FINALLY, NEARLY five centuries after Columbus, we are discovering America. And in Louisville early this month more than a hundred food professionals gathered from around the country to examine, discuss, experience and pronounce on this new discovery: American Cuisine.

Nobody could agree on what exactly to call it; "cuisine," after all, is French, and "cooking" sounds so everyday. Even weaker was the consensus on how to define it, beyond Americans cooking with American ingredients. But after two days of morning-to-midnight talks and tastes, the group disbanded with plenty more to discuss.

At the very least, it was recognized that a self-conscious American cuisine is developing in two directions, revival and invention. Revivals were represented at the symposium by Ferris and Eleanor Dove, whose Dovecrest, a Narragansett Indian restaurant in Arcadia, R.I., serves buffalo with shell-bean succotash, creamed codfish with johnnycakes, and--the third Sunday in July--an old-fashioned pit-in-the-ground clambake.

But a more widespread and visible branch of American food is the New American Cookery, borrowing shamelessly from traditions the world over but emerging as distinctly American: Nobody could mistake the seafood strudel of Manhattan's Quilted Giraffe--its phyllo dough stuffed with Maryland crab and scallops, presented Japanese style--as Middle Eastern or Hungarian. The organizer of the symposium, Michael Grisanti, at his new all-American Sixth Avenue restaurant in Louisville, was serving pasta with Kentucky country ham and Gethsemani cheese made by local Trappist monks; Italians might find it curious. Larry Forgione of Brooklyn's barge restaurant, River Cafe, glazes his fresh wild Pennsylvania muscovy ducks with molasses and black pepper, a combination that would have the French shaking their heads. And New Orleans' Paul Prudhomme came from a strong Cajun tradition to open his K.-Paul's restaurant, but creates new dishes--softshell crayfish and sweet potato pecan pie--from that experience.

This New American Cookery often shows a strong family resemblance to France's nouvelle cuisine. Sauces are light, dishes are cooked at the last minute and briefly; overcooking is a matter of seconds rather than minutes. These kitchens are flexible, creative, risk-taking, thus raising the status of kitchen art to attract ex-lawyers and stockbrokers to the stove. Nowadays an American student chooses between medical school and culinary school as a path to a satisfying career.

But the newest, most pervasive theme of New American Cookery is the search for the best of American ingredients, local when possible and always fresh. The River Cafe keeps nothing in its freezer but ice cream. Paul Prudhomme has chickens, ducks and vegetables grown specifically for him. The forests of Oregon are being combed for wild mushrooms to ship fresh across the continent.

The New American Larder

"For me the change began with a search for the wild mallard duck in its unfrozen state," said the River Cafe's chef Larry Forgione of his switch from the French tradition he had learned abroad to homegrown invention when he returned to the U.S. in 1978. The difference most startling to him as a chef on two continents was, "In Europe the food system is based on the needs of the chef." In America the food distribution system is geared for the housewife, and ingredients of special quality or rarity are only available to chefs who seek them individually. Forgione's search for ducks, for instance, took 1 1/2 years. By now he draws on eight cottage industries to find his ingredients. Believing firmly that freshness is more important than continuity on a menu, he has developed a three-page list of indigenous foods which provide the basis of his menus. His game--muskrat, beaver, elk, buffalo, two kinds of deer--are all wild or raised wild. His chicken are range-fed. And in addition to his mallard ducks he has muscovy ducks and Canadian geese. Forgione gets periwinkles and sea urchins, oysters and prawns from Hawaii, scallops with their roe. His vegetable of the day might be steamed cattail shoots, their blossoms having been used to thicken sauces. He serves fiddlehead ferns and specially grown miniature carrots and beets. His peaches and apricots are tree ripened, his berries grown without irrigation because less water produces more intense fruit. Fresh from the farm are his butter and cheeses. And he is still hunting for American foie gras, farm-raised charolais beef, fresh Alaskan king crab and wild doves. All this and 27 cooks--for a 126-seat restaurant that this bearded young chef, with characteristic firmness and no attempt at modesty, calls, "one of the first to use American products and put them in a world-class cuisine."

Something Old, Something New

Wild strawberries were plentiful in New England back in the days when the Narragansett Indians' Thanksgiving was the first week in October. Eleanor and Ferris Dove grew up on cowslips and milkweed, fiddlehead ferns and beach plums, so it was natural to use them, along with venison, racoon, rabbit and buffalo, in their American Indian restaurant. Not only are their foods traditional, so are their festivals; in May they feast on "everything that was here 'way back then"; on Labor Day they join powwows in Southampton, L.I. And in conjunction with July's green bean festival they prepare an old fashioned New England clambake.

