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It is the week before Christmas, and all through the land Americans are planning the year's last feast. Herewith a startling report from a Colonial ghostwriter, who surfaces annually from a Jamestown graveyard to survey the culinary scene:
"A great number of our countrymen will not be cooking ye Xmas turkey or ye mince pie at all. They are instead preparing outlandish dishes that I can barely spelle or pronownce. These platters have such names as ortolans á la périgourdine, chausson de jambon au foie gras et truffes, polio in umido, media yemista, klephtiko charti, kalua pig, civet de lievre, poularde de Bresse a la demi-deuil, moussaka, agnello in vescica con ginepro, frit-tatas, beignets, gaufrettes, gazpacho, gefullte Schweinerippchen, pastello di pesce, dim sum, kaeng keao wan, shashlik, crudites, ratatouille, pho, ktapodi krassato, calfs head (aargh!) caillou, grenouilles, escargots, mousselines, and such exotick sweetmeats as oeufs a la neige, zabaglione, tarte des Demoiselles Tatin and Sachertorte mit Schlag.
"I did espy one couple who had obtained a turkey. 'Twas a far cry from the scrawny skitterlings we used to pursue through the Virginia woods, a fleshy, full-breasted creature, almost sinful withal. And what were they doing with said bird?"
At this point, our Colonist redux took a long, deep breath before continuing:
"They were out in their garden, digging a hole big enough to bury a pirate's hoard of doubloons. In that cavity they were planning to plant ye turkey. 'But why on earth, or rather in earth?' I wittily enquired. 'Because of Bocuse,' they explained. 'In the gospel according to St. Paul, on page 258 of his newe book-the great French chef relays the recipe of his grandpere, to wit: bury the bird for two full days before the feast. Digit?"
To be sure, not too many Americans next week will be interring turkeys or resurrecting them as dinde farcie aux marrons. Fewer still will be celebrating the season with roasted peacock, Lake Tung Ting scallops or turtle flippers a la financiere. Nonetheless, a huge number, week in, week out, are creating and consuming meals of a complexity and sophistication that were all but unheard of a scant decade ago.
The sexual revolution is passe. We have gone from Pan to pots. The Great American Love Affair is taking place in the kitchen.
Home chefs and co-chefs and sauciers' apprentices of all ages have learned to prize and prepare subtle meals that challenge not only the credulity of the Jamestown ghost but also the credibility of that mythic Mom for whose apple pie, it was alleged, World War II was waged. For a nation that has traditionally doted on T-bone steaks, beer and ice cream, this is a social, economic and aesthetic development worth pondering. And it is no passing fancy.
Says Craig Claiborne, food editor of the New York Times: "Gourmet cooking at home is a movement that has arrived. Samuel Johnson's statement, 'A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his dinner,' is suddenly becoming true in America. People are much more serious today about the quality of their lives, and their pleasures nowadays have to do with the quality of their lives." In Atlanta, says Jean Thwaite, food editor of the Constitution, "it's a real challenge and a status symbol to come up with something your company hasn't tasted before, something they don't even know how to pronounce." In Palm Beach, according to Skippy Harwood, food columnist for the Daily News, "there's nothing more chic right now than a small gourmet party prepared by the hostess, instead of her staff."
Says French-born Claude Rouas, who owns four excellent restaurants in San Francisco: "I have been in this country for 17 years, and there is simply no comparison between then and now. The taste buds have become very cultivated." No doubt about it, attests Author-Chef Jacques Pépin (La Technique), "American home cooks today are the best in the world outside France and China."
Oddly, this upsurge in home cooking comes at a time when Americans are eating out more often than ever before. With increasing numbers of women at work, and with fast food readily available at almost any street corner or crossroads, the average family is spending as much as 25% of its annual food budget (a nationwide total of $215 billion a year) on restaurant and instant meals—which also have greatly improved in recent years. It may be that when family and friends get together for a home-cooked dinner, they pit their skills against the pros and make it a repast to remember.
