NOVEMBER is the Christmas rush for food sections, as cookbook authors whisk through town showing off their new works, which they hope will appearon every front page and under every Christmas tree. Last week began with James Beard, who remains ever the optimistbout the future of American cooking. "American regional cooking was once a very private thing," he said of that hot new cooking trend; "now it's become public." Did he feel as if he did it? "I suppose so," he answered.
Beard finds the students in his cooking classes much better than they used to be, and sees more men than ever signing up for classes. Chinese and Japanese classes are the current boom, though the great cooking class surge has quieted down.
Traveling around the country, Beard finds pleasant surprises: "Sioux Falls supports a very good French restaurant Lafayette ." Still, he says, there are "no good Mexican restaurants" in the United States. Beard was raving about Philadelphia's Le Bec Fin restaurant and was still cringing from having judged the national beef cookoff. "The ground beef recipes were unspeakable," he shuddered, adding, "What do you expect when the winner is a mince pie?" He had never been to a contest "where so few things were palatable and possible."
These delights and prejudices of Beard's were delivered at Vincenzo, where the waiter, after seating Beard's group in the room behind the back room, then realizing who had come to lunch, suggested moving him to the front room. Beard stayed in the rear, but that didn't stem the flow of autograph hunters, one of whom was caught so unawares that he asked Beard to sign his Smithsonian calendar.
Pierre Franey, the 60-minute gourmet, ended the week in a mood for reminiscing. He began cooking for The New York Times in 1960, he said, when Craig Claiborne started working there and the two of them regularly got together to test recipes. But his official affiliation didn't begin until 1977, when he began the 60-Minute Gourmet column, for which he cooks and Claiborne writes.
Inspiration for his recipes comes from traveling and friends. A Moroccan cook's chicken recipe, for instance, encouraged him to cook pork with similar seasonings but using French techniques. "I don't look at cookbooks. I refuse to look at cookbooks," he said adamantly, though he makes exceptions for old French cookbooks and "The Joy of Cooking." Most cookbooks, even those from celebrated French chefs, need adjustments in their recipes to make them work to Franey's satisfaction. French chefs "throw something in the pot when you're not looking," he chided, adding, "It takes 45 years of experience to create a recipe." He creates his in his mind, once he has gone shopping and brought home what he has found good at the market. The public, through letters, has encouraged him to present appetizer and dessert recipes in his column, to pay more attention to less expensive cuts of meat and to use butter and cream less frequently. His next book? One on kitchen equipment, which will be published next year.
Dong Kingman didn't come to town to sell a book, but to show his paintings, which were fresh from a tour of China. So what was his connection to food? Crown Royal Canadian whiskey, it seems, wants to sell more of its booze to the Chinese, and thus sponsored Kingman, an American-born Chinese artist, to exhibit his watercolors there.
Kingman, age 70, has a longstanding interest in food that began when he found himself the owner of "a chop suey house" in California at age 18. He waxes enthusiastic over cooking soup, his particular version being nearly a career: He keeps the pot going for as long as six months, adding fresh ingredients to vary it each day. If he wants it to taste American, for example, he will "throw in a lot of tomato."
"It's a lot like painting," he said. "You mix the colors and add a little more." Thus he took a personal interest in the Chinese buffet scheduled for the Washington reception to honor his show.
Therein lies another story: The catering company was a new one, called Bittersweet, run by lawyer Doris Freedman and congressional staffer Chris Jacobson. They've been at their sideline for six months, inventing dishes to suit their clients -- in this case wrapping sesame noodles in blanched lettuce leaves to turn them into finger food.
In Washington the lawyer-caterer or journalist-caterer or lobbyist-caterer is an old story. But while starting her company, Doris Freedman was on a six-month fast in an effort to lose weight. "I used to be a fat person," said Freedman, who, at size 8, is decidedly not fat now. And the food for Kingman's party -- skewered beef, curried dim sum, pork-filled pancakes, date-stuffed wontons and the like -- was the first food she had tasted in all those months. Asked whether continuing to taste her catering work was going to make moderate eating difficult, Freedman explained, "When you see 600 date-filled wontons in front of you, you eat one and say, well, the other 599 probably taste the same." Which, according to our sample of one, is very good.
Bittersweet catering (321-3223) does not do just Chinese food, but whatever is requested, from Smithfield ham with cream biscuits to gooey chocolate wedding cake. That's easy, say Freedman and Jacobson; a tougher problem has been learning how they can produce a party by 7 p.m. on a workday.
This is the hotline season, the first of them offering help with your turkey problems. Swift & Co. has, through the end of the year, a toll-free Turkey Talk-Line, which will answer turkey-cooking questions from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 800-323-4848.