefaces: “All the Ingredients, Techniques and Recipes you need for Quick and Elegant Cooking” is the subtitle of The New American Cuisine. Cooking with Carrier: “A Collection of Step-by-Step Recipes for Elegant Dining.” Too Busy to Cook? “Create elegant and easy, delicious and innovative meals in a matter of minutes.” The Elegance with Ease Cookbook, by Fern Lebo. The Park Avenue Cookbook: “Simple and Classic Recipes and Menus for an Elegant Way of Life,” by Sara Stamm. And more.
Since the style of cookery and the standards of presentation differ widely among these books, it is not easy to understand the collective emphasis on elegance and what is meant by the word. Elegance implies stylishness, beauty, and expense; it has associations of status and social aspiration, but does not particularly evoke warmth, hospitality, delicious taste, or nourishment. Rather the reverse. An “elegant” diner is pictured wearing a fed-up expression. She is very thin. An “elegant” table is photographed before the food is placed on it. But why is it that people suddenly want to eat elegantly rather than heartily or to provide aesthetic nourishment alone? More significantly, why do they wish to inflict elegance on their friends?
The new minimalism is apparently not born of narcissism or calorie-consciousness; the fat, the cholesterol-wary, and the spiritual seem to have withdrawn any claim to stylishness. It is a mood of conspicuous nonconsumption more akin, perhaps, to Proposition 13 or the Reagan vote, a reaction to abundance and indulgence. Sated by plenty, we search instead for perfection and control. The perfect little chop. A kind hope would be that the search presages a newly European attitude to quality and good ingredients, an end to squandering. They say Americans are keeping their cars longer and buying better clothes. But in fact the perfect little chop seems to express a form of competition. This is not really new; food has always had a symbolic function; literature and history are full of warning banquets and poison feasts.
Reading these books one is reminded as usual that there is no “we,” and the social divisions in American life which seem to be widening continue to be reflected in cookery. So gradually and sensibly have some of us (which?) been transformed into dainty-eating elegants that it comes as a surprise to know that the tuna casserole is still out there. The Elegance with Ease Cookbook ($5.95) has three recipes for it, all requiring canned mushroom soup—the kind of dish that was suggested to the brides of graduate students in the Fifties—people who are now grilling fresh tuna on their Jenn-Airs. But the tuna casserole is not without its power to express competition even now. At the home of an envied friend, Mrs. Lebo is served an impromptu lunch: “a remarkable repast! Though you are slightly in awe of this natural flair, you are curiously aware that you have developed a simultaneous instant hatred.” So when the friend drops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Lebo wants “to have a guaranteed smash hit immediately at hand…an elegant luncheon of utmost simplicity.” Tuna casserole. The terms of old-fashioned female competition and struggle are expressed less directly in another modest, spiral-bound book, Discover Brunch, by Ruth Macpherson ($6.95), as much in the biographical sketch of the author as in her recipes:
mistress not only of her own kitchen (which she designed herself) but also of her own private catering business in northern New Jersey. An ardent tennis player and do-it-yourself decorator (she did all of the decorating in her recently acquired turn-of-the-century Tudor house), she manages to find time for volunteer work, fund raising, Junior League, and lecture demonstrations as well as the demands of her two children, Jeannie and Macky, and stockbroker husband Malcolm.
Generally speaking the cheaper the cookbook, the more overtly is competition expressed. Most of the other books are huge, shiny, and cost around $20.00. You’d hate to spatter them. There are “elegant” photos, very often of raw ingredients or of kitchen implements prior to the interference of the cook. The wide margins and sumptuous layout of the pages are the visual cor-relatives of the simple, expensive dishes. Exceptions are the crowded abundance of the two books by the English cook Robert Carrier, Cooking with Carrier and Entertaining, and Bon Appetit magazine’s Too Busy to Cook? These have pages disagreeably full, suggesting small quarters—mobile homes, maybe, or English bedsitters in cold weather.
I suspect the elegant cook will also be put off by the suggestion that she is too busy to cook: she will wish to think of herself as a person who, though occasionally pressed for time, thinks (unlike Mrs. Macpherson) of nothing but cooking. In any case, the New American cook is likely to find Robert Carrier’s recipes heavy and a bit English (though delicious: smoked haddock quiche, steak and kidney pie), and Bon Appetit’s unpleasantly retro: chicken livers wrapped with bacon, or “Three-cheese ball.” Compared to other cookbooks, the effect is rather unevolved, though we are told that Bon Appetit is “one of the hottest magazines in publishing,” so some of “us” are eating this food.
While it is inelegant to be too busy to cook, people often are. The point is that rapid preparations need not be inelegant, hence Pierre Franey’s More 60-Minute Gourmet, the second volume of recipes collected from his successful New York Times food column. It is a pleasant book, but my own feeling is that sixty minutes is enough time to figure things out for yourself; I found Emalee Chapman’s Fifteen-Minute Meals as stylish and faster. I do like Mr. Franey’s idea of not beginning to cook before the guests get there, which gives the cook something to do during the obligatory drinks period. But it requires a tidy, cozy kitchen and lots of chairs.
