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Publishing Company Capitalizes on the Trend : Foods Once Rarely Eaten by Americans Now Have Become Fashionable

June 27, 1985|BERNADETTE WHEELER | Newsday

Fresh ginger is almost as common as table salt to many cooks these days, a probable outcome of the general fascination with Chinese and other Asian cuisines.

Goat cheese has become a best seller, not only in the cheese shops that flourish in just about every community, but also in some supermarkets.

The word "squid" may not be on the menu in Italian or seafood restaurants, but as calamari , served deep-fried or in cold vinaigrette, by itself or as part of the mixed-seafood salad, squid has been finding a growing number of fans.

And, though olive oil has always been fundamental to cooking in many kitchens, nowadays many recipes specify the use of extra-virgin oil for the taste thrill of the century.

Fashions in Food

These are the days of fashions in food, when items once considered somewhat esoteric or totally ethnic become virtual staples in home cooking and readily available in food markets and specialty stores.

And on top of, ahead of, or not far behind some of these trends are the cookbooks with the Aris Books imprint, published by a small company in Berkeley, Calif.

So far Harris Publishing Co. Inc. has produced "The International Squid Cookbook," "The Art of Filo Cookbook," "The Feast of the Olive," "Chevre! The Goat Cheese Cookbook," "Mythology and Meatballs" (not a cookbook), "The California Seafood Cookbook," a runner-up in the R.T. French Tastemaker awards for the best American food cookbook of 1983, and the latest, "Ginger East to West."

The single-theme, softcover books, priced from $6.95 to $11.95, are attractively designed and graphically illustrated. All combine recipes and practical techniques for preparing them with the history, folklore, legends and descriptions of the different varieties of the subjects.

Its Own Kitchen

The company also has its own kitchen where all of the recipes are tested in-house, a most unusual practice for a book publisher.

At the head and heart of the business is John Harris, a self-described former "beatnik artist" who found a way to express his interests in art, writing, books and food through his total involvement in producing books on subjects that he can get personally excited about and that satisfy his "intellectual curiosity about the foods of the world."

"My idea of a good cookbook is not one that is 95%," Harris said in a recent telephone interview. "I don't think that is a real contribution. No one is going to use all 200 of those recipes.

"I think people want to know about food and what's happening, to understand and appreciate what they are cooking and eating and to get techniques and information. I personally get bored with all those recipes if they are not advancing my understanding of a particular food."

Harris got his start in the food world in the Bay Area of California, which he calls "a national culinary mecca," in the late '60s when he was writing essays on offbeat subjects for various publications and working part-time in food establishments in Berkeley.

He also helped found a cheese shop and a museum restaurant, both collectively operated, that are still in business.

Published Privately

He first emerged on the national food scene in 1974 with his "Book of Garlic," written under the name of Lloyd J. Harris ("we were all into changing our names in those days") and which he published privately. The book, Harris said, had "started out as a humorous exploration of a subject and got serious."

As for the culinary trend-setting, Harris said, "It's a little hard to know who is creating them, the people who are creating the food or those who are writing about it. Some things are wildly successful because of the coverage."

Sometimes the ideas for books are generated by him; sometimes the authors, "who are very passionate about their subjects," come to him.

Bruce Cost, author of the ginger book, had noted how much more available fresh ginger had become, "but nothing extensive had been written on it," Harris said. "Extra-virgin olive oil was in the stores but had not been celebrated on a national level."

In both cases, Harris said, "We saw it happening and got on it very quickly." He said one reason his company "can jump on a subject we know is getting interest is that we can produce a book much faster than the bigger houses. Our turnaround, from inception to finished book, is much faster.

Intense Work Pace

"It only takes us six months to produce, because we are working so intensely with the author that our design concepts are in the works as the book is developing and the recipes are being tried. Also, I don't have to spend months getting approval from editorial boards and committees. When I decide to do something, I can go ahead."

The book on squid, the first published by the company, Harris saw as a "challenge, something like garlic that was popular all over the world, but not in this country."

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