BY GOD, with this fascinating sackful of works on the wonders of the kitchen, I feel like Santa Claus himself. A cookbook in fact makes a wonderful holiday present and in this array there is something for everyone -- scientist or litt,erateur, historian or musician, politically left or politically right, Francophile or true-blue American, aficionado of steamed vegetable or partisan of marshmallows in the fruit salad.
First and foremost, a book from which food writers -- thieving magpies all of us -- will be stealing for decades. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is not even a cookbook -- it's mainly a treatise on food chemistry. It's about what's in what we eat, and that happens to it when heat is applied. This has frequently in the past been a subject made deadly dull, but not here. McGee's explanations -- even the most abstruse -- are riveting and crystal clear. In addition, McGee, who holds both a bachelor of science degree from Cal Tech and a doctorate in English from Yale, ranges widely through history andterature for anecdotes and commentaries to illuminate his story. With wit and apparent ease, he bridges the two cultures of science and humanism in a way that would have made C.P. Snow proud.
McGee's light touch is shown in his discussion of that age- old conundrum: which came first, the chicken or the egg? He points out that 250 million years ago, "the earliest land- dwelling animals, the reptiles, developed a self-contained egg." Birds themselves did not even appear until a hundred million years later and "gallus domesticus, the chicken as we know it, is only a scant 4 or 5 thousand years old." Q.E.D.
One fascinating byway in the book is a short history of nutritional fads. I had been aware that the Graham cracker was named after Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century prophet of the grain diet, but I did not know the Salisbury steak was the invention of another 19th-century crusader, Dr. James H. Salisbury, who believed that the human stomach was intended for the digestion of lean meat. I couldfill the rest of this review with tidbits from McGee. Let one more suffice, which can be used to good effect on bores who make too big a thing about sniffing out the varieties of herb in your lamb stew: Dogs have 50 times as many olfactory cells as do humans. So under the tree goes McGee for scientists, food professionals and any open-minded creationists of your acquaintance.
In his historical forays, McGee mentions that great medieval gourmet, Richard II of England, and a cookbook that was compiled at Richard's request called Fourme of Cury ("Manner of Cookery"). Written about 1390, it is one of the earliest collections of manuscript recipes in Middle English. In 1975, Lorna Sass, a well-known food writer (and possessor of yet another doctorate -- in medieval English, from Columbia), produced To the King's Taste, a handsome wee book that consists of recipes mainly from the Fourme of Cury, translated and, in a few instances, adapted for the contemporary kitchen. It quickly went out of print and became a collector's item. Now it has been reissued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is another volume full of food facts. The term "trencherman," for instance, turns out to be derived from the trencher, a plate made of hardened bread and used by Richard and his contemporaries. Indeed, in her suggestions for a medieval feast, Sass gives some hints about baking trenchers, for which she likes to use pizza bread. She includes a plan for a medieval dinner, complete with candlelight and costumed guests. That is a bit outr,e, but the potential menus sound wonderful. Here's a Richard II dinner party I'm planning for the future, albeit with electric light: a Brie and egg tart to begin, followed by a fruit-and salmon pie accompanied by parsnip fritters and, for dessert, figs and raisins pureed in sherry. This will be washed down by spiced wine and if any of the guests are still hungry after all that, they can eat their trenchers. To the King's Taste, being a small book, will fit neatly into the Christmas stocking of your cousin the medievalist.
Eating Together is a collaboration between the late Lillian Hellman and novelist-playwright Peter Feibleman, and it is one of the most charming and interesting books of the year. Hellman and Feibleman were both New Orleans natives and she was an old friend of his family. She obviously enjoyed the company of the handsome young man a generation younger than herself. They frequently took trips together and many of them centered around eating.
