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COOKBOOK REVIEW

Can These Cuisines Be Saved?

October 07, 1998|ANNE MENDELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Mediterranean Grains and Greens: A Book of Savory, Sun-Drenched Recipes" by Paula Wolfert. HarperCollins; $27.50, 368 pp.

"The Melting Pot: Balkan Food and Cookery" by Maria Kaneva-Johnson. Prospect Books; $35, 384 pp.

*

Saving endangered species--of foodways, not birds or flowers--is one of today's major cookbook motifs. In fact, it often seems that most of the people in the field with anything worth saying are busy, as they might put it, "preserving a vanishing way of life," "recording a unique legacy," "renewing a landscape's ancient traditions" or the like.

It would be wonderful if vanishing ways of life could be preserved for the wishing--or would it? The trouble is that the wishes frequently belong to people who don't have to live the lives they want to save.

I've always eagerly drunk in accounts of sons or daughters of the soil drying their own chestnuts to make flour or pressing green grapes into verjuice. I used to resurface from such cookbook journeys with a yearning to step from my world into that one.

Now my first reaction tends to be a feeling of having come back from some sort of theme park, along with an awful sense that a vast heritage of serious work stands to perish in the near future unless it falls into the hands of people rich and leisured enough to play at it in state-of-the art American kitchens. Remember the New Yorker cartoon of the smarmy couple showing off a new toy to equally well-buffed guests with some modest declaration like, "It's a simple little mill for grinding your own grain"?

Just what relationship can we, stuck here in our own lives, honestly forge with the surviving remnants of other people's pasts? It depends on who's making the introductions and why. I find more sadness in cookbooks of the vanishing-heritage ilk than I used to--more wishful thinking in the face of inexorable change. Yet the best of them do very real honor to what they commemorate.

Two ambitious works go about the task in thoroughly different ways. Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Grains and Greens" exemplifies the cookbook as a stimulating, imaginative rescue effort that promises to enlist you, the reader-cook, as part of the mission. It offers about 180 recipes from the whole Mediterranean basin--Crete to the Camargue, Alicante to Anatolia--collected during years of indefatigable treks to seek out the "many great women" whom Wolfert credits with teaching her about the grains and greens of the title (corn, barley, rice, wheat or wheat flour in various forms, leafy vegetables, wild or unusual green plants from mallow to shepherd's purse).

The recipes are a noble array presented with irresistible enthusiasm; many breads, few pastries, a wealth of green or greens-enriched salads, rousing soups, unusual and exciting risottos, a good selection of Spanish arroces, lots of stewed dishes (vegetarian and other) featuring greens, grains and/or pastas. As always with Wolfert, the directions are rigorously worked out and written with precise, intelligent detail. You can bet that the minutest measurement or timing came from no-pains-spared trials.

So far I've made a hummus-like dish (with the chickpeas left whole, not pureed) liberally laced with parsley, a "couscous" made with barley grits rather than semolina and a version of cacik (the Turkish yogurt-garlic sauce) with chopped mixed greens and Swiss chard. All were exactly what they were cracked up to be and more.

But recipe formulas are only a part of what drives Wolfert's books. In a way she recalls 19th century travel writers like Richard Burton, who vicariously led a dazzled readership on marvelous quests for forbidden cities and mythic headwaters.

Her accounts of recipe searches embody the thrill of an always-rewarded chase ending in often arduous (sometimes herculean) summum bonum. As she says of a ratatouille involving some 25 pounds of ingredients, "My theory is that when you find the holy grail of a dish, you must respect it and never corrupt it."

The implicit message to the audience is that they too can join the quest. This is where I start to wonder. For most American cookbook buyers--certainly including me--following the grail will mean first shopping for it (in the form of Tuscan kale, Spanish smoked paprika, the "farm-fresh eggs" that Wolfert always specifies and so forth) through the right sources, then obeying the numbered steps of the recipe treasure map. I'm not sure how closely the business of using the book connects with what Wolfert ardently identifies as her ultimate motivations for writing it: her newfound passion for the edible wild plants of the Earth (". . . I've lived the cycle of the hunter-forager, gathering greens in Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Israel, with food writers, shepherdesses, chefs and home cooks"), and sense of an urgent bond with "a way of life rapidly dying out" (i.e., foraging for greens).

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