NEW YORK — Food often is more than sustenance, more than taste. It can be a connection to the past and a way to understand distant places. Two new cookbooks, one on sausages and one on Southern baking, transport readers and cooks to these other times and places.
"Hot Links and Country Flavors" and "Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" are the first books in publisher Alfred A. Knopf's series on cooking heritage around the United States.
Among the topics for future books are pickling and preserving, cooking of the Northwest and the West Coast, Jewish cooking and the American sweet tooth.
"Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" ($19.95) is a book of desserts and breads of the South, some dating back more than 300 years. In it, author Bill Neal shows his reverence for the connection between cooks and their food. There are wonderful old photographs of Southern farm and family life and many historical notes.
"When I cook, I am constantly telling my children something like 'This is your grandmother's biscuit.' I mean it isn't just something to fill up their stomachs; it's part of the way crafts, traditions and cultures have been perpetuated for thousands of years--one generation teaching the next," he writes.
Neal devotes his first chapter to corn, 33 recipes for mush, bread, fritters and more. "All Southerners, Indian and black and white, have shared the basic diet of beans and corn," he says.
Other dishes can be traced to Europe, including British trifles and fruitcakes, French tortes adapted with American pecans and African sweet potato biscuits.
Southern bakers are possibly best known for biscuits, and there are all sorts to be found in Neal's book. Among them are Zephyrinas, named for the Greek god of the West Wind to describe the "fragile puff that emerges from a hot oven"; buttermilk biscuits; Louise's sweet potato biscuits; and worms, a sweet made from dough scraps in the shape of worms.
Other sections are devoted to breakfast cakes, yeast breads, rice breads, candies, fruit desserts, pies, puddings, cakes and more. There also is an extensive bibliography for anyone who gets serious about the topic.
Neal, author of "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking," grew up in South Carolina and is a resident of North Carolina, where he has a restaurant.
"Hot Links and Country Flavors" ($19.95) was born over a Cajun cassoulet. Authors Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly decided to tell of their passion for the many kinds of American sausages, as well as the history of sausages, how to make them, and how they are used in American cooking.
The book is organized by region, from the Italian and Portuguese influences in the Northeast to the Mexican influence in the Southwest, plus a final chapter on "new American" foods. And sausage--basically a combination of chopped meat, fat, salt and spices--is used in nearly every part of the meal in dishes such as oyster and sausage fritters, chicken and andouille gumbo, Italian sweet fennel sausage and porcini pasta, scrapple, chile and chorizo corn bread and Seattle's Pike Place salmon sausage.
Cooks can learn how to make their own or how to use store-bought sausages. There is a list of mail-order sources for ingredients and equipment as well as the finished product.
Homemade sausage can be much lower in fat than commercial types, but even store-bought sausage used as an accent in dishes needn't ruin a good diet.
Sausage dates farther back than early Greek and Roman sources. And "Hot Links" provides all sorts of interesting history about sausages and their ingredients; every recipe comes with a story of an urban neighborhood feast or a country bar or a suggestion for just the right eating.
Aidells turned to making his own sausage when he grew bored with bangers he was being served in London pubs. "I was suffering sausage deprivation and figured I could do better making them myself."
After chorizo, American pork sausage, Italian sausage with fennel and Provencal sausage with garlic, he was smitten. Today, Aidells is the chef and owner of Aidells Sausage Co. in San Francisco.
Kelly, who lives in Oakland, teaches wine classes and writes about food and wine.
Neal says the following recipe for Apricot Fool also works well for an ice cream if you do not stir it while it is setting up. Neal says he freezes it in individual ramekins and serves it with a small dollop of whipped cream and a matching or contrasting fruit sauce. A mulberry or blackberry sauce is especially good with apricots.
(Recipe from "Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" by Bill Neal, Alfred A. Knopf. $19.95)
1 1/4 pounds apricots
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup whipping cream
Blanch, peel and remove pits from apricots. Stew fruit with water and 1 cup sugar until tender, about 20 minutes. Press through fine sieve and refrigerate until well chilled.
Whip cream with about 3 tablespoons sugar. Amount of sugar to be added depends on sweetness of fruit. Fold into fruit puree and chill again.
Serve from dish set over ice, if possible. Makes 4 servings.