Hellman's gossipy recollections and recipes form the first part of the book, which is mostly an amusing catalogue of her dislikes: Mexico, Cairo, rhubarb, modern Paris, Spanish food, some of her companions on a Nile trip, and the French actress Simone Signoret. Especially the last. "Simone Signoret," Hellman hisses, "produced and translated and acted in and directed and I think made the costumes and did the makeup and painted the theater and took the tickets, for a production of The Little Foxes. Miss Signoret and I did not get along." Less wicked, Feibleman's half of the book really contains the better writing and better evokes the places they visited together. He is aware while he is writing that Hellman is dying and his immense fondness for this obviously difficult, hard-drinking woman suffuses his little essays. His recipes are also better. Hellman's taste in food is excessively simple -- broiled chicken, scrambled eggs, potato fritters, pound cake. They are decent enough recipes to be sure, but not very exciting, though at my next brunch I do want to serve her chicken hash, which looks tasty. Feibleman ranges more widely in his recipes, with a particularly good chapter on Spain, where he lived for some years. His two recipes for gazpacho are excellent and his paella enticing. This nicely produced volume would make a perfect gift for English majors, lovers of New Orleans or for historians of McCarthyism (who should have an ironic chortle over Hellman's preferences in food).
At one point in Eating Together, Hellman describes how she is taken ill in Burgundy and is rushed to the American Hospital in Paris by ambulance. Waiting in her room on her arrival are her friends, the duo pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. The pair seems to be friends of every well- known personage in the globe and many of their names are strewn throughout The Gold and Fizdale Cookbook. Make no mistake, though. This is not just another celebrity cookbook. It's the genuine article, full of imagination, ,elan and above all common sense. Take, for instance, the dynamic duo's advice on making cold soups. The hell with peeling all those vegetables, they say. Just take a block of frozen veggies such as peas, beans or cauliflower, break it up into several pieces and dump it in the food processor. Add cold liquid such as tomato juice, broth, buttermilk cream, milk or yogurt -- or a combination -- plus seasonings. Then simply zap. You'll also appreciate Gold's and Fizdale's chapter on pasta, one of the best in any general purpose cookbook. Wrap this one up for music lovers or for adventurous dinner-party cooks.
Normally, cookbooks that come out of fine restaurants are a bit demanding for the average home cook. Not so The Chez Francois Cookbook. The author, Jacques Haeringer, is chef de cuisine at the famed restaurant Chez Francois in Great Falls, Virginia, that is owned by his father. I tried one of the recipes from the book recently, the steak au poivre with roquefort cheese. It is pretty much the classic treatment but Haeringer mixes a tablespoon of coarsely ground coriander seeds with the cracked peppercorns and melts a tablespoon of roquefort on each steak. The coriander seeds and cheese give new life to an old favorite. For a double-barreled present, combine this volume with a dinner for two at Chez Francois -- if you can wait several weeks for a Saturday night reservation.
Finally, three "American" cookbooks. Jane and Michael Stern have produced several volumes exploring that glutinous no-man's land where food meets popular culture. Kitchen guides, so to speak. One of them, Roadfood, was a survey of meals available in old-fashioned diners around the country and thanks to their advice, I've enjoyed some first- class home-baked pies on New England roads. But Square Meals is a different kettle of maple syrup. Looking at popular magazines and cookbooks from the 1920s to the 1950s, as well as promotional materials of mass-market food companies, they have "rescued" recipes ranging from Kate Smith's Three Cheer Sandwich to School Cafeteria Macaroni and Cheese to Five Cup Salad (with fruit and marshmallows). "No matter how corny they seem to our newly refined sensibilities," the Sterns declare, we should not abandon "forthright" foods.
There is a new provincialism abroad in the land andthe Sterns' book wallows in it. A close examination of the recipes does indeed show that they are forthright. The ingredients are wholesome enough (even if the occasional marshmallow does rear its head). But by and large they are wan things these dishes, spiceless and often cooked too long. And the idea that watercress sandwiches can be used as a stick to belabor wimpy contemporary dishes is laughable indeed. Square Meals, however, would make a fine gift for those who have already climbed on the bandwagon for Jack Kemp in '88.
If you want to talk American, I offer a pair of wonderful books. The interesting thing about Bernard Clayton's The Complete Book of Soups and Stews and The Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham is that -- like America itself -- they are eclectic. Rather than hunkering down neurotically with shotgun, tobacco chaw and angel food cake, they self-confidently make use of recipe ideas from the world over. And they have the fine American quality of practicality as ell. For a real American meal, give me a bowl of Clayton's Nigerian Peanut Soup and a couple of slices of Cunningham's Swedish limpa bread. I recommend either or both of these books for cooks new and veteran. They are marvels and the Fannie Farmer in particular is a real bargain. They will be welcome under any tree.