Pierre Franey is of course a well-known presence in American cookery. There have been magisterial cooks since the days of Mrs. Beeton, or, for us, Irma Rombauer, ladies whose authoritativeness communicated a sense of security to timorous beginning cooks. Choosing an authority is really a matter of temperament and fit. You eventually decide you get along better with Elizabeth David than with Julia Child or vice versa.
The only cookbook of a magisterial sort this season is The New James Beard, an amiable book containing 1,000 sensible, simple, and sometimes rather curious recipes winnowed from a long career, during which he, like the rest of us, has changed his cookery style along the lines we have been noticing; but he has remained his own man, too, and never loses his sense of what you are likely to have in the house or be able to send a kid to the store for, and he acknowledges the existence of the microwave and food processor. Here are some new and many old recipes from earlier books, sometimes refined or changed—for instance his very good recipe for Tian, a preparation of collard, spinach, zucchini, and egg is reprinted, but now calls for fewer eggs and suggests variations containing rice or noodles to extend it with. For tuna, he suggests a variety of salads, or in tapenade, or in a tart made with shrimp and tiny green olives or black ones filled with anchovy. The format of this cookbook is ideal—sturdy, of a useful size, and not too sacred-looking, and with 625 pages it is the bargain.
Beard, Franey, Carrier, like the missionary Frenchmen Bocuse, Guérard, Troisgros—like priests in general—are male. The cooks of the New American Cuisine—young, alert, energetic, and well trained—are apt to be female and highly professional, demanding, and artistic where the lady cooks of an earlier day, like Mrs. Rombauer or Fannie Farmer were more reassuring and permissive. Gone today is that confiding and sisterly tone, in which a cook might impart a short cut or a rescue operation, what to do about too much salt.
But The Park Avenue Cookbook by Sara Stamm is one exception. Mrs. Stamm’s emphasis on stylish presentation is completely up to date, but she provides some chat reminiscent of earlier days: “Recently I received a constantly useful present from Lisa, my daughter—beautifully real-looking pottery pears (they come from Bendel’s). They have removable tops and can be filled with something nice and chilled or frozen until needed. The effect, when they are produced on a large Creuil platter, is so pretty that anything they hold tastes, somehow, better.” The Helen Corbitt Collection, recipes from the late director of the restaurants of Neiman-Marcus, remind of earlier days by seeming oblivious to received modern ideas: “vegetables can be used to greater advantage than we think,” she confides, “and with little preparation. I like to put some, like spinach, in crepes.” (This is a recipe for Spinach Crêpes Véronique.)
Like Mrs. Stamm, Mrs. Corbitt evokes vanished ways of eating, agreeable in a way, at bridge lunches and tea; both provide some perfectly nice recipes. Both avoid the tuna fish entirely. So does Pamela Harlech, “American-born wife of the former British ambassador to the United States.” Her book, Practical Guide to Cooking, Entertaining & Household Management, in the tradition of Mrs. Beeton gives pointers—“To save on coffee: Bake the used coffee grounds in a baking pan in a 325F (170C; Mark 3) oven for half an hour. Then combine them with half the amount of fresh coffee.” This produces something that tastes like English coffee, but other of her tips are quite useful—though she does not, unlike Mrs. Beeton, tell you how to engage a wet nurse or include a recipe for toast water.
Mrs. Corbitt has influenced, one supposes, the generation of Texas women who have contributed recipes to Linda West Eckhardt’s agreeable The Only Texas Cookbook, but the difference between the new generation of Texas cookery and Mrs. Corbitt’s vanished, genteel ways pretty well recapitulates the changes in American cookery generally. Here are regional and ethnic dishes, many chilis and other bean dishes, wide use of the corn tortilla, and an exemplary section on Tex-Mex, that more luxurious and even more delicious version of Mexican cookery that has earned its own name. Regional foods play a part, as they should: the Chess Pie is made with buttermilk; there’s a Dewberry Pie, and, from Snook, Texas, Mustang Green Grape Pie—and much else that seems original. I am partial to cookbooks to which members of a group contribute their best recipes, provided the editor has an alert and discriminating taste; they are invaluable guides to regional cookery, and this is an excellent example of its kind.
Recipes containing inexpensive vegetables and fruits and grains are also found in The World’s Best Food for Health and Long Life, another book whose sumptuous production contradicts the rather austere contents, dishes chosen from countries where the population lives a long time unaffected by Western afflictions like heart disease and cancer. Any gloom induced by this disagreeable principle of selection is dispelled by the handsome and assured presentation, and the virtuousness of the simple, delicious, and mostly vegetarian dishes, which one can find, also, in Elizabeth West’s Kitchen in the Hills: The Hovel Cookbook. Here the format is poor, plain, and little, in modest harmony with its message, but it costs a rather hefty $15.00. Both these books, full of recommendations about legumes, come from England, where the economy is even worse than it is here.
