THERE WAS A TIME when Italian food was the very symbol of obesity. Picture the time-honored cliche of the bug-eyed fatty, his neck wreathed in a napkin the size of a towel, slurping up strands of spaghetti, a straw-covered bottle of raw chianti near at hand. Well, things have changed. Today, Italian food is not only chic (no products in big-city America are more the rage than fresh mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes) but downright healthy. It's basil-scented, balsamic-vinegar- sprinkled, primavera-blanketed lean cuisine.
I think the key to the turnaround in the American consciousness was the publication in 1973 of Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook, with its emphasis on fresh ingredients and a wonderful chapter on le verdure -- vegetables. In the late '70s, one began to see stories about nuova cucina, Italy's nouvelle cuisine, and fashion and furniture buyers back from Milano began murmuring about new restaurants such as Gualtiero Marchesi. Nutrition writers like Jane Brody began praising the low-cholesterol virtues of plainly-sauced pasta. Last year, Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen threw another log on the fire with Cooking From an Italian Garden, a terrific book of Italian vegetarian recipes. Now we have perhaps the last word in this trend, Eat Right, Eat Well -- the Italian Way by Edward Giobbi (author of Italian Family Cooking) and Richard Wolff, M.D. It deserves comparison with the finest cookbooks of our generation -- with the works of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, Elizabeth David and Michel Guerard. For one thing, it is thorough -- 560 recipes -- and for another every recipe is accompanied by a little chart that shows calories, cholesterol, protein, total fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. A clear introduction by Wolff -- who's on the faculty at Harvard Medical School -- explains the import of each of these items and provides a valuable synthesis of current medical thinking on diet and disease, particularly heart disease.
Many of the book's recipes incorporate a practical suggestion on the use of oil, an important ingredient in Italian cooking. In recipes where olive oil is called for, the authors recommend substitution of safflower oil for a portion -- generally a third -- of the total oil. It's ingenious, and the taste of the olive oil is not seriously affected.
I have already had successes with two of the book's recipes. A scallop salad -- made with scallops, scallions, boiled and sliced potatoes and artichoke hearts -- provided a lovely main course for a light lunch. But beware. Cheapskate that I am, in a second preparation I tried increasing the proportion of potatoes in the salad over that recommended by Giobbi and it turned out mealy. Stick to his suggestions. A dinner party hit was chicken breasts with peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes, which produced a tangy sauce that went perfectly with the accompanying rice.
THE SILVER PALATE Good Times Cookbook is the polar opposite of the sobersided, meticulous Giobbi- Wolff volume. This book, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, follows The Silver Palate Cookbook, an earlier best seller. (The Silver Palate is a take-out store in Manhattan owned by the authors.) The book is laid out so that a third of each page is devoted to asides, quotes, menus, little disquisitions on subjects like mint or bourbon and really dumb party ideas. There are also ditsy burbles on topics like "The Best Picnics." When's the best time to picnic? "While reading Proust at high noon . . . after shooting the rapids . . . after cleaning out closets with a friend . . . during a day at the zoo . . . while watching the rodeo." The forced gaiety and sophistication makes one want to barf.
The irony, though, is that the recipes -- almost without exception -- are not a bit pseud. They are attractive, in good taste and full of imagination. I began to make a list of things I particularly wanted to try: carrot and ginger soup, rabbit with pine nuts and currants, lemon rice, olive and pistachio pesto, chicken legs putanesca, blackened redfish (a very sensible recipe here), pasta sauce with sun- dried tomatoes . . . There are dozens more just as appetizing. The recipe for chicken cutlets with raspberries makes an easy main course for a summer dinner party because it takes about five minutes to cook. For six persons, cook salted and peppered cutlets from six whole breasts in butter, deglaze the pan with three tablespoons of raspberry vinegar and a third of a cup of white wine and drop in 11/2 cups of fresh or thawed frozen raspberries. Cook over high heat, stirring, until slightly thick. Combine chicken and sauce and serve to plaudits.
