THE RECURRENT question raised by "The Great American Writers' Cookbook" (Yoknapatawpha Press, $9.95) is whether to keep it on the cookbook shelf or the bedside table. Is it for cooking or reading?
Both, thank goodness.
This is a cookbook full of magic. First there is the magic name of Yoknapatawpha Press, named after William Faulkner's fictional county and run by his niece and ward, Dean Faulkner Wells. A wave of that wand brought recipes from the likes of Norman Mailer, Eudora Welty, Erica Jong, James Dickey and an all-star cast from The New Yorker. Then there is the magic of artists in one medium -- words -- creating in another medium -- food. Thus the book is full of imagination, wit, literary beauty and even good things to eat. And there is a look at the mind-set of 175 very different writers, and how each responded in an orignal way to the same request.
Who would have expected Norman Mailer to walk the straight and narrow path of a serious recipe for stuffed mushrooms, from Larousse yet? Tom Wicker was such a good guy that he submitted four recipes, real recipes (potato doughnuts, hush puppies, swordfish with cucumbers, cabbage soup).
Perpetuating myths about writers, the book contains a full dozen recipes for alcoholic drinks plus scrambled eggs with gin and meatloaf basted with at least a full cup of bourbon, known as Brendan Gill Memorial Meatloaf. Destroying myths about the poverty of writers , there are four steak recipes and four with caviar. If you look to the literati for trends, note that there are three recipes for gazpacho, five for chili and three for spaghetti carbonara.
But besides being, often enough, good cooks, writers are bound to be marvelous storytellers. Take Irwin Shaw's Italian Delight:
"First hire a small dark tuscan lady. Accompany her cermoniously into the kitchen. Make no suggestions.
"First hire a small dark Tuscan lady. Accompany her ceremoniously into the kitchen. Make no suggestions. Leave the kitchen. Make a martini. Stir well. Drink slowly. Wait. The results are invariably successful."
Or George Plimpton's two-page recipe for Dinty Moore Beef Stew, the serving instructions being, "One can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew serves about a hundred. The reason for this interesting ratio is that guests don't usually like the looks of the dish, at least the way I make it."
Writers tending to the Discoverers of Great Truths; Pete Axthelm, for example, passes on the following wisdom in a recipe for Impressive Lobster -- which involves taking his companion to the Palm restaurant: "Choose a small companion. Nothing impresses a girl quite as much as a lobster that is bigger than she is." He also has learned the secret of good instant coffee: "When I wanted coffee, I (1) left the apartment, (2) rode an elevator to the street, (3) strode into an all-night coffee shop, (4) said, 'One black coffee to go.' Viola. Instant coffee."
But writers are not just everyday cooks. They have special problems with which to grapple. Thus, Doris Grumbach has concocted Writer's Block Meal, which starts with drinking two ounces of gin with half a lime, continues with trips between the preheated electric typewriter and refrigerator, and can be varied by adding chocolate bars to convert it into Writer's Block Party. Helen Gurley Brown has devised a salad that she can order from room service in hotels away from home. And Joyce Carol Oates would, were she not already famous, possibly become so for her recipe, The Career-Woman's Meal: 1 Campell Soup can (any variety), 1 can opener, 1 saucepan, 1 can water, 2 soup bowls.
Lest the wrong impression be bruited about, it should be recorded that this is not all faxt food. Vance Bourjaily's Redbird Gazpacho "takes all spring and half the summer," since it starts with setting out onion plants. Michael M. Mooney starts from scratch, buying a cardboard paint bucket at the hardware store for his sour cream-red caviar dip. And David Halberstam, who as is well known, never flinches from a difficult task, begins his bluefish recipe with buying "a new or used" Mako boat (approximately $6,500), add one 115 HP Johnson engine, new or used (approximately $3,500), get up early, check the tides . . .and that doesn't even begin to approach his complicated recipe for Cracked Crab a la McNamara, the first step of which is, "Drive from Saigon."
Man does not live by words alone; so, you might ask, "When (or what) do we eat?" That was answered at a party last Sunday to celebrate the publication of "The Great American Writers' Cookbook," where authors or their surrogates cooked dishes from the book for several hundred guests to taste. Uncle Max's Eggplant Caviar by Nick Kotz and Ova Ovah Ova, an egg-and caviar ring by Mary Lynn Kotz, did not last long on the table. Michael Mooney's Go-Fast went fast, though he admitted it looked a lot fancier than when he made it himself. Polly's Chicken, submitted by Joseph Kraft, despite alarming amounts of honey and mustard, was a pleasant surprise even to the cook drafted to recreate it. And Jack Nelson's Striped Bass With Mustard Sauce developed a cult around it. Clayton Fritchey's Paella, Art Buchwald's Baked Potato a la Caviar and Marquis Childs' out-of-season Shad Roe disappeared before a line could form. And even beans, that perennial buffet leftover, were heavily appreciated as Willie Morris' John Birch Society Beans and James J. Kilpatrick's Black-eyed Peas and Stewed Tomatoes.