The Rallying Cry of the Militant

Paul Prudhomme is big in more than height and width. When he talks, people gather to listen. "We've taken a back seat long enough. We've copied long enough . . . It is now our turn," chants Prudhomme. The audience of hard-nosed businessmen and wild-game-eyed chefs leans into the wind of his dream. "The future of the great food of the world belongs to us," he builds to a crescendo.

"We in Louisiana are going to take the front row . . . We are going to be in the leadership of what I have come to see as the American kitchen." The New York contingent seems in danger of dropping behind his parade. "The task is to transfer the food in this country that is in the homes to the restaurants." Culinary Institute graduates are about to shift their gaze.

Prudhomme, whose ancesters remained so angry with the English for kicking them out of Nova Scotia two centuries ago that even his father never learned English, has about 230 nieces and nephews, five of whom already work for his restaurant, along with the other relatives who raise chickens or catch fish for him. "Young people need to work in fields and watch raw products grow," insists Prudhomme. So much for ex-lawyers and stockbrokers.

What about governmental restrictions that hamper restaurants, he is asked, those that disallow uninspected wild game or forbid home curing or require that ingredients come from approved sources? "It's our government," booms Prudhomme, "and we can change it if we want."

"What is American food? We don't know, but we're here to find out." Yea, yea, the audience's eyes shout. But what about the supremacy of French, Italian, Chinese cuisines? "I don't think they see us at all. And they won't until it's too late."

Tune Your Fork into a Hit Parade

Ella Brennan Martin, proprietor of Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans, predicts this new dish to be the restaurant's No. 1 hit in the near future:

OYSTERS MARINIERE (4 to 6 appetizer servings) 24 oysters, their liquor reserved 1 cup white wine 1/4 cup scallions, chopped 4 sprigs parsley, chopped Dash of pepper 3 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon flour

Drain oysters of their liquor and reserve both. In a stainless or enamel pot, combine oyster liquor with wine, scallions, parsley and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cream butter and flour together and whisk into boiling wine mixture; simmer 2 to 3 minutes. Add oysters and heat 2 minutes. Serve on a flat plate, spooning pan juices over the oysters.

Time Out for a Commercial Message

Fiddlehead ferns in their heads, the audience did a slow burn as Keith Thomas, who has written a Mexican cookbook for the food-service industry under the sponsorship of a Mexican condiment company, showed his slides. Another time and place, his commercial message might have hit the spot. But this group who had been applauding the hunt for wild mustard greens grew restive during slides of hot dog tacos and "a fairly new idea for happy hour." When Thomas suggested throwing a few chilis into beef stroganoff some in the audience suggested throwing up. The dessert of canned pineapple and bananas flamed over ice cream invited comparison with Forgione's un-irrigated berries. American Cuisine, a knot of observers agreed, has an uphill battle.

Paternity Suits

Three editors from food media have decorated the podium with American quilts. "America is Everywhere!" exclaims Carol Brock of the New York Daily News; the hottest designers are American, the New York antiques show this year was American, and beef stew is being served at "big New York society parties." Joan Bakos of Restaurant Business Magazine predicts, now that the American kitchen idea is a success, that it is going to have "many, many fathers and mothers" who claim to have started it.

"I don't want to say I invented it . . .," luncheon speaker Louis Szathmary trailed off the sentence. James Beard had been invited to speak but had to cancel at the last minute; Szathmary, chef-owner of The Bakery restaurant in Chicago and author of five cookbooks, accepted a desperate last-minute plea to fill in. Szathmary has been trying to whip up interest in American food since 1965, when it "flew like a lead balloon," and edited 15 volumes on American Gastronomy, a subject that "wasn't very fashionable." His insistence that frozen green beans are better than fresh left the audience frozen and uninspired to ask any questions, but Szathmary did rouse enthusiasm for his definition that American cuisine is "to give the world today the best of tomorrow."

So You Wanna Cook a Book

The most important inventions that have required cookbooks to accompany them, according to publisher Irena Chalmers:

Stove

Clay pot

Food processor

The leading consumers of cookbooks in the world are in America and Australia. Eighty percent of the 450 cookbooks published in America each year are bought at Christmas. Added culinary historian Lorna Sass: The first cookbook by an American author, Amelia Simmons, was published in 1796.

Great Moments in History

The refrigerated railroad car, claims Sass, was the beginning of the end of regional cooking in the U. S.

Let Them Eat Croissants

Two of the most exciting moments at the symposium were the encounters with continental breakfast buffets the Hyatt Regency Hotel had set up for participants. Cornucopias of breads and coffee pastries, coconut halves filled with fresh fruit and that great American snack food, the croissant, were accompanied by wild berry jams made by Larry Forgione under the label, The American Spoon. They were made from--of course--un-irrigated berries. They tasted like unadulterated heaven.

