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Most Americans Ignore Culinary Elitism and Stick to the Old-Time Staples

November 21, 1987|NANCY SHULINS | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Calvin Trillin, a writer long remembered in non-literary circles for his campaign to replace turkey with spaghetti carbonara as the national Thanksgiving Day dish, recently addressed a group of foodies in San Francisco.

"I'm always relieved to see there are still pigeons in Union Square," he told them. "I half expect to find they've all been snatched up and smoked and served on a bed of arugula."

Jenny Pansy, perhaps equally well-known in Neck, Fla., for her Mock Pecan Pie, knows just how he feels. "We used to stir up somethin' from nothin'," she said plaintively, in divulging her secret ingredient (Grape-Nuts) to a Florida cookbook writer. "Now, they gotta have too much before they begin."

Just who are "they," anyhow?

And how many of "them" are there?

Lots More of 'Us'

Nobody knows for sure, but in Michael Stern's opinion, there are lots more of "us."

"For the vast number of people in this country, in small towns and big cities as well, there hasn't been a food revolution," says Stern, who, with his wife, Jane, writes the syndicated food column, "A Taste of America."

Their dateline dispatches steadfastly eschew the culinary elitism of New York and San Francisco in favor of the cream pies of Indiana, blueberry muffins of Maine and composed salads of Iowa.

Through weekly bulletins from the nation's boundless supply of no-star dining rooms, as well as such homespun volumes as "Roadfood" and "Goodfood," the Sterns have made a name for themselves extolling the virtues of Velveeta, the joys of Jell-O and the charms of Cheez Whiz.

Indeed, many a foodie might choke on his chocolate mousse cake to learn that in certain areas of Mississippi the secret of that moist, juicy Duck a la Orange is none other than Tang, the breakfast drink of astronauts; that canned cream of mushroom soup--not some tony white sauce--is still the binder of choice in the Midwest; that Sunday supper, in parts of Vermont, consists of cream crackers crumbled into milk.

Favor Gelatin Over Gelato

To the Sterns, who are based in Connecticut but spend much of their time in the heartland, it is gelati, not gelatin, that is regarded with suspicion. "Especially those tan flavors," said Stern, whose personal hit list of foods to avoid also includes:

- Blackened anything. "I met a chef in Houston whose mother was Cajun. He told me if she ever blackened anything, she threw it out."

- Any dessert described as "sinful" or "decadent."

- Baby vegetables. "Total and complete affectation." (Humorist Erma Bombeck is in full agreement here, having left hers untouched at one recent banquet. However, she did briefly consider stringing them into a necklace.)

- Designer cookies. "Especially those half-cooked ones. You can sort of burp them down while they're still warm, but once they cool, they're hideous."

Hamburgers Among Classics

"Very rarely have the great dishes of America been created by fancy-pants chefs. But there is an American cuisine, and Americans are happy and proud to have it," insists Stern, who lists fried chicken, hamburgers, cream pies, Jell-O salads and barbecue among the classics.

Trillin isn't sure. He thinks the great American food craze "may have been part of a larger interest Americans had in the legitimacy of their own territory." Either that, or "maybe Bloomingdale's just ran out of countries."

To Michael Stern, it is undeniable that trendy restaurants in New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles--and, to a lesser extent, Dallas, Houston and Chicago--have their loyal foodie followings.

"But it's kind of a freakish phenomenon compared to the 250 million people who live here, the people who just go about their business and eat what they eat," he said. "That people wait in line outside a restaurant that got two stars in the New York Times doesn't mean any more than the fact that there's a line outside John's Barbecue in Peoria."

Indeed, the Sterns' 1984 epic, "Square Meals," featuring such down-home delicacies as diner meat loaf, blue-plate liver and onions, and shrimp wiggle, was a gut reaction, so to speak, to the growing notion of food as art, a concept that galls the authors.

Response to Gourmet Meal

The cookbook was conceived following an unfortunate dinner cooked by a neighbor who fancied herself a gourmet.

As was their practice, the Sterns ate beforehand, a prophetic move as it turned out. "She was cooking something like periwinkle tongues in aspic. As we were looking at this unrecognizable stuff, she began telling us about her dinner at a neighbor's the previous night.

"You won't believe what we had," she said, and went on to describe a meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes and chocolate cake. "She was positively outraged by this menu. Jane and I were kicking each other madly under the table. We walked out of there wondering whatever happened to normal food."

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