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Giving Short Shrift to a National Treasure

SHEILA LUKINS USA COOKBOOK By Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing: 605 pp., $19.95)

September 17, 1997|ANNE MENDELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mendelson is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking" (Henry Holt & Co., 1996)

DATELINE 1946: Sheila Hibben, author of "American Regional Cookery," looks back to her first book on American cooking in 1932 and deplores the distortions wreaked on honest regional dishes by "metropolitan gastronomes" and "harried writers in search of the picturesque" in the interval:

"In 10 years much innocence has fled from our kitchens. . . . Formulas for pandowdy and chicken pie and corn dodgers, furbished with fancy touches culled from the radio, not only rush to the lips of rural housewives interrogated on these subjects, but are reinforced by recipes for other culinary heirlooms clipped from the woman's page of city newspapers."

DATELINE 1997: Sheila Lukins, author of "Sheila Lukins USA Cookbook," celebrates the triumph of just such influences:

"The American food front is not at all quiet. It's been active and dynamic as long as I've been cooking and writing, some 25 years. And today the buzz is louder and more interesting than ever; Americans have become avid readers of sophisticated cooking columns, food magazines, and cookbooks, and discriminating consumers of the fresher, more diverse and flavorful goods now stocked in so many grocery stores."

Are we talking about loss or gain? If you gauge this nation's culinary heritage in terms of "buzz," the period from 1932 to 1997 has been pure gain. If, like Hibben, you gauge it by the number of people taught by their mothers to put together family dishes with unpretentious skill, the picture is very different.

Wise surveyors of this scene pick their way carefully through what may be pointed out to them at a glibly atmospheric food festival as heirloom recipes and unique local specialties. They enjoy all those well-stocked shelves and sophisticated cooking columns, but they also note the near-complete absence of locally produced pork or peaches or butter from ordinary American tables and recall that more of us used to cook out of our own heads.

They enjoy the delirious collisions of influences going on all over the place, but recognize that some of the results will have been forgotten by the middle of next week. Above all, they take the time to think at leisure about the ways different people really do cook, no matter how glamorous or dowdy.

Such criteria don't cast an awfully flattering light on "Sheila Lukins USA Cookbook." Much about this book is summed up in an unconsciously revealing headnote:

"I consider it nothing short of a miracle that I got to sample the cornmeal-battered shad roe that's fried up and served at the workmen's dinner held on the eve of the annual Shad Planking Festival in Wakefield, Va. Traditionally the occasion is an all-male affair of eating and drinking, a sociable reward for all the hard work these men have put in preparing the more than 2,000 pounds of shad for the next day's festivities. . . . When I returned home after the festival, I bought my own shad roe and realized, in retrospect, that although fried roe had tasted wonderful in the midst of all the celebration and camaraderie, slow, careful cooking is the method most likely to bring out the best in this springtime delicacy."

Now, there's insult added to condescension. Not that either was intended. The author seems unaware that it all comes across as, "Look, authentic atmosphere! Oh, er, sorry, fellas, your grub just didn't measure up." (Maybe the shad roe sacs burst during frying when Lukins tried the "workmen's dinner" method? Maybe the roe got unappetizingly caked? We aren't told.) It would have been more decent to leave the Shad Planking Festival workmen out of the picture and go straight to the business at hand: a stylish make-over of shad roe and bacon with mesclun and "Orange Honey Vinaigrette."

What this passage illustrates is a habit of milking American local color for all it's worth, while automatically and patronizingly retooling everything to the taste of a certain buzz-minded clique.

Older dishes get much the same treatment. In one breath we learn that "tuna noodle casserole fell into gastronomic oblivion at the end of the 1960s." (So much for any peons who went on eating the discredited stuff.) In the next we read, "But this true American classic was once a family favorite, and there's no reason why it shouldn't become one again." Segue to an eclectic version of Chinese sesame- or peanut-sauce noodles involving one pound of fresh tuna steaks tossed with fettuccine.

Pretty neat trick: managing to lay claim to the mantle of a "true American classic" while trashing it as something that "made eaters turn up their noses in disdain" and discarding it for an unrelated, astronomically more expensive dish that also happens to contain tuna and noodles.

It may appear that I'm caviling at manner rather than matter. After all, the chitchat accompanying a recipe has nothing to do with the culinary merits of the results. But as it turns out, the recipes are extraordinarily uneven in their own right.

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