Every single month, month in and month out, a total of 20,000 copies of the two Silver Palate cookbooks ("The Silver Palate Cookbook" and "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook") are shipped to distributors. That's more copies every month than most books sell in their lifetime.
And now these American publishing giants have penetrated the citadel. An amalgam of the two Silver Palate books, rather grandly titled "La Cuisine des Ame'ricains," is at this very moment hitting the shelves of bookstores all over France. Yes, that's France, the cradle of western cooking tradition.
The American publisher, Workman Publishing, surmises but does not promise that it is the first American cookbook to be published in French. If it's not the first, it is certainly one of very, very few.
Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, the Frugal Gourmet (Jeff Smith is his real name and he's an ordained Methodist minister) has set up more-or-less permanent shop on the best seller lists, first with "The Frugal Gourmet" and now with his recent effort called "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine."
The publisher, William Morrow, says that there are 700,000 copies of the first book in print. It enjoyed more than a year on best-seller lists. The new effort looks like it will have a similarly successful run.
What is it about these two very different sets of books that makes them so successful? If you're one of the three people left in the United States who has none of the above, should you buy one? If so, which one? Or should you wait until you happen to be in France and have a chance to pick up "La Cuisine des Ame'ricains"?
The two sets of books -- we'll call them "frugal" and "silver" -- apparently have completely different audiences. Stores that sell one report that they can't sell the other. At Olsson's Books, for example, the latest Silver Palate book sold 225 copies last year, while the "Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine" has sold only 41 copies since it came out last September.
I've so far asked about a dozen people I know who pride themselves on their knowledge of and ability with food and not one of them has ever bought or used "frugal." They have various reasons for this, some half-formed and some more definite.
Every one of them, on the other hand, owns and uses (or tries to use) the Silver Palate books. And the Silver Palate books have enough cachet that Hachette, the French publisher, apparently feels it won't embarrass itself by publishing a version of them in the alleged cradle of western culinary tradition.
But every one of the people who told me they used the Silver Palate books -- that's every single one -- added something like "but you know, I have lots of trouble with those recipes."
So the Silver Palate books have sold well despite the fact that even expert cooks have trouble executing their recipes, and the Frugal Gourmet books have sold well despite the fact that they almost never get reviewed in major food publications and are treated with haw-haws in all the right circles.
The authors of both books have what many in publishing feel is the necessary prerequisite to any best-selling cookbook, and that's a ready-made public base. The Frugal Gourmet has his own wildly popular television show (seen here on Channel 26 at 1:30 p.m. on Mondays and 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays) and the Silver Palate folks have a front-lines-chic carryout in Manhattan. Their Silver Palate label is also seen on condiments -- mustards and vinegars and the like -- in just about every specialty grocery and carryout store in the country.
But here's the thing about the "frugal" books:
First, it's that word frugal. That's the dividing line between those who wouldn't go near the books and those who can't wait to get their hands on them. Never mind the fact that the recipes use many ingredients that are expensive, and don't make provision for using the lamb bones that are left after you've boned the leg of lamb, for example.
Jeff Smith has used some license in defining the word, which my dictionary says means "not wasteful; not spending freely or unnecessarily." He's meant it as a totem -- a signal to potential readers that here are recipes that won't be too hard, that won't be too expensive, that will be user-friendly.
In fact, all of that is true -- but there is nothing different about these recipes from the recipes in, say, "The Joy of Cooking." The recipes are workable, for the most part clearly written, for the most part easy to execute, and -- most important of all -- they help to answer the question on everyone's lips -- "what are we going to have for dinner tonight?"
Silver Palate authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, through their business origins in Manhattan, by using the words "silver" and "palate" and by the poetic names they have given to their recipes, have given just the opposite signals. They have sent veritable demographic beacons to the hip, the adventuresome, the urbanite, the person who wants to try the latest and doesn't mind spending a bit of money to do it.
The recipes, while many of them don't work as written, are magnificent in the originality of their conception. They are inspirational, heartening, exciting to read and contemplate. The authors' way with food -- the way they write about it and put it together -- is unique.
So there you have the differences. Pick your attitude, then pick your cookbook. As for which -- the latest or the original -- to choose in either category, it probably doesn't make much difference. The wine in "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine" seems to me a sort of excuse to write another cookbook (and why not?). Many recipes don't use wine, and many more use only a tablespoon or so that could just as easily be omitted.
Or should you wait until you can get a hold of the French version of Silver Palate? (Don't try to order it from local bookstores; it's not available here.) It's interesting to look at if only for a glimpse into what Hachette thinks is compelling about Americans and their food. The cover -- in red, white and blue -- features a little boy in a baseball uniform, an image of the Statue of Liberty, and a close-up of what looks a bit like barbecued ribs.
And then there is the apologia, a sort of back-handed demur written by Sylvie Girard, the person who translated and adapted the book for the French audience. Her introductions begins, approximately, "In certain circles, putting the words 'cuisine' and 'Americans' together in the same sentence would elicit sarcasm or incredulity ... " Nevertheless, Hachette has elected to take a chance on this juxtaposition. The result is smaller in format and pages than the American originals, badly bound as most French paperbacks are, but it does manage to translate the American enthusiasm and elan. Maybe we do have something to teach the French about cooking.
ROQUEFORT MEAT LOAF (6 to 8 servings)
1 pound ground beef chuck
8 ounces ground pork
8 ounces ground veal
1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup light cream, scalded
8 slices firm white bread, crusts trimmed, diced
8 ounces roquefort cheese, crumbled
1 egg, lightly beaten
Combine the ground meats, onion, bread crumbs, parsley, ketchup, mustard, 2 eggs, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread the mixture out on a large piece of waxed paper or parchment paper into a rectangle about 15-by-12-inches.
Pour the scalded cream over the bread in a medium-size bowl and mix well. Add the cheese and lightly beaten egg and beat with a fork until smooth.
Spread the cheese mixture over the meat mixture, leaving a 1-inch border on all sides. Using the waxed paper as an aid and starting from one short side, roll up the meat like a jelly roll. Peel back the paper as you roll. Place seam side down on a foil-lined baking sheet.
Bake 1 hour at 375 degrees. Cut into thick slices and serve immediately.
From "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing, 1985) QUICK-FRIED BEEF VENETIAN STYLE (4 to 6 servings)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/8 pound bacon or prosciutto, diced
2 tablespoons pitted and chopped green olives
1 red sweet bell pepper, coarsely diced
1 very ripe tomato, diced
3/4 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon capers
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon basil
Salt and black pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying
2 pounds thinly sliced beef (use a beef roast and ask the butcher to cut it on his meat slicer)
Prepare the sauce by saute'ing the yellow onion in the oil, along with the garlic and bacon. When the onion is a bit soft, add olives, bell pepper, tomato, wine, capers, oregano, basil and salt and pepper.
Simmer until all is tender and flavorful. Correct the seasoning with the salt and pepper. You should need little salt, if any.
Heat a frying pan; then add a bit of olive oil. Quickly saute' meat and serve on heated plates with a bit of the sauce on the bottom of each plate.
From "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks With Wine," by Jeff Smith (William Morrow, 1987) uc