In preparing those memorable meals, the new Lucullans are spending unbelievable sums for rare, elegant foodstuffs. The amount spent on specialty foods by the average family has increased over the past five years by 20%. New cooks are also spending vast amounts on the steel, plastic, wire and wooden twiddlybits with which to turn their foodstuffs into ambrosial dinners. Zabar's, a Manhattan shop that stocks everything from French dry morels ($5.95 per oz.) to a $1,000 espresso-cappuccino machine, has increased its sales sixteenfold over the past dozen years. Says Co-Owner Murray Klein: "We have never seen such an explosion of food buying." Supermarkets from coast to coast now stock such onetime exotica as game pates, Beluga caviar, imported mustards, goat and sheep cheese, leeks, shallots, scallions, bean curd, pea pods, bok choy, capers, curries, coriander and cornichons.
There has also been an explosion of home vegetable and herb gardening in suburbs, city lots, and even in apartment closets equipped with growing lights and terrariums. While the average consumer was once largely limited to buying vegetables and fruits that are treated in gas chambers and plastic-packed to evade the curious nose and probing finger, farmers' markets and small vegetable stands are sprouting like mung beans — which they also sell. In most big cities, there are at least a dozen cheese stores and several pātisseries and charcuteries, where none existed a few years ago.
At Macy's in Manhattan's Herald Square, the basement where women once battled with umbrellas for lingerie markdowns has become one of New York City's great gastronomic pleasure domes. At hand in Macy's Cellar are 200 varieties of cheese, 100 jams and jellies, 50 breads, a dozen coffees and 40 teas — as well as an Aladdin's palace of equipment wherewith to transform the raw stuff into rare meals.
E.A.T., a pricey Manhattan food specialty shop (with a branch in Troy, Mich.), flies in Arava melons ($4 each) from Israel, eight varieties of wild mushrooms ($8 to $15 per Ib.) from France and white truffles ($17.50 per oz.) from Italy. Such delicacies are instant sellouts, boosting E.A.T.'s gross 50% (to $1.5 million) over last year's total.
In Seattle, Truffles sells (besides fresh truffles at $12.81 per oz.) 60 different marmalades, 32 pastas, honey from 45 countries, 750 wines and a highly prized condiment known as Arizona champagne mustard sauce (used with meat and fish and as a glaze for ham). Houston's Jim Jamail & Sons imports such esoterica as Maine cacklebird, Indian quail and Finnish grouse—and recently filled a client's request for 48 Ibs. of African elephant meat (which was cut into steaks and broiled).
Even Boston, home of the bean and the cod, has fallen prey to creeping gourmandise. Quincy Market, the city's elegantly renovated 550-ft.-long hall of food stalls, worried investors when it opened last year; it became an instant smash. While Washington, D.C., has traditionally esteemed the catered affair above the cookin, hostesses, bureaucrats, housewives —and fathers with small children in tow—form long lines as early as 8 a.m. for the twice-weekly sales of the Montgomery Farm Woman's Cooperative Market in Bethesda, Md., all of whose members must own at least three acres of productive land. Its most prized delicacies include whipped strawberry cream cheese and home made bratwurst.
The new gastronomy has created a glamorous superstar, the traveling chef, whose valises stuffed with native essences, truffles and pates are the despair of customs officers the world over. On a recent visit to Houston, Jacques Pépin drew a sellout crowd of cooking buffs from as far away as El Dorado, Ark., and Fort Walton Beach, Fla.—at $75 a head for an advanced cooking class. Alain Chapel, whose three-star restaurant at Mionnay is one of France's finest, was the visiting chef at Manhattan's elegant Four Seasons restaurant for three weeks early this year, preparing meals for which avid diners paid $75 each (not including tax or tips).
Many of the menu-men are riding the wave of the so-called nouvelle cuisine, a form of culinary revisionism that has modified and simplified the classic, cholesterol-laden dishes of Caréme and Escoffier. It is not in fact all that nouvelle. Some 2,000 years ago, the Greek savant Arches-tratus inveighed against "sticky, clammy sauces." There is also cuisine minceur, the cooking of slimness. Michel Guérard, its chef-evangelist, has won a wider following for his ascetic unsauced dishes among dieters than among true gourmands, however.