If Rosso and Lukins project an image of tra-la-la yuppiness, Mary Gubser, author of America's Bread Book, would seem from her text to be a warm and loquacious lady with blue hair and tennis shoes, marauding around the nation in the company of her driver-husband, invading bakeries, restaurant kitchens and the living rooms of Old Order Amish, Mennonites, Mormons, Slovenes, Czechs and Russians -- anyone who does things in a traditional way -- with a mission to preserve endangered bread recipes for future generations.
If sometime during the past half-decade, you were walking a small-town street with a fresh loaf of bread under your arm or meandering down a country road with a quart of freshly picked raspberries, you may have been accosted by Mrs. Gubser. She was there in the midst of visiting all 50 states to research her book. If you failed to have her arrested, she probably wormed a recipe or two out of you while telling you about her three sons (two went to Yale, you know) and her house in Tulsa and the nice letter she got from a lady in Australia, or was it Greenland?
Since I live near one of the world's great Italian bakeries (La Gubser has probably already peered into its ovens), I do not make bread. If you do, you will undoubtedly want to buy this volume and have your ear chewed by this charming, gutsy and indefatigable woman. God love her.
ELIZABETH DAVID, author of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, is the most important figure in food writing in Britain since World War II. The war was disastrous for English cooking, and the war's aftermath in the form of food rationing lingered until the late 1950s. David provided a breath of hope during those dreary times. As the wife of a British diplomat, she had lived in France, Italy, Greece and Egypt and had become expert in their cuisines. In 1950 she wrote Mediterranean Food, in 1951 French Country Cooking and in 1955 Summer Cooking. (All three cookbooks are collected in one volume published by Knopf in 1980 called Elizabeth David Classics.)
She picked up an underground following and in the middle of the 1950s began to appear frequently in various British newspapers and magazines. Sometimes she did recipes, sometimes articles on restaurants, sometimes little essays on English cookery writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is these journalistic pieces that are collected in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.
This book could be bought for the hundred or so recipes alone and be worth the price. Just the chapter on syllabubs (alcohol drinks mixed with cream or milk) and fruit fools (concoctions of fruit and cream) is worth the price. But this is a lot more than a recipe book. It is in a real way literature, both because the author writes lovely easy prose and because she is an important part of British intellectual history of the postwar period.
David has a keen sense of the history of her calling. Some of the best things in the book are the discussions of food writers of the past -- Eliza Acton (whose first cookbook appeared in 1845), Mrs. Isabella Beeton (whose book, published in 1861, is still widely used in Britain today in an updated version) and Col. Newnham-Davis (an Edwardian restaurant critic), among others. It is this sense of history that has enabled David to avoid momentary fashions. Her recipes of 35 years ago are as fresh and original today as if they had just been created by Jean-Louis of the Watergate. (Her historical sense is especially notable compared to that of food writers in America. It is only in recent years that such as Karen Hess, Lorna Sass and Raymond Sokolov have begun to delve into the history of cooking.)
Perhaps more important, David played a key role in reviving the English love affair with the Mediterranean. It's a grand tradition and volumes could be (and have been) written on it. Byron and Shelley leap to mind and Hilaire Belloc, who gave the tradition a Popish twist when he wrote: "Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine/There's always laughter and a good red wine," giving a stiff boot in the ribs to rainy Protestant England. Norman Douglas, author of South Wind and In Old Calabria, was another prophet of the Mediterranean sun. David was his friend and has a touching memoir in the book.
During the darkest days of World War II in London, Cyril Connolly was writing secret paeans to Mediterranean culture (treason of a sort -- Italy was an enemy) that were published in The Unquiet Grave in 1944. But Connolly's effect on the British was less than David's. She was the one that made visions of garlic dance in their heads.
War and famine historically go hand in hand. There is something poignant and pertinent in the fact that food as a topic should be a way to heal the scars of war, and its aftermath in the form of bare grocery shelves and 10th-rate restaurant cooking. At a time when a simple word like bouillabaisse carried a message that better days were coming, David's books and articles were a siren song.
Lyndon Johnson's promise of "guns and butter" at the time of Vietnam addressed the basic human understanding of the war-famine link. His promise was a conjurer's trick. The inflation he created degraded the living standards of many people during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even if it did not reduce them to hunger, it robbed them of the rewards that prosperity had brought. Reagan's excess of guns will do the same a few years hence. Gather ye sun-dried tomatoes while ye may.