Healthfulness is not heavily emphasized, but the idea of health is implicit in most of the cookbooks. Except for the Hovel Cookbook, economy is not a theme in these hard times, and neither is ethnic cookery, the exceptions being The Microwave Chinese Cookbook, whose results with many traditional Chinese dishes are strangely successful; and Elizabeth Paulucci’s Cookbook from a Melting Pot, which proposes the charming old notion that, in America, ethnic diversity is enriching.
Two books on the nouvelle cuisine go beyond the rather austere translations of Michel Guérard with which the stylish cook was armed a year or two ago. Armand Aulicino’s The Nouvelle Cuisine Cookbook, a reprint, stylishly retitled, of his The New French Cooking, develops minceur sauerbraten and minceur paella, and suggests some techniques I had not heard of, for instance that meat can be browned without fat by dipping it in cold water the instant before putting it in the pan. Isabelle Marique and Albert Jorant offer “light” variations on a number of pleasant and sound French dishes. They are also interested in saving time, and are quite convincing about meat stocks made rapidly in the pressure cooker.
Both of these works have a theoretical approach which would make them helpful to anyone planning to convert to the less fattening culinary style or to a beginning cook. But didacticism can be carried too far: a number of these cookbooks contain such detailed explanations of the mysteries of “boiling,” or “frying,” that they could be interesting only to people who have never before seen a stove. Howard Hillman’s Kitchen Science, on the other hand, explains many esoteric mysteries, but will you remember the answers? “Why does a pliable breast bone tip indicate a young bird?” “What causes boiled potatoes or onions to turn yellow?”
The aim of two large photographic texts, Chinese Technique and Cooking Techniques, and of Prue Leith’s The Cook’s Handbook, which has little drawings instead of photos, is to instruct both amateurs and accomplished cooks in elementary and complicated techniques. There are pages and pages of little pictures in which you see hands chopping onions, molding dough, brandishing cleavers. These are invaluable, no doubt, but food in black and white, it must be said, looks revolting—looks like nothing at all, only gray and indeterminate messes of barely recognizable substances being trimmed or formed into more pleasing or useful shapes.
It’s not so much that food is an art, which has always been known, as that we now have art food meant, like art novels, for consumption by a class of connoisseurs whose absolute numbers, no doubt, are increasing, but whose division from the plain reader or eater is perpetuated, no doubt unconsciously, by an increasingly precious standard, epitomized in Judith Olney’s Entertainments: Twenty Fabulous Culinary Events, in which food is completely in the service of decor. You might, for example, have a Brueghel Peasant Celebration: “arrange a long table that can accommodate all guests. Run a length of white sheeting or natural canvas or burlap down its center. (If the feast is held outdoors, a long picnic table with benches or doors on top of trestles and bales of straw would be effective.) Near the head of the table, hang from a rope a large backdrop of forest green or maize-colored burlap…. Tie around the neck of each guest an ample, covering napkin. (Consider Brueghel’s use of strong unpatterned colors….)”
There are also a Southern Pig Pickin’, The Dinner of Seduction (recipe serves three), and much more. “Sacrifice a split-leaf philodendron plant and use its leaves and a pineapple for the center-piece.” For the Brueghel meal, eat maize soup, steamed asparagus, plain new potatoes done with garlic in a clay pot (delicious, actually), and deviled bones. For a surreal meal, for dessert, “set a scene with ominous masked grapefruits looking on while a stabbed citrus victim bleeding raspberry puree, lies helplessly nearby.” The book costs $24.95, and has beautiful photos.
When it comes to recommendations, the reviewer of cookbooks should probably characterize her own point of view. I am a rather indolent and unprepared cook with high standards, considerable interest, but only intermittent success. I am forgetful and never have things on hand. I put all these cookbooks in my kitchen for a month and tried to stick only to them, but it takes a powerful work to insinuate itself into the life of a cook set in her ways. Mostly I fell back on my old favorite cookbooks, as anyone will. Mine, right now, are Louisette Bertholle’s Secrets of the Great French Restaurants, a French paperback called La Cuisine Pour Tous (a marvel of concision), and a compendium got up by the Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, A Culinary Collection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Of the new ones, only James Beard might find a place with me, but I did turn occasionally to The Only Texas Cookbook and The World’s Best Food for Health and Long Life for cheap meals involving beans. A beginning cook could do worse than with The New American Cuisine, despite its prepossessing format, or with Aulicino, or with Marique and Jorant. There turns out not to be much you can do with tuna: vinaigrette in combination with anchovy, peppers, and the like, or over pasta, or, if you can get it fresh, lightly broiled. The best preparation is the Japanese sashimi, where it is not cooked at all.
February 18, 1982