The passing fads and phases of food are a good measure of American taste. In the '30s, it took an adventurous cook to prepare a curry; it has become a kitchen commonplace. Later there was a passion for quiche Lorraine, which has deservedly stayed on the menu. A few years ago, it was considered chic to serve beef Wellington; fortunately, like Napoleon, it met its Waterloo. Shishkebab, steak tartare, cheese fondue, boeufbourguignon, paella, coq au vin, sole meunière and tripes à la mode de Caen all came and sometimes stayed. Today's In dish is any kind of fish, with lamb, veal and small, wild birds as close contenders. The best cooks are learning Indian, Indonesian, Indo-Chinese and Chinese (especially Szechuan and Hunan) and Japanese recipes. Crisp, fresh vegetables, which used to be as scarce as lapwings' eggs, have become a mainstay of any well-planned menu: at their best, the vitaminiferous vegetables are lightly steamed, or stir-fried, Chinese-style, or tossed raw in oil and vinegar.
On their way to gourmandise, a curious thing has happened to born-again American cooks: they have rediscovered the glorious raw ingredients and inimitable provincial dishes of their own country. Newly appreciated—with encouragement from the visiting oracles who often lug back to Europe 100-lb. sacks of Idaho potatoes—are such home-grown marvels as Long Island duckling, Maine lobster, Maryland lump crabmeat, Chesapeake oysters, Gulf shrimp and pompano, Louisiana crawfish, California abalone and Columbia River salmon. Back in style are New England boiled dinners, Kentucky burgoos, Florida conch seviche, New Orleans gumbo—and soups, chowders, breads and pies of every stripe and spice.
Another sign of the cooking explosion is the amount of imagination and money people are lavishing on kitchens. Observed Terence Conran, the British furniture designer, retailer and author (The Kitchen Book; Crown; $30), who recently opened his first American emporium, in Manhattan (see ENVIRONMENT): "Now, thank goodness, we are returning to an almost medieval situation, where the kitchen is, once again, the hub of the home. It really ought to be renamed the 'living room,' because that is what it is." For more Americans each year, the kitchen is becoming just that—a warm, well-furnished place in which family and friends forgather to share the tantalizing whiffs and vapors of the meal in preparation and its consummation at the table.
What does a cook need? Chef Paul Bocuse has a short list: "First a good stove, a casserole, a cast-iron pot or stews, a frying pan, a whisk, a knife, a wooden spoon and lots of ideas." But few of the new American cooks will settle for that. A trendy new kitchen, if ordered from Matt Wolfs Kitchens Etcetera in Hollywood, may (for $65,000) include a Fasar range, which cooks by magnetic induction, a gas-fired wok, warming drawers, chopping-block islands with separate vegetable sinks, a rolltop condiment "garage," a fireplace, sofas, music, a soda fountain and an indoor barbecue. That's for folks like Actor Walter Matthau and Movie Director John Frankenheimer. But even outside Hollywood, cuisiniers pamper their kitchens with gadgets, widgets and wonderizers that are worth more to them than yesteryear's family retainer.
The tyro gets hooked. The first thing he knows, he is shopping for a $225 Cuisinart, or another brand of food processor (see box); these machines can chop, mince, slice, shred, grate, grind, knead, blend, julienne or puree, all in the flick of an eyelash. Then come an electric wok ($30) and a superswift microwave oven ($400 to $500), which has also become an indispensable tool. (More microwaves will be sold this year' than gas and electric stoves combined.) Specialty shops from Massachusetts to Idaho entice the weekend Escoffier with such paraphernalia as truffle slicers, croissant cutters and croquem-bouche molds, German asparagus peelers and spaetzle makers, English crumpet rings, Mexican tortilla presses, Italian zucchini corers, pasta machines, Indian iron karhai pans, Moroccan couscous pots, Vermont soapstone griddles, Maine clam openers, electric pea-shellers, melon-bailers, birds' nest baskets (for puffed potatoes), egg wedgers, polyethylene cutting slabs and untinned copper zabaglione pans.