Weight Awhile

Fifty-two million Americans are dieting or contemplating dieting at any one moment, said Franco Palumbo, who was himself a dieter. He looked the audience straight in the pocketbook and demanded, "What happens in a restaurant when a dieter comes in?" Is it receptive? Does the waiter step back and announce to the room that you are on a diet? Does the chef sabotage the effort? Palumbo has been executive chef for Weight Watchers, and does a show on Slim Cuisine. In addition to learning how to lose a great deal of weight, he has learned to shudder at the typical diet suggestions on American menu; he said that on the Hyatt room service menu was a "Thin Is In" offering of hamburger with cottage cheese, which would pack a hefty 750 calories.

He would like American restaurants to serve dieters on smaller plates, stock fresh fruit for appetizer and dessert, steam vegetables with ginger instead of a sauce, thicken with cornstarch instead of butter and "saute'" fish in a hot oven with stock rather than in a pan or broiler with butter. And every restaurant should keep a nonstick pan on hand to cook something for dieters.

Your Salad Is Over Chicago

The new American cooking is a tough task, says Barry Wine, once a lawyer and now owner-chef of The Quilted Giraffe in Manhattan. His restaurant fills all its own needs in-house: bakes its bread, makes its pastas and ice cream. That takes one cook for each 10 diners. Nearly everything is raw until about 10 minutes before it is served, and the cooking tolerance is in seconds: raw at 15 seconds, done at 20 seconds, overcooked at 25 seconds. When not resorting to frozen or canned foods, a restaurateur is prey to airline strikes and bad weather.

Barry Wine resorts to such modern business techniques as flow charts, but intends his restaurant to be creative and fun. Thus he serves "crepe soles with vegetable shoelaces," "roeboats" (pastry boats with sea urchin roe), mustard ice cream. Neither clause in the sentence should be a surprise when he claims, "We are expensive but we are not haughty." And he sums up the ideal, "We see ourselves as Americans serving Americans."

No Nouvelle Is Good News

At a cocktail reception the Hyatt Regency served pa te' centered with slices of that darling of nouvelle cuisine, the kiwi fruit. Have you ever noticed how much the Hyatt logo resembles a slice of kiwi fruit?

In the Beginning Was the Grape

One theory being bruited about was that the heyday of California wine has been been the catalyst for the American food explosion. As Bill Rice, editor of Food & Wine magazine, put it, "The confidence we feel now that the wines of America are world-class wines" has done a lot for American chefs. Kevin Zraly, winemaster of New York's Windows on the World, added that more than 200,000 people in the United States are taking wine classes. And Robert Mondavi reinforced the theme with, "Grapes are now the leading fruit crop in the U.S. We're doing in wine what the Japanese are doing to us in cars." Rice summed up the wine panel, "Without Mondavi I might have been here, but I wouldn't have had wine for lunch."

That's American

"My name is Joe and I'm your speaker." Joseph Amendola of the Culinary Institute of America knows what's happening in American restaurants and what he wants to happen. The CIA is opening its first American restaurant, American Bounty, in July, with New Orleans gumbo and Philadelphia pepper pot, fresh seasonal foods unmasked by sauces. And he intends to take creativity out of the kitchen and into the dining room, to close the circle opened by the salad bar, with a Create-Your-Own-Dessert cart.

In the meantime, here is the wherewithal to create your own American Cuisine Symposium--recipes from the participants.

KENTUCKY PENNE (From Sixth Avenue Restaurant) (2 appetizer servings) 1 tablespoon butter 1 shallot, finely diced 1/2 red bell pepper,seeded and julienned 2 tablespoons country ham, finely diced 1/2 cup chicken or veal stock 2 ounces Kentucky Gethsemani cheese, shredded (substitute any moderately soft cheese such as meunster) 1/4 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper 4 ounces penne (tubular pasta), cooked al dente Julienne of red pepper, sliced scallions and snow peas, for garnish

In a 10-inch saute' pan, cook the shallot, red peppers and country ham for 2 minutes in the butter. Deglaze the pan with the stock and reduce liquid by one-third. Add cheese, heavy cream and hot, well-drained pasta to the sauce. Toss and serve immediately. Garnish with julienne of red pepper, sliced scallions and snow peas.