On a more small-scale testing, it was found that Tom Robbins is onto something with his Zoop, Reynolds Price has dredged up a delicious childhood with his Pimento Cheese, and Ray Bradbury's Peach Kuchen is out of this world.
If you like all this, just wait around for "Son of the Great American Writers' Cookbook," or Yoknapatawpha Press's next culinary selection, "The Great American Politicians' Cookbook."
This is not what one would call an infallible cookbook, nor does it boil down to an awful lot of practical recipes for your $10. If it is efficiency and practicality you seek, you'd better wait for the Reader's Digest condensed version. But this book at least gives you something interesting to do while you wait for your beans to soak. TOM ROBBINS' ZOOP (or, Zukes Not Nukes)
I cook by vibration and seldom make anything the same way twice, which means I can do no more than estimate measurements. This smacks of futility, but I'll try to explain how I prepare "Zoop." Several fresh zucchini Milk Butter Cheddar cheese Lemon pepper
Steam zucchini in chunks. While zukes are steaming, warm the milk. Amount of milk depends on what consistency you like your zoop, thick or thin. Put butter, at least one-third cube, in heating milk and allow to melt. When zucchini begins to become tender (don't overcook!), remove from heat and place in blender. Add warm buttered milk. Blend. Pour in large mixing bowl and stir in grated cheese and lemon pepper to taste. Serve immediately. For a special occasion, such as your wedding night, you may add a can of chopped clams, nectar and all. This dish is extremely fast to prepare, it's quite inexpensive, it's nutritious, more delicious than it sounds -- and the color is gorgeous.
For better or worse, that's it. REYNOLD PRICE'S PIMIENTO CHEESE
I've failed in a long effort to trace the origina of pimiento cheese, but it was the peanut butter of my childhood -- homemade by Mother. I suspect it's a Southern invention (I've seldom met a non-Southerner who knew what it was, though they take to it on contact); in any case prepared versions can be bought to this day in Southern supermarkets -- most of them made apparently from congealed insecticides. Last year, once I'd acquired a Cuisinart, I rebelled and tried to reconstruct Mother's recipe. I've made a change or two, in the interest of midlife zest; but I think any child of the '30s and '40s (from, say, Baltimore down) will recall the glory and bless my name.
Grate a pound or more of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Chop coarsely one jar of pimientos (four ounces, more if you like) with one or two cloves of galic. Mix in the grated cheese with plenty of freshly ground pepper and a minimum of salt; then gradually add enough homemade mayonnaise (maybe three tablespoons) to form a stiff chunky paste. Sometimes I add a little lemon juice or a very little wine vinegar or tabasco -- nothing to disguise the bare cheese and peppers and good mayonnaise. I've been caught eating a pound in two days (though it keeps well), especially if like is hard. On rough brown bread, it's a sovereign nerve-salve. Ray bradbury's PEACH KUCHEN (6 servings)
I wish I could thnk of something fabulous, but then as soon as I say that, I realize I have a recipe that has been around our house for 25 years, and is incredible. Try this on your watering gums! Ray Bradbury's Peach Kuchen , by God! Stupendous stuff. Better than wine, popcorn, sex, cocaine and memories of W. C. Fields! 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup butter or margarine 12 peach halves, fresh or canned, or 2 packages frozen slices 1 teaspoon cinnamon 2 egg yolks 1 cup heavy or sour cream
Start your oven at 400 degrees or moderately hot and get out an 8-inch square pan. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and 2 tablespoons sugar together in a mixing bowl.
Cut in butter or margarine with two knives or a pastry blender until mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Pat an even layer of this crumbly pastry over bottom and halfway up the sides of baking pan. Use your hands and press firmly until it holds.
Skin fresh peaches and cut in half; drain canned; thaw and drain frozen peaches. Arrange peaches over bottom pasty neatly and sprinkle with a mixture of remaining sugar and cinnamon. Bake 15 minutes, then pour a mixture of slightly beaten egg yolks and heavy or sour cream over the top. Bake 30 minutes longer. Serve warm or cold. CAPTION:
Picture 1, Tom Wolfe; Picture 2, Erica Jong; Picture 3, Norman Mailer; Picture 4, no caption, By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post