Enough? Assez? Never. The Chinese chef alone needs two steel woks (14 in. and 12 in.), a three-level steamer, two cleavers, a boning knife, a cast-iron or enamel Dutch oven, a stockpot, a rubber mallet and at least 20 pairs of bamboo chopsticks.
Many home chefs are turning to professional restaurant equipment, from heavy iron gas stoves to convection ovens and 20-qt. stockpots.
For Cuisinart graduates, there is the $2,000 Swiss-made Mannhart Cut-O-Mat, whose 3,000-r.p.m. motor slices and mixes so swiftly that it does not lose a drop of juice from a sprig of parsley. Or the $350 Roundup table steamer from Addison, Ill., which superbly preserves the nutrients in fish and vegetables. Or the $350 German-made Universal Smoker "Mirella," which can deliciously smoke-cook half-a-dozen trout in 21 minutes.
There is a seemingly insatiable market for cookbooks. They are devoured and annotated in bed, at breakfast and on commuter trains. The classics (set box) were invariably well researched and stylishly written; as Epicurean-Author Clifton Fadiman observed: "A man who is careful with his palate is not likely to be careless with his paragraphs." Alas, that seems no longer to be true, and this year's crop of culinary guides is largely slipshod and disappointing. Too many are, well, potboilers.
The long-term trend is generally toward more esoteric books on specialized foreign cuisines. It was inconceivable 25 years ago, for instance, that the elegant Paula Wolfert could have published her Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Harper & Row; $10.95). There has been a spate of books that adapt recipes to the new machines —notably A Mostly French Food Processor Cookbook by Colette Rossant, the translator of Bocuse and a famed French-born author-chef. Authors and publishers have rediscovered regional American cuisine: for example, Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf; $10 hardcover, $4.95 paper), a delightful re-creation of the food of her Virginia childhood, and the six-volume TIME-LIFE series of regional cookbooks ($7.95 each).
There are many valid reasons for the great American love affair with the kitchen. Starting with the G.I.s of World War II and continuing with the tourists lured to faraway places by low-priced jet packages, solid steak-and-tater burghers have returned home by the millions with tingling memories of the rites and delights of other nations' tables. Julia Child's 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her superbly low-key, artfully maladroit TV demonstrations were immensely influential in persuading her fellow citizens that serious cuisine is not some kind of Gallic voodoo but rather the art of the eminently possible.
The feminist movement has helped open minds and kitchens to the notion that men can be at home on the range. Besides, those macho chaps have been bossing outdoor barbecues and clambakes for decades and were ready to move their talent indoors. Today virtually every newspaper in the country has its home-stirred food columns, and several of their authors—notably the New York Times's Claiborne, his colleague Pierre Franay and the Washington Post's William Rice* —are men.
And why not? Cooking is a sensual experience, and when men and women dice and slice and saute in tandem, other juices than those of the good beef flow. Says Julia Child: "The family that cooks together, stays together." The man in the kitchen soon learns to appreciate the degree of love and labor that his wife puts into the feeding of a family—and where the household budget goes. New Jersey Cookmates Joyce and Louis Harvey say they could never get divorced: "Who would get the Cuisinart, and who the KitchenAid mixer?"
Actor James Coco, an accomplished home chef, maintains: 'The act of cooking is like the act of making love. You have to pamper the food; you must have tender feelings for it; you must have the right touch to turn it into a beautiful thing." The 250-Ib. sybarite, who learned how to make ravioli from Sophia Loren while shooting Man of La Mancha in Rome five years ago, adds —with a touch of sage: "For me, cooking and eating ease all pain. When I am unhappy, I cook and eat. When I am happy, I cook and eat as a celebration."
For some cooks, a good meal for grateful guests enhances their selfesteem. Says San Francisco-based Cartoonist William Hamilton: "It's as though you say, Take and eat, for this is my ego." " For most, however, it is more a matter of giving than getting.
Dr. Bernard Simon, 65, chief of plastic surgery at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, came into the kitchen after a long illness. In order to prepare low-cholesterol foods that would not tax his damaged heart, he studied Chinese and Italian cuisine. But he soon found other reasons to cook. "At this point in my life," he says, "I would rather give than take. I find cooking a very gracious, warm and nurturing kind of thing to offer people."
