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Reading Food : Fannie Farmer: The Kitchen as a Time Capsule : Revisions: The 13th edition makes the previous one seem minor. America's way with food has undergone a revolution.

November 08, 1990|MARION CUNNINGHAM

I have spent the last 16 years cooking my way through 100 years of Fannie Farmer cookbooks.

It started in 1974 when I was asked to revise the 12th edition. The goal was simple: The previous edition, answering the needs of the '40s and '50s, had used many shortcuts and convenience foods, and now the book was to be restored to old-fashioned principles of cooking. The job took five years, and the book was published in 1979.

I've just finished yet another revision (the 13th edition of "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" was published last month), and the changes in this revision make those in the last one seem minor. Because over the last 11 years, American cooking and eating have undergone a complete revolution.

During that time the dominance of French food has been challenged; we now favor Italian, Southwestern, Thai, Mexican and Asian food. The soft, mellow notes of cream and butter have given way to clear, sharp flavors. And subtlety--once a highly prized commodity--now takes a back seat to boldness. We're into peasant food with bold flavors and coarse textures; those snowy, tender dinner rolls have been replaced by earthy, thick-crusted breads.

To keep up with changing tastes, I deleted 175 of the 1,981 recipes included in the 1979 edition and added 325 new ones. You won't find Onion Soubise, for example, in the new cookbook. This slightly sweet onion cream sauce seemed dated--too rich, too fattening, too cooked. What's more, it was complicated to make: You had to chop the onions, cook them in butter, make a white sauce and then add heavy cream.

Sauce Robert, one of the oldest French brown sauces, also got the ax. Although it still tastes fine, it is thickened with flour and seemed too heavy. In its place you'll find Spicy Peanut Sauce, with a sharp, keen edge that reflects the amalgamation of cultures.

While many recipes got cut out, many new ingredients were added: The number of foods in our larder has multiplied dramatically. In the 1970s, foods such as cilantro and fresh ginger were confined to ethnic groups. Now everyone is using them. We're on a first-name basis with goat cheese, olive oil, fresh basil, arugula, tomatillos, peppers both sweet and fiery and tropical fruits galore.

These new ingredients have changed our tastes. For many recipes, I found I had to raise the seasoning level another octave. I've increased the amount of garlic in sauces, and I've introduced fresh peppers. Hot pepper oil is recommended in some cases, which was unheard of a decade ago.

More heat--but less salt. In all but the baking recipes, salt is now added to taste. And in keeping with the new-found interest in healthy eating, I've added a chart for people who want information about calories, cholesterol, fat and protein.

Reducing fat has become a major concern, so I dropped complicated recipes that used an excess of fat, such as Kippered Herring in Cream, Creamed Sardines, Crabmeat Terrapin and Planked Shad with Creamed Roe. In other recipes, fat has simply been reduced. In Scalloped Fish, I was able to replace 1 1/4 cups of cream with the same amount of milk without harming the dish. But I found that some dishes, such as Crab Newburg, were completely compromised by reducing the fat, so I simply left them as they were.

One of my major aims in this revision was to simplify recipes. People don't seem to be spending as much time in the kitchen as they once did, and I looked at each recipe to see if it could be made easier. Rich Coffee Ice Cream called for two cups of cream and fresh ground coffee, which was added to a cooked custard. In the end, the liquid had to be strained through cheesecloth. The revised recipe is made with an equal mixture of milk and cream, which reduces the fat, and instant coffee instead of grounds, which eliminates the need for straining. Best of all, the simple recipe tastes as good as the complicated one.

When I was done, I discovered that to complete a basic cookbook that really reflects the way we eat, three new chapters were needed: on grilling, on meatless dishes and on microwave cooking.

Even 10 years ago, vegetarian cooking was still thought of as a cult. And no wonder: Much of what was out there wasn't very good (bean sprouts, underseasoned avocados and thick, clumsy sandwiches). You had to be a true believer to eat that stuff.

Now vegetarian recipes--thanks largely to people like Debbie Madison, who pioneered innovative cooking at Greens in San Francisco--have advanced to such a degree that the meat isn't even missed. Witness such fine meatless dishes as Vegetable Cobbler.

But it is the microwave oven that has caused the most changes in the kitchen, and it's the thing that proved the most challenging to me. When I was preparing the 12th Edition, only about 5% of American homes had microwaves; now 85% have them.

With two assistants I tested almost a thousand recipes in the microwave, including cakes, breads, vegetables, fruits and meats. We then made comparisons with conventional cooking methods.

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