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BOOK REVIEWS : 'Improving' on Soul Food : OUR FAMILY TABLE: Recipes & Food Memories From African-American Life Models, By Thelma Williams ; ( Tradery House/the Wimmer Companies: $14.95; 94 pp.) : THE BLACK FAMILY DINNER QUILT COOKBOOK: Health-Conscious Recipes & Food Memories, With Dorothy I. Height & the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. ; (Tradery House/the Wimmer Companies: $14.95; 232 pp.) : SYLVIA'S SOUL FOOD: Recipes From Harlem's World-Famous Restaurant, By Sylvia Woods and Christopher Styler ; (Hearst Books: $17; 144 pp.) : SOUL FOOD: Classic Cuisine From the Deep South, By Sheila Ferguson ; (Evergreen/Grove Press paperback: $12.95; 161 pp.)

July 15, 1993|ANNE MENDELSON

I have one completely unscientific test for all cookbooks claiming to represent a people's inheritance. They should convey the following feeling: "This writer's hands have cooking in them." The reader should sense the writer's brain-to-fingertip-trained instincts going back to parents and grandparents and families of hard-to-please food lovers.

When it comes to the realm of current African-American cookbooks, this test is especially useful in telling the genuine from the phony. You don't have to be authenticity-crazed to notice that some of the books claiming to present "soul food" or "African-American cuisine" are about as believable as the white New York mayoral candidate who traipsed into Harlem some 24 years ago proclaiming, "My heart is as black as yours."

To get the bad news over with: The well-meaning teams that put together "Our Family Table" and "The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook" are doing very little to carry on the legacy of black cooking.

Yes, there is a historical legacy of black cooking in this country, no matter how white bread things may seem now--the legacy of African slave women who started inventing "Southern cooking" 200 years ago with an elegant, vivid amalgam of African, British and New World elements while sustaining their own families on ingredients that didn't make it to the Big House. But to look at some of the new cookbooks you'd think their still-loved heritage was fit only to be scrubbed and expurgated.

"Our Family Table," a children's book, presents 28 black role models from Arthur Ashe to Los Angeles Councilwoman Rita D. Walters; each contributes a brief autobiographical sketch and a favorite recipe. Sounds like a great idea. But on page 10 we learn that the actual cooking directions "are nutritional renderings of the recipes given by the models."

What the heck is a "nutritional rendering"? Something's wrong when writers and editors are so snowed by the word nutritional as to equate it with the dim, anemic cooking given here.

How are kids supposed to know what turned Ashe on to spoon-bread or Judith Jamison to sweet-potato pie or Quincy Jones to boiled greens, from versions missing the original sources of flavor and texture?

Spare me recitals of the supposed nutritional sins of "the black diet," which we often don't recognize as the terrible reality of the modern urban-poverty diet. Blacks and whites alike have to be educated to make the most of fresh produce and the old vegetable-protein sources (corn, beans, potatoes). Meanwhile, the way to get children interested in good food is not to push their noses in versions of beloved special dishes that have been doctored by substituting turkey ham for ham hocks or skim milk for cream.

The publisher of "Our Family Table," a Memphis-based firm named the Wimmer Cos., which seems to have registered the cozy phrase "Recipes & Food Memories" as a commercial trademark, also issued "The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook" (companion to the 1991 "Black Family Reunion Cookbook"). The aim here was a volume of about 230 reduced-fat recipes collected in honor of Dr. Dorothy I. Height--longtime powerhouse of the National Council of Negro Women and a younger associate of its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune--and illustrated with reproductions of quilts made in celebration of African-American achievements.

Once more good purposes are weirdly sidetracked. The first obstacle is the cheap, hard-to-navigate comb-bound format and the tacky black-and-white reproduction of the quilts. On the plus side, there is some attempt to deal with black culinary history and major nutritional issues, and the kinds of dishes that make up the six recipe chapters are what you would look for in a useful all-purpose cookbook. But this brings us to obstacle No. 2: the recipes themselves.

Wimmer, it turns out, produced this book "in corporate partnership with the Crisco Division of Procter & Gamble." The "health-conscious" aim suggested by the subtitle seems to boil down to getting maximum exposure for Crisco, Butter Flavor Crisco, Crisco Shortening, Duncan Hines cake mixes and such like P&G products.

When not plugging brand names, the recipe-developers are teaching the sort of substitute-oriented cooking that too many people take for a ticket to health. You won't find a plain green salad here--the closest thing is "Today's Poke Salad," which contains no poke but does have turkey bacon and nonfat Italian dressing. "Cracklin' Oat Cornbread" has no cracklings. The oatmeal you sprinkle on it is supposed to be just as savory. "Nonfat sour cream alternative" and "fat-free process cheese product" are all over the place.

These aren't recipes from which people are going to learn the lessons of the old rural-poverty diet--which also could be terrible but at its best had exactly the kind of emphasis now being touted as nutritional chic.

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