Book Article

Cookbooks

We review the newest tomes available for your culinary quests

The latest in Cookbooks

Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie Bill Neal (Knopf, $19.95)

From the evidence of its two debut titles (this one and Hot Links & Country Flavors, reviewed below), the new Knopf Cooks American series will be serving up a personable blend of first-hand research, practical instruction, and genuine home-country flavor.

Carolina cook Bill Neal, proprietor of Chapel Hill's Crook's Corner and author of Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, tells us straight off that ''it is a Southern trait to have a story for every occasion.'' And so his new book on Southern baking has a history for every recipe, from the Indian Mush represented here in two 19th-century ''receipts'' to the show-off cakes that still vie for status at Sunday-night church suppers. Instead of putting all the background in a preface, Neal makes the past a presence in our kitchens by mixing the comments, quotes, and early versions of the dishes at hand with his practical pointers and quantified contemporary recipes.

Neal recognizes three major influences on Southern cooking: native American, most evident in the simple corn dishes; African, credited for the pinto bean cake and many ways with sweet potatoes; and European, whose British strain he shows most interest in tracking down. But there is a fourth influence at work here: his own family memories. They account for an extra measure of resonance and for happy ideas like ''worms,'' his grandmother's solution to biscuit dough scraps. B+

Hot Links & Country Flavors Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly (Knopf, $19.95)

Feed Bruce Aidells a sausage and he'll tell you where you come from — or at least where you've been: Mulberry Street in New York's Little Italy, where Tuscan, Sicilian, and Barese sausage each has its turf; Breaux Bridge, La., home of that relatively recent Cajun invention crawfish boudin; or maybe Sheboygan, Wis., which celebrates its most famous product at an annual Bratwurst Festival. Sausage-maker Aidells and food-writer Kelly, both Californians, seem intent on looking for America through the chinks between the links. In their quest they have followed the aroma of cooked pig to crash a small-town Southern barbecue; cruised the Midwest for rarities like pork and liver sausage flavored with slivovitz, a fiery Yugoslavian plum brandy; and sought a New Mexican mountain harvest festival for its chorizos made from wild pigs and birds fed on pine nuts.

Here, then, are instructions for making the dozens of traditional sausages thus acquired, along with some ''new American'' creations and a few of Aidells' own — plus another 200 recipes for using sausage. But for all their expertise and gusto, how do Aidells and Kelly reconcile their sausage diet with all the expert recommendations against such fare? Their links are lower in fat than the commercial products and many can be made without using nitrites; but not even their addition of zucchini sausage for vegetarians can make this stuff look like health food. B

The New York Times Cook Book, Revised Edition Craig Claiborne, (Harper & Row, $25)

Twenty-nine years after New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne made a best-selling cookbook classic out of 1,500 recipes from that paper's food pages, he feels it's time to put it ''in harmony'' with the ''absolute revolution'' in American food consciousness. Out, then, with 40 percent of the old version; in with fresh pasta and grains, fresh herbs and a smattering of ''new'' spices. Up with recent fads like Buffalo chicken wings, newly elevated Americana like deep-fried catfish, and more exotic recipes like Kung Pao chicken. Down with fat content in recipes that remain. On with the food processor and its awesome efficiency.

But under all these additions and changes lies the '50s sensibility that guided my generation's first ventures in the kitchen. Here virtually untouched is that dinner-party darling, Boeuf Bourguignonne, with its expensive bottle of wine and 36 intact white onions. And here, less fondly remembered, are those once-ubiquitous Swedish meatballs that congealed at cocktail parties in their cream-and-flour gravy.

In another context Claiborne once called America ''a nation of culinary schizophrenics.'' Something similar might be said of this update. Never a basic resource so much as an all-purpose collection with a conservatively style-conscious stance, the book ends up an odd accumulation of old and recent food-page fashions. Sure, it's packed with decent, do-able recipes, but only the New York Times imprimatur holds it together. B

Originally posted May 11, 1990 Published in issue #13 May 11, 1990 Order article reprints