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Reading Food : Cookbooks: A Fan's Notes

November 08, 1990|GRACE KIRSCHENBAUM | Grace Kirschenbaum is the publisher of World of Cookbooks, the International Cookbook Newsletter

And "Memories of Gascony" by Pierre Koffman is a look back at life on a small farm in Southwest France before those farms became modernized and mechanized. Koffman takes us through all the seasons of the year. Today he is a chef at his own highly acclaimed restaurant in London, where he cooks meals inspired by the country food he grew up with.

From Patricia Quintana's "Feasts of Mexico," about growing up in a family of gifted cooks in Mexico, we get a clear understanding of how that gift was cherished through the generations.

Among these ethnic Greats, a new author makes an appearance this season. It is Diane Kochilas, whose "The Food and Wine of Greece" goes far beyond other Greek cookbooks--not only in her passion and love for Greece, Greek food and the people of Greece but in superb recipes that are the result of years of collecting.

Ours is an age of political turmoil, with migrations and displacements of entire ethnic groups. Often such events result in extraordinary cookbooks that would never have been written in more tranquil periods. One of these is Najmieh Batmanglij's "Food of Life," now the definitive book on Iranian cooking: not just a recipe collection but a fond introduction to a culture and a fascinating cuisine--customs, folk tales, ceremonies, poetry, sayings and proverbs and excellent recipes. It is interesting to note that the best books on Indian cuisine, such as the works of Julie Sahni, have been done not in India, but in the U.S., England and South Africa.

2) Cross-Cultural Books --These are increasing, another inevitable result of the political unrest and displacement of peoples in our time. This season will see some truly great ones: "We Called It Macaroni" by Nancy Verde Barr is an irrepressibly nostalgic book about growing up in an Italian-American community in Rhode Island. Traditional cooking of Southern Italy meets with American inventiveness and wonderful food results.

Also new and memorable this season is Jennifer Brennan's "Curries and Bugles," a memoir/cookbook about the time of the British Raj and the Anglo-Indian cookery that evolved from that period of English and Indian history, the first book to be published in America on this cross-cultural cuisine.

3) Chefs' Books --The most common complaint about these is that they are unworkable in home kitchens. It is true that restaurant chefs have assistants who can take on some of the preparations in complex recipes. So a chef's book that is no more than recipes--and recipes too difficult for home cooks to attempt--will only end up as a dust collector on the shelf.

But there have been great chefs' books--those that express the personality, culinary philosophy and unique experience of the chef.

"Ma Gastronomie" is about Fernand Point, who was, when he died in 1955, the master chef of the 20th Century. The book not only has his signature recipes such as marjolaine, but also shows him as the extraordinary human being he was. Point drew people to his restaurant not only for his food but for his gregarious, people-loving presence.

George Mardikian, author of "Dinner at Omar Khayyam's," made Californians aware of Armenian food; movie celebrities, politicians, business tycoons and ordinary people flocked to his restaurant. His book, though poorly edited, must be considered a Great chef's book because Mardikian's expansive personality is ever-present.

More recently, there was "My Gastronomy" by Nico Ladenis from England. It is surprising that this book has never been issued in an American edition. This self-taught chef with a multiethnic background--his French-Greek parents raised him in Tanzania, and he lived in Provence before ending up in England--wrested recognition from the critics despite his arrogance and opinionated manner. His recipes are carefully perfected, such as his highly praised chicken liver mousse: "There is extraordinary tension in the kitchen each time an order for it comes in. It has been called the definitive version of a chicken liver mousse," he writes.

Other recent chef's books not to be missed are those by Mark Miller, Janos Wilder, Jasper White and Marco Pierre White. Miller's "Coyote Cafe" with his innovative Southwest recipes has his approach to food set forth, intermingled with folk tales and artwork to set a mood.

4) Single Subject Cookbooks --These can be outstanding sources of information. When a person obsessed with exploring one area of food does it well, he does a great service. "The Book of Soba" by James Udesky is the result of seven years' study of these Japanese buckwheat noodles (he actually apprenticed to soba masters). This is an unusual portrait of Japanese food culture and reveals how soba evolved from a working-class food to the basis for a sophisticated cuisine served to aristocrats.

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