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Books: Chefs de Tout: A Cookbook Quartet

8 minute read

FOR years the patience of American cooks has been most perversely tried. Despite the fact that cookbooks sell by the hundreds of thousands and bring in millions of dollars, the instructions they offer the reader are too often vague, ambiguous or simply nonexistent.

Exotic excursions into odd corners of cookery have some license to charm rather than instruct. But a working cookbook should be a textbook. It requires patient research, decent expository prose, and—on the publisher’s part—painstaking work on editing and layout. Most cookbooks seem to aim solely for brevity. Beat the eggs with the sugar simply will not do unless it is followed by how long to beat and what the result should look or act like. No cookbook user is unfamiliar with that terse and truly enigmatic staple of mousse and souffle recipes: Fold in egg whites. What belongs in its place is a paragraph of detailed instructions involving America’s foremost contribution to culinary art: the rubber spatula. Beyond such basic requirements, it is a great bonus if the author can write as well as cook.

In a rich year for cookbooks the following four, remarkably, do a number of things just right.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II (Knopf; $12.50), by Julia Child and Simone Beck, will be easily the year’s most popular Christmas gift book. The reason is that it is the long-awaited sequel to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, now better known as Julia I. If Julia Child’s TV show is the Sesame Street of the food world, the cookbook she wrote with Simone Beck is its Dr. Spock. Step by rational step, it dispels the fears and dreads involved in cooking more than the simplest meal.

Julia I is unique because it brings basic principles to a wide variety of popular dishes. By comparison, Julia II borders on the eccentric because large chunks of the book are devoted to three techniques unfamiliar to the American cook. The book’s highlight is a 50-page section on making genuine French breads with all-purpose American flour. The basic process takes seven hours at the very least. But anyone who perseveres will be rewarded by the characteristic chewy loaf with the crackly crust that Frenchmen can acquire for a two-minute trip to the local boulangerie. Other lengthy sections in Julia II deal with the production of charcuterie (sausages) and puff pastry.

Valuable as these specialties are, more people may love the book for its original, easy soups, its recipes for two sinful chocolate cakes and its truly triumphant vegetable dishes. In fact, Julia’s conquest of zucchini may be more influential than her mastery of all-purpose flour. By grating zucchini, she has eliminated the old bland, waterlogged mess and, in effect, created a solid new vegetable with an elusive, nutty flavor.

Even for Julia and her partner “Simca” Beck, the new volume is an awesome accomplishment. If the directions sometimes seem absurdly long, it is because the authors are bent on enabling a twelve-year-old to turn out a fine puff paste on first try. Still, Julia observes, “you must be interested in good food and good meals and you must have some devil-may-care spirit—je m’en foutisme. There is too much fear of failure in this culture.”

Emphatically in agreement is Michael Field, whose new book, All Manner of Food (Knopf; $8.95), is nearly as detailed as Julia’s. There the resemblance ends. “I am not hung up on French cooking,” explains Field, who is not hung up on modesty either. “I know every cuisine in the world.” The book’s charm lies in its intimacy and selectivity, and it is the personal statement of a rather scholarly man with sound taste.

It consists of essays on 15 categories of food—such as lemons, chocolate, garlic, potatoes, shellfish, mushrooms, nuts, cheese—followed by recipes. The essays offer detailed information about the properties of each food and how it reacts to mixing and heating. The would-be cheese cook who achieves Silly Putty instead of a creamy liquid is told among other things to avoid several common varieties and to buy others, notably Cheddar, only when aged. The section on the mysterious ways of chocolate might have been written by a scientist. In fact, after finishing Field, the reader may feel more like a chemist than an alchemist, but the results are reliable, as they are intended to be.

Though most of the dishes are American or European, the recipes do back up Field’s international pretensions. Among the best are a wizardly Mexican turkey mole, which may take longer to assemble than to cook, and an entire section on curry. In addition, there is a chocolate roll that is lighter than either of Julia’s cakes and several quick cheese concoctions. They are all reasonably easy because, their inventor notes wryly, “I am not trying to make Arab bread with American all-purpose flour.”

For those who enjoy reading cookbooks, the confection of the year is Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook (Simon & Schuster; $10). An American who has lived in France since 1951, Olney is a rare newcomer who has found acceptance with the U.S. cooking establishment on his first publication. Too many people, Olney thinks, confuse grande cuisine with “Grand Palace, or international hotel cooking.” The truth is that Escoffier never found fillet of beef in pastry fit for Wellington or anyone else, and virtually nothing—except an occasional intemperate chef—came out of the kitchen in a blaze of brandy.

In a marvelously eccentric manifesto, Olney writes: “My kitchen I love, but I would recommend it to no one else.” Just as well, because he cooks mostly on an open hearth where roasts turn on a spit, meat and fish are grilled, and vegetables bake buried in the hot ashes. Furthermore, he adds, “from time to time I climb to the rooftop and suspend a marinated rolled boar’s belly or other delicacy in the chimney to be smoked.” He is not really a masochist. The reason for this laborious approach is that the techniques of French cooking were perfected with just such equipment; and for Olney, to know the source is to know the soul.

Olney on cooking is as absorbing as Orwell’s classic account of the workings of a hotel kitchen in Down and Out in Paris and London. His recipes are a more precarious matter. He blithely lists recipes for such rarities as stuffed calves’ ears or grilled fish with sea urchin puree —noting along the way that he has never seen an urchin in a U.S. fish market. His recipe for French bread is a mere page of comment that no one could possibly cook from. Elsewhere his directions are clear but terse, and they assume some experience with food.

A diametrically different book, also for those who like reading about food but flinch at intricate procedures, is Verta Mae’s Vibration Cooking (Doubleday: $4.95). An activist in the radical black movement, Verta, whose last name is Grosvenor, comes on as a kind of Third World Alice B. Toklas: formidable, fascinating and unorthodox. She gets right to the point: “I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration.” She adds in the best Stein-Toklas manner: “I have made everything in here and found everything to be everything and everything came out very together.”

Personally, Verta Mae seems very together indeed. Vibration Cooking is subtitled “The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” a term referring to blacks living near the Ogeechee River in Georgia. Verta’s recipes for each dish punctuate stories of how she first encountered them —in her native South Carolina, later at vast family revelries in Pennsylvania, still later in Paris, where she went to try out the bohemian life, most recently on New York’s Lower East Side. What she offers is a compendium of country and soul food: smothered rabbit, stewed coon, Mrs. Estella Smart’s liver and lights stew. Grandma Sula’s hoecake. The best recipes are for soups and stews—fish, game and chicken.

Verta is relaxed at the stove. A typical anecdote concerns the time she was cooking a chicken when her old friend. Poet Larry Neal, turned up. “I took the chicken and soaked it in milk for three hours so we could talk.” she says and then gives the recipe for Neal Fried Chicken.

She may, in fact, have the last word on gastronomy. “White folks act like there is some weird mystique surrounding cooking—something that only Julia and Jim can get to. There is no mystique. Food is food. Everybody eats!”

Martha Duffy

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