MOUSSES OF SALMON AND WHITEFISH WITH THEIR RESPECTIVE CAVIARS (From The River Cafe) (12 servings) Salmon mousse: 1 pound salmon 2 egg yolks 3 egg whites 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 cup heavy cream Whitefish mousse: 1 pound whitefish 2 egg yolks 3 egg whites 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 cup heavy cream

Champagne sauce: 1 cup champagne (substitute dry white wine) 2 cups fish stock 1 ounce shallots 1/4 to 1/2 pound whitefish bones 1 ounce mushrooms Parsley stems 3 cups heavy cream 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons cornstarch, if necessary

Garnish: 1 small onion, finely chopped and blanched 3 eggs, hard-cooked, whites and yolks separated and chopped 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 6 ounces fresh salmon roe (optional, see note) 12 ounces golden caviar (optional, see note)

Be sure all the ingredients for both mousses are well-chilled before starting the preparation. In a food processor, pure'e and blend the salmon and egg yolks into a paste. Scrape down the sides of the processor bowl and continue to process as you drop in the egg whites 1 at a time. Process for 1 minute. Slowly pour in the cream until blended and smooth. Season with salt and pepper. To produce a fine mousse consistency, this pure'e should now be passed through a fine sieve to remove any fibers or particles. Place in a stainless steel bowl and keep in a larger bowl of ice until ready to proceed. Repeat the exact process in making the whitefish mousse.

Butter 24 individual timbale molds and fill them with the mousses. You should have 12 salmon timbales and 12 whitefish timbales. Set the timbales in a large roasting pan and fill the pan with warm water until the water comes halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake them, covered with foil, in this water bath at 300 degrees until firm, about 30 minutes. Remove from molds, placing one of each mousse on a plate, and spoon champagne sauce over each.

To make champagne sauce, place all ingredients, except the cream and 2 tablespoons of champagne into a saucepan. Reduce until the consistency of a syrup. Add the cream, reserving 2 tablespoons in case it is needed to mix with cornstarch, and simmer sauce until thickened. If necessary, thicken slightly with a little cornstarch and 2 tablespoons cream mixed. Season and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of champagne. Strain to remove fish bones. Pour over mousses.

To serve sprinkle with finely chopped and blanched onions, chopped parsley and the chopped egg whites and yolks. Place dollops of the salmon roe and golden caviar around the timbales.

Note: This can, of course, be served without the caviar; it is still delicious, but would require a new name.

GIUSEPPE'S FAVORITE SALAD (From Franco Palumbo's "Slim Cuisine -- An American Approach") (4 servings) 4 cups red cabbage, finely shredded 1 cup celery, thinly sliced 2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon capers 7-ounce can Italian tuna, packed in olive oil, undrained and crumbled

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the shredded cabbage, celery and onion in large bowl. Add the vinegar and salt to the vegetables to start softening and wilting them. Next, add the capers (it is not necessary to drain them) and the crumbled tuna. Season with freshly ground pepper. Toss all the ingredients together until they are well combined. Cover the bowl and chill the salad at least 1 hour.

PECAN DIAMONDS (From the Culinary Institute of America) (Makes about 200 diamonds) 10 tablespoons, plus 1 pound softened butter 9 tablespoons, plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar 3 tablespoons solid shortening 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 cups cake flour plus 1 cup bread flour (substitute 3 cups all-purpose) Pinch baking powder Pinch salt 1 1/8 cup honey 2 1/2 cups light brown sugar 2 pounds chopped pecans 1/2 cup heavy cream

Cream together 10 tablespoons butter, 9 tablespoons granulated sugar, shortening, egg and vanilla. Sift flours, baking powder and salt together. Add flour mixture to creamed mixture and mix to form a smooth paste. Wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Divide cold dough into three sections, returning 2 to the refrigerator (to keep chilled). Place dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap, roll to 1/8-inch-thick rectangle, approximately 5-by-12 inches. Remove top piece of plastic, invert on 12-by-16-inch cookie sheet, remove other piece of wrap. The dough will cover 1/3 of the sheet. Use the same rolling procedure for remaining dough, piecing each section together so that they cover the entire surface of the cookie sheet. Prick all over with a fork. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

Mix 1 pound butter, honey, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and light brown sugar in a saucepan. Boil for 3 minutes and cool. Fold in pecans. Add cream. Spread filling evenly over crust. Bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.

Cool thoroughly. Remove carefully from cookie sheet and cut into diamonds approximately 1 inch on each side.

Note: These pecan diamonds, which are served at the Quilted Giraffe as well as at the Culinary Institute of America, are very sweet and rich, more a candy than a cookie. Thus they should be cut into very small pieces for serving. The recipe can be cut if necessary.

JOHNNY CAKES (From Dovecrest Indian Trading Post and Restaurant) (4 servings) 1 cup fine stone-ground white cornmeal (finely ground flint cornmeal especially for johnny cakes is best) 1 teaspoon sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt Boiling water Milk, up to 4 tablespoons 1 tablespoon melted butter Grease for griddle

Combine cornmeal, sugar and salt with enough boiling water to make a batter just slightly thinner than mashed potatoes. Stir in a little milk and butter. Drop by spoonsful onto a well-greased griddle and fry, turning once, until both sides of the cakes are well-browned. Serve with maple syrup and butter for breakfast or as-is for a dinner side dish.