THE PERFECT BOOK about American food--a book that does not exist and doubtless never will--would combine the best qualities of several writers: the wit, self- deprecation and egalitarianism of Calvin Trillin; the encyclopedic knowledge of Evan Jones and Julia Child; the patience and good humor of James Beard; the thoroughness of Bernard Clayton Jr.; the clear, instructive prose of Craig Claiborne. Combine all of that into one fat tome and the maligned, misunderstood culinary heritage of the United States might at last be given its due; but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
The problem, as is amply demonstrated by American Taste, is that more often than not attempts to describe the "cuisine" of the United States founder on the pretentiousness and snobbishness of their authors. These writers often start out, as James Villas does, with the best of intentions: to honor native American cooking and the manifold foreign influences that have helped shape it. But over and again these good intentions are confounded by the authors' desire to flaunt their culinary credentials and--such is our national insecurity in the kitchen, as in so many places--to win the approval of the great chefs of Europe.
It is the fashion these days in American gastronomic circles to make a great show of one's pride in and knowledge of native, regional foods; a case in point was Raymond Sokolov's recent book, Fading Feast, which was subtitled "A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods." James Villas makes all the appropriate bows in this direction, though often in a most peculiar manner. He has a rhapsodic chapter about bourbon: "Born with the Constitution and nursed by the pioneers, this magnificent spirit is part of the heritage that has made America what it is"--and then betrays his shaky credentials on the subject by saying that "bourbon whiskey's ideal place is in a thin-stemmed Manhattan glass," which is equivalent to saying that a 25-year-old Scotch whisky is best mixed with ginger ale. He goes on and on --and with jolly good reason--about the lusty charms of North Carolina pork barbecue, yet insists on misspelling "Tar Heel" as "Tarheel." His chapter on country ham is an intemperate screed against mass production that chooses to ignore, out of sentimentality over "plain old country ham right off the farm," the remarkable levels of quality maintained by a number of commercial producers of this most heavenly of porkers.
In these sections as in so much of American Taste, Villas leaves one wondering precisely what is his point. Though the book has a number of interesting chapters and offers a few appealing recipes, it wanders this way and that--indulging Villas' self-absorption but giving the reader precious little reason to stay the course with him. Yes, it is quite true that a most rewarding dish can be made from the modest ingredients of hash, that a salad can be a meal in itself, that America produces some admirable if little-known cheeses, that the sandwich is the most American of foods. On all of these matters Villas writes with some knowledge and perception; but there is nothing sufficiently distinctive about his point of view or his prose to separate him from all those other writers seeking to clamber aboard the bandwagon of the "revolution" in American cooking.
Indeed, he sounds precisely like almost everyone else in the crowd. As is true of all unimaginative food-writing, his prose tends to be overwrought and showy, characterized by much adjectival flouncing and preening. He tosses opinions this way and that, but with more assertiveness than charm. And when it comes to dropping names and places, he is expert: "Given the choice, I'd most likely opt for the type of giant lavender Italian asparagus to which I was introduced years ago by none other than Charles Ritz at his famous hotel in Paris." Or: "How could I ever forget that particular lunch I shared with Jovan Trboyevic at Le Perroquet in Chicago?" Or, in a passage that is a hilarious if unwitting parody of pretentious food-writing:
". . . how could I ever forget the chilled cream of lettuce soup served one summer by an expatriate friend on an herb-scented hilltop overlooking Toulon, or the ice- cold endive soup I once shared on deck of the S.S. France with a still-terrified young woman fleeing the tyranny of an ill-chosen spouse. Elsewhere, memories of cold soups are even sharper: a watercress, lemon and almond soup at Lacy's in London, a cream of asparagus at Krogs in Copenhagen, an inimitable madrilene sipped in the garden of the Ritz in Madrid, the Billi-Bi at Maxim's in Paris. . . ."
Well. There is more, but no doubt you get the point. American cooking at its best has few pretensions, but American Taste is chock full of them. Reading Villas' fussy, excruciatingly elaborate recipe for "a flawless French fried potato" is enough to make one rush out to the nearest fast-food place for a cardboard box full of cardboard fries; ditto for his tips on how to have a "pleasant and enriching experience" while dining in a "fine" restaurant--an experience the pleasures of which sound, as he describes them, about the same as those provided by an evening with Torquemada.
No doubt Villas is right when he argues that "nothing characterizes the gastronomic revolution in America more than our determination and ability to draw upon foreign and regional traditions with the prospect of eventually developing a refined cuisine that is distinctively our own." But if American Taste was intended as a contribution to that "revolution," the precise nature of that contribution remains, at the end, entirely unclear.