EASON SIMMONS doesn't read cookbooks for recipes but rather for insights into personalities -- those of the authors or the people they mention. He doesn't read cookbooks for inspiration about how to entertain; instead, he entertains so that he can try the recipes of the most interesting personalities he encounters in his reading. Of 300 cookbooks in Simmons' library, most are for or about particular groups of people: The Presidents' Cookbook; Recipes for Starving Artists; The Beautiful Wives Cookbook; The Ballet Cookbook; and The Great American Writers Cookbook.
"I much prefer reading cookbooks to using them," Simmons says. "I love American regional cookbooks, which describe foods geographically. I also collect those little pamphlets originally given out free by various food companies.
"I like cookbooks to tell me who eats what food when, where and why."
Simmons' interest in food is longstanding. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, N.Y. (This city, not the one in Pennsylvania, is the true home of Philadelphia cream cheese.) After graduating in 1976 from Hartwick College in nearby Oneonta, N.Y., he searched for some kind of business that would allow him to stay in the college town he had grown to love. With two friends, Simmons renovated an old farmhouse and started a restaurant. But when one of the partners decided to get married, the threesome sold out.
In 1978, Simmons moved to Washington and soon became the manager of Herb's, a restaurant off Dupont Circle. When the restaurant changed hands recently, Simmons was left with lots of time to read at home in a small Northwest Washington apartment that he shares with his roommate, Mitch Hanks. Hanks, an artist, is a fan of Simmons' cooking. "I go to the grocery for things Eason forgets and clean the apartment for dinner parties while he does the cooking. Since I don't cook at all but love to eat, I try to provide him with support." Hanks' favorite meal? "Eason's stuffed pork chops with creamed oyster sauce."
Hanks finds photographs of famous artworks, buildings or scenes, then creates a collage by adding anachronistic elements that blend into the background of the photograph. Often, before or after a dinner party, Hanks entertains guests by showing them his newest artwork; he also takes photographs of most visitors. Later he includes these pictures in collages that he displays the next time they return to the apartment.
"Last week I invited four people over for dinner," Simmons says. "I fixed a baked ham, greens (using kale and spinach instead of collards), and a grits souffle'. I had recently taken a cooking lesson and the subject was eggs. After learning how to make a souffle', I decided to cook a down-home southern-style dinner and present familiar grits in a more elegant souffle' form. So I whipped the eggs while the ham was baking in the oven and the greens were cooking on the stove. Our guests got to watch their dinner being prepared, which they all enjoyed. When it was ready, I served it with cold Scotch ale, and everyone said the dinner was great.
"I like to prepare simple country food so I never have to do anything in advance. I shop right before I start cooking. I never follow any recipe; I just use the ingredients they suggest. In other words, I take the idea of a dish, not the directions."
Although the apartment has great views, there is no dining room and little space in the kitchen to accommodate any helpers. Simmons has to mix everything by hand since the single kitchen counter affords no room for a food processor or blender. In fact, his set of six antique Spode china dishes, found in an antique store, and the bone-handled knives and forks, which he uses along with the coin silver spoon passed down through his mother's family, barely fit into the cabinets and drawers.
Perhaps one day Hanks will take a photograph of the kitchen, cut some extra cabinets out of a catalogue, paste them on the photo, and hang this collage on a wall to give Simmons a sense of more work space. He could use it. Eason's Grits Souffle' (from Lee Bailey's Country Weekends)
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup white hominy grits
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 egg yolks
5 ounces sharp cheddar
9 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine milk, water and salt in saucepan and bring to boil. Add grits, stirring. Continue to cook for about 5 minutes or until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and add the butter and pepper. Mix. Add egg yolks and mix. Add 4 ounces of cheese and mix. Set aside.
Beat egg whites until stiff. Beat in cream of tartar. Heap one-third of egg whites onto grits and fold in with a rubber spatula. Fold in rest of egg whites.
Pour mixture into a buttered 2-quart souffle' dish and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Set dish atop a cookie sheet on middle shelf in oven for 35 minutes until mixture is golden and puffed.