HAD Judith and Evan Jones' The L. L. Bean Book of New New England Cookery instead been called "The L. L. Bean
Dansk Factory Outlet Cook Book," it would have made the perfect culinary emissary from L.L. Bean's home town, Freeport, Maine -- the first shopping mall with its own town hall and school system.
And, just as in Freeport do the remnants of a real Maine town lurk still at the fringe of the factory outlets, so in this mammoth (near 900-page) recipe collection can be found a small, good New England cookbook. But the authors, New Yorkers who summer in Vermont, shoulder it aside in their eagerness to promote a fantasy cuisine of completely restyled Yankee classics and wholly new regional dishes a` la nouveau California cooking.
Fiddleheads and goat cheese -- this self-image will flatter those who shop L.L. Bean for identity as well as anoraks, and who will be the last to realize the difference between reportage on such a culinary revolution and its fabrication out of near whole cloth. The recipes work here but the book does not; it too often reads like a random shuffle of Fannie Farmer and The Silver Palate Cook Book -- with an undue emphasis on the latter. This, of course, is exactly how Freeport itself comes across these days; Evan and Judith Jones have somehow persuaded themselves that the disease's symptoms are its cure.
HAPPILY, there is no ominous "new" in the title of Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking, a collection of honest, simple and good southern recipes, each one with a rare well-polished, homey feel that indicates it has had long and well-favored use before the author ever thought to collect it in a book . . . quite a nice change indeed.
Claiborne's redeeming virtue as a food figure has been his sharp nose for good food and his respect for those who make it. This is shown here less in the short prefaces to each recipe than in the flawless clarity of their presentaion. He -- unlike many southern food writers -- knows these dishes need no false embellishment to interest our appetite (and also that they cannot be hurried: no microwave roux recipes here).
Still, this book would be more accurately entitled Craig Claiborne's Southern Recipes. And since recipes still play a small role for real southern cooks, a book such as this can only convey so much about what they are truly up to. John Egerton's stunning achievement, Southern Food (Knopf, $22.95), should be the first purchase of anyone interested in the subject (simply compare the two on beaten biscuits). The Claiborne's book provides it with a worthy (and necessary) recipe supplement.
EVEN CAUGHT digging into his mother's chicken spaghetti, Craig Claiborne still would appear positively peckish compared to Paul Prudhomme, whose massive presence convinced the whole country to get down again to some serious eating. Imagine the whole Prudhomme clan cooking up a storm in your kitchen and you have something like the good-time vibes that come busting out of The Prudhomme Family Cookbook: Old-Time Louisiana Recipes by the Eleven Prudhomme Brothers and Sisters and Chef Paul Prudhomme.
His first effort, the best-selling Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen, good though it was, was almost entirely devoted to the bravura resturant cooking that is his claim to fame -- but which is not, in my experience, all that adaptable to the home kitchen. It's bad enough getting fat eating all those calorie-laden extravaganzas without having to cook them, too.
This book, on the contrary, is full of nothing else but down-home Cajun cooking, and recipes whose natural exuberance needs no fancy ingredients to get you reaching for the gombo pot -- as can be discovered by checking out Paul and K's salt meat in red gravy or Bobby's sweet pea salad.
In fact, the best thing about this book is that it makes no effort to pretty up Cajun cooking for fin bec palates -- or for squeamish ones, either. Garlic salt, margarine, evaporated milk and catsup are freely called for, as are alligator and squirrel meat, frog legs and beef innards. You may not care to cook with these things, but without them you get no true sense of Cajun cooking, either.
A great book, whose extensive Cajun cooking glossary alone is worth the admission price. I only wish that -- given the fact that all Chef Paul's comments are enclosed in quotation marks -- the real author of this book was given some credit. He or she tackled a tough one and did a first-rate job.
A BIT more genteel but still very much down to earth is Larry Ross's Nanny's Texas Table (Simon & Schuster, $18.95) an attractive and evocative remembrance of the Texas ranch cooking of Martha "Nanny" Houghton (1894-1983). Ross conveys a good sense of the culinary workings of her ranch and the surprising number of culinary pleasures to be found there -- and Nanny knew how to take advantage of them all.
As the author notes, Texas ranch cooking is necessarily simple but that is no drawback to its being good. Some of the best recipes here are the plainest, such as the ones for scalloped tomatoes, smothered round steak and (believe it or not) Alv T's 7-Up cake, a pound cake whose richness is nicely balanced by that mysterious lemony tang.
Nanny set a good table. No reader will decline anything handed around, whether it be the deep-fried cowboy biscuits, garlic beans or pan-fried perch. But the greatest pleasure is getting to know Nanny herself -- poker player, fast driver and complete charmer. "Go on and make your cake," she tartly directs at the end of one handwritten recipe, and her personality being what is, you'll find you have little choice but to up and hop to it.
SUPPOSE you learned that the Richard Nixon's White House chef had opened a restaurant in suburban Maryland: how soon would you get out there to try it? And if I told you that he had also cooked for Gerald Ford . . . Jimmy Carter . . . Ronald Reagan? If you've already started up the car, Henry Haller's The Family White House Cookbook is just the book for you. It's full of such putative lip-smackers as Amy Carter's pumpkin birthday cake, Pat Nixon's blueberry muffins, Lynda Bird Johnson's tuna salad and Ronald Reagan's hamburger soup.
Not that this is a bad cookbook, you understand, it just isn't a very interesting one. The authors make even Richard Nixon a dull dog: "In his younger days, President Nixon was reportedly fond of mashing potatoes. According to his mother, 'He was the best potato masher one could wish for. Even in these days, when I am visiting Richard and Pat in Washington, he will take over the potato mashing. My feeling is that he actually enjoys it.' " Historians of the imperial presidency, are you taking notes?
The saddest -- and most telling -- passage in the book recounts the transition period between the Carter and Reagan administrations. Haller expected that the White House kitchen would be shifting gears a bit to please a Hollywood couple after cooking for a Plains, Ga., "farm family." Instead, the Reagans were happy with the Carter menus -- and with those of the Fords and Nixons, too. So much for America's regional cuisines.
The moral? It's time to put some trickle-down gastronomy to work in this country and elect Paul Prudhomme president. This won't be easy, considering our last truly fat president was William Howard Taft. But if we put our mind to it, we can do it. He'll make a great president and -- boy, oh boy -- can we look forward to the cookbook!
John Thorne writes the "Simple Cooking" food letter, a selection of which has been recently published as a book.