FOR SOME TIME now America has been a country in the throes of a culinary revolution. It has been a good revolution, a much-needed renewal of interest in what we eat and serve to others.
But the two of us are beginning to feel like counterrevolutionary guerrillas when we admit to people that we truly love foods like Pepsi-Cola Cake or meat loaf made with dry onion soup mix.
Yes, it is hard to be a pudding person in this brave new world where mousse is king. To confess that you occasionally prefer baked macaroni and cheese over pasta with che'vre-pesto-parsley-walnut sauce is to admit that you are something of a boob.
We didn't realize just how serious this gastronomic nuttiness had become until we dined at the house of a friend who seems to spend most of her day carving mushrooms into roses and taking sushi classes from men who resemble the villains in grade-D karate movies. Her dinner parties are up-to-the-minute chic, from dwarf parsnips to sea slug fritters.
Our hostess told us about the strangest meal she had ever eaten. Just last night, she had dined with people who served her a pot roast! Not only that, but mashed potatoes . . . and peas. Can you imagine? How outre', how gross, how positively revolting for a woman of her discriminating palate.
Feeling like we were on Mars, we looked at one another, then at our hostess, who was spooning out something that looked like kelp simmered with a navy blue sweater. One of us piped up softly, "I like pot roast." "Me too," said a tablemate. And before long, the whole table had joined in to sing the praises of this dowdy dish.
What has happened to food? Have we become a nation of people afraid to admit that we like a good square meal? That we enjoy a plate of food that looks like food, not like roses or Dresden lace? Is it so strange to want to leave the table feeling satisfied?
Somehow, at the outer reaches of the culinary revolution, style has superceded taste as a measure of what we eat. Esoteric cookery has gained exquisite powers of cultural intimidation. But back on Earth, where most of us live, only the most foppish aesthete could argue that a simple dish of mashed potatoes whipped with cream and running rivulets of butter is not fit for gods.
America has a legacy of forthright food that has suddenly become unfashionable. This country's home cooking may sound corny to newly refined palates, but there is nothing embarrassing about the profound chocolate taste of an old-fashioned three-layer devil's-food cake or the festive shimmer of a well-made perfection salad.
Even dishes that fall into the category of "suburban cuisine" can be delicious. Way back when, Tricia Nixon shared with the public her recipe for tuna-noodle casserole. Oh, how we chortled at that one. Tricia and canned mushroom soup seemed like a perfect double icon of all that was creepy about American culture.
But let us tell you something we have learned a decade and a half later: Canned soups in casseroles can be fabulous, as can a handful of crushed Ritz Crackers on top, or chow mein noodles, or "worst of all," crumbled potato chips. This is vernacular cooking at its best -- popular culture in a covered dish. And if the thought of it makes you blush, it is our guess that you have simply been deprived of the chance to taste a decent casserole lately.
One thing that can be said about America's populist cookery is that it is relentlessly creative. With near manic enthusiasm, home cooks have invented combinations of foods that range from rice boiled in grape juice to Jell-O molds so choc-a-bloc with miniature marshmallows, nuts and fruits that they resemble an edible Watts Tower.
America has never had an authoritative food establishment; and our cuisine has been too unruly to codify. No rules, no food school dictates, no ironclad traditions have held our self-trained cooks back. And in the face of today's solemnity about cooking, isn't it refreshing to bask in their innocence? To be open minded enough to roll your chicken legs in cornflakes, or add a splash of Dr. Pepper to your baked beans.
It is in home kitchens that America's culinary soul resides. Let the hotshot chefs painstakingly try to define American cuisine in ever more fatuous terms; meanwhile, unsung cooks have cheerfully invented a people's cuisine full of verve, inscribed with brio in the spiral-bound recipe collections self-published by virtually every small town, community center or club in this land. Some are good, some awful, but every one is a reflection of the boundless enthusiasm that is the hallmark of America's real cuisine.
Vacationing in Ogallala, Neb., we stumbled across one such book with over 300 recipes for cooking with breakfast cereal. We now know more things to do with Fruit Loops than you might care to imagine. From the cookbooks of Walnut and Oakland, Iowa, we have learned how to make butterscotch candies out of Chinese noodles and how to brew Sputnik Tea, a salute to the astronauts using Tang. Best of all is a "Larousse Gastronomique"-size volume called "Mom and Me," by Viola Miller and Evelyn Pflugshaupt, two housewives from the heartland, who intersperse their recipes for "Ting-A-Lings" and "Crock Pot Chicken" with an avalanche of family history -- from their farm in Persia, Iowa, to Viola being named leader of the local "Bevarettes."
Theirs is not a sophisticated cuisine. But it is homey and reassuring, the way cooking used to be before it became cuisine, before we all got too smart to appreciate the innocent fun of ordinary ingredients and unpretentious recipes.
And therein lies the pleasure of eating square meals. Instead of the intellectualized niceties of food as art, these fine old -- and fine new -- recipes invite you to react with feeling and memory. This is food to smell cooking in the oven, to taste and to know the immense evocative powers it can wield. It's meals like mom made -- or like we wish she had.