Beyond that, cooking for Dr. Simon is the kind of learning experience that has occupied his professional life: "If your first recipe fails, you say, 'Dammit, I have to try it again.' It's like medical skills: Why did you miss that diagnosis? In the kitchen, as in the hospital, you learn something about human imperfection."
Rudolf Millendorf, art director of Women's Wear Daily, cooks for friends three times a week. "In my work," he says, "I assemble a lot of things and have control over their timing. To be a cook, you bring these experiences into play." For surgeons and soldiers, executives, editors, artists and salesmen, there is this same symbiotic relationship between shop and stove. Says Howard Abrahams, 32, a Manhattan attorney who graduated cum culinary laude from two cooking schools: "Cooking and law are quite similar. With both, there's the challenge of problem solving, logic and reasoning."
Cooking can be a kind of therapy. Says Harvard Economist David Segal, 38: "I find cooking absolutely relaxing, totally absorbing and also extremely satisfying." Even some of the most ambitious cooks manage to assemble banquets without nerves. Ambrose Flaherty, 46, an advertising salesman for the Boston Globe, likes to prepare huge, rich meals for his family and friends. But, he maintains, "it's pure recreation. It's a great outlet for my energy and, besides, we're very gregarious." One recent feast for ten chez Flaherty featured roast suckling pig, stuffed goose, boiled lobsters, marinated mushrooms and Karen Flaherty's raspberry bombe and walnut cake.
The ascent to gourmandise is no longer a matter of picking up a cookbook and buying a set of copper pots. Present and would-be home chefs support hundreds of cooking schools in the U.S. They are mostly very good—notably James Beard's and Lydie Marshall's classes in Manhattan, or Mary Nell Reek's in Houston, or Rita Leinwand's in Los Angeles. A five-lesson program can cost as much as $350. Boston alone supports 29 cooking schools, teaching everything from dicing to making Dampfnudeln. Whether for culinary kudos or to master grande cuisine, Americans sometimes spend $3,060 (not counting jet fare or hotel bills) to take a twelve-week course at the newest, Inmost school, La Varenne, in Paris.
Children are also heeding the Pied Piper's call to wok and roll in the kitchen. From the capital's Georgetown Day School to 30 department-store seminars—organized in 15 states by Philadelphia's Lea Bramnick and Rita Simon—the generation gap is being bridged with sauce and stockpot. Says Simon: "Children who have learned how to shop in a supermarket become demons of perfection, picking fruit that is ripe, examining vegetables for soft spots, watching the best buys."
All of which sounds perhaps like the last days of the Roman Empire. Yet Americans are certainly eating more wisely than they did in the days when a hunk of steer and a stack of fries were the banquet supreme. Contemporary Americans favor lighter, shorter meals—a far cry from the XXVII-course banquets that forced the Romans to repair to imperial latrines to vomit between dishes —in which every succulent leaf and crumb has been thoughtfully purchased, planned and prepared.
The long predinner cocktail hour is vanishing; at most parties, white wine, dry sherry or a light aperitif is served—briefly —instead of the palate-numbing Scotches and martinis of yesteryear. Preprandial hors d'oeuvres—"horrors d'oeuvres," as an English hostess once dubbed those limp, gluey concoctions—have yielded to crisp vegetable sprigs and slices. Thereafter come a few well-confected courses that cry, in Jonathan Swift's words, "Come, eat me!" And, of course, a wine or two to dignify their downing.
Americans are finding that the making of good food is more than a hobby; it can be an art. Few events can provide the communion to be enjoyed over a well-laid table. A soul-and palate-satisfying meal is no occasion for guilt or gluttony. Au contraire. Let us all recite, after grace, the litany of that elegant guru of gusto M.F.K. Fisher Art of Eating):
If Time, so fleeting, must like humans die, let it be filled with good food and good talk, and then embalmed in the perfumes of conviviality. -
* Whose new paperback, Where to Eat in America (Random House; $5.95), is the most valuable coast-to-coast gustatory guide ever published in this country.