Scratch the surface of any gourmet and you will find a secret passion for non-pedigreed food. James Beard confided to us that he loves canned white asparagus, actually prefering it to the fresh stuff. We know one fashionable woman chef whose recipe for combatting depression is to melt Hershey Bars on her apartment radiator, then lick the chocolate off the wrappers.
Like a photo album or special song, such secret pleasures, whether canned asparagus or pot roast or chocolate pudding, can open up storehouses of memory. Profound personal moments can be conjured up at the stove and table; and likewise, our culture's shared vicissitudes can be tasted whenever a neighbor invites us in for a covered-dish dinner.
No matter what food fashions hit the table next year, these American standards will survive, kept alive in home kitchens by all of us who, no matter how sophisitcated we get, still crave a dish of baked macaroni now and then: MOM'S BEST POT ROAST (4 to 6 servings) 1/2 tablespoon salt 1/2 tablespoon pepper 4 pound center-cut chuck steak 3 tablespoons flour 1 medium onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 3 tablespoons shortening 1 cup boiling water 3 large carrots, sectioned into 2-inch pieces and halved 6 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed to 2-inch pieces 16-ounce can stewed tomatoes 1 bay leaf 2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet Salt and pepper meat and rub with flour. In a heavy cast-iron roasting pan, saute' onion and garlic in shortening until translucent but not brown. Add meat and brown on both sides. This will take about 15 minutes. Add boiling water, carrots, beans, tomatoes, bay leaf, Kitchen Bouquet, and additional salt and pepper if desired.
Cook on stove over low heat, tightly covered with aluminum foil. Cook 20 minutes, unwrap foil, baste, and reseal. Continue slow cooking and basting every 15 minutes, turning meat over once during cooking. (This will become more difficult as the meat becomes tender. Use two spatulas, making sure you scrape all the caramelized bits of onion and garlic from the bottom of the pan. You may also need to add water to keep the meat moist.) Cook 2 1/2-3 hours, until meat is fall-apart tender.
Remove from roasting pan with vegetables, but leave drippings in pan to make gravy. Discard bay leaf. SUBURBANITE'S DELIGHT TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE (6 to 8 servings) 6 ounces medium egg noodles 2 tablespoons butter 10 3/4-ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup 1 cup milk 1/2 cup sour cream 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 1/4 cup sliced pimiento 1/2 cup finely chopped green pepper 1 cup chopped celery 6 1/2-ounce can oil-packed tuna, drained and flaked (an additional 3-ounce can is optional, for a meatier casserole) 15 Ritz crackers, broken but not crumbled Parsley for garnish
Cook noodles in salted water; drain. Coat with butter.
In a large saucepan, mix soup, milk, sour cream, salt, onion, pimiento, pepper and celery. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes. Add tuna. Combine with noodles and pour into two-quart casserole. Sprinkle top with crackers. Bake 20 to 25 minutes in a 425-degree oven. Garnish with parsley. OVEN-FRIED CORN FLAKE CHICKEN (4 to 6 servings)
Convenient, and surprisingly delicious. Moms like this recipe because it is neater than deep-frying, it's wholesome (anything with cereal in it must be healthy, right?), plus it's fun. And fun -- the mischievous pleasure of turning breakfast food into dinner, and of baking something easy that seems difficult -- is at the heart of the cereal cookery ethos. 3-pound frying chicken, cut up 2 eggs, slightly beaten 4 tablespoons milk 2 1/2 cups corn flake crumbs (crushed but not pulverized) 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 5 tablespoons butter, melted
Wash chicken and pat dry. Mix together eggs and milk. Separately, mix corn flake crumbs, salt and pepper. Dip chicken in milk-and-egg mixture, then in crumbs, evenly coating each piece. Set in well-greased baking pan. Drizzle with melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees uncovered, one hour. PEPSI COLA CAKE WITH BROILED PEANUT BUTTER FROSTING (Makes 1 9-by-13 inch cake) 2 cups flour 2 cups sugar 1 cup butter 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa 1 cup Pepsi-Cola (Coke works, too) 1/2 cup buttermilk 2 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
For the peanut butter frosting: 6 tablespoons butter 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar 2/3 cup peanut butter 1/4 cup milk 2/3 cup chopped peanuts
Combine flour and sugar in large bowl. Melt butter, add cocoa and Pepsi-Cola. Pour over flour-sugar mixture, and stir until well-blended. Add buttermilk, beaten eggs, soda and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in marshmallows. Pour into greased and floured 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan. Bake at 350-degrees for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the frosting. Cream butter, sugar and peanut butter. Add milk and mix well. Add nuts. Spread over warm cake.
Place frosted cake under broiler about four inches from heat source. Broil just a few seconds, or until topping starts to bubble. Do not scorch!
Let cool at least 30 minutes before serving.
Jane and Michael Stern, authors of "Square Meals" (Knopf, $17.95), live in Connecticut, where they spend a lot of time cooking, and eating, tuna noodle casserole and the like.