Square Meals

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''Don't serve me two slices of rare duck breast with a teaspoon of pesto-walnut-goat cheese sauce and tell me I'm eating American food. No way do Americans eat like that!'' Jane Stern cries in mock protest.

''This is the food Americans eat,'' adds her husband, Michael, flipping to the ''Look What You Can Do With Dr. Pepper'' chapter in their ''Square Meals'' cookbook (Knopf, $17.95).

The Sterns decided to write a book of honest American fare because ''we were simply quiched out.'' They've produced a cookbook written with a little bit of tongue in cheek and a great deal of genuine affection.

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Mrs. Stern sums it up this way: ''We really wanted it to be an evocative book. We wanted to chronicle American food from the '20s through the '50s - before 'cooking' became 'cuisine.' ''

M.F.K. Fisher agrees. In a typically eloquent foreword to the book, she writes, ''The Sterns ... have written with love and respect. I find this book ... funny and useful as well as of real historical value.''

''Well, it's semi-serious,'' Mr. Stern says with a grin. ''I mean, how serious can you be when you're planning a luau in your living room?''

'' 'Square Meals' is the soul food of Middle America. It's what we were all raised on and the stuff they're still eating out there in Iowa,'' Mrs. Stern insists.

Nostalgia oozes like marshmallow S'mores, and the book includes recipes like Queen for a Day Casserole, Depth-Charged Prune Sandwich Filling, Highway Patrol Succotash, Jell-O d'Akron, and Twinkie Pie.

All recipes are authentic and were gathered from cookbooks and ''Helpful Hints'' pamphlets of the era.

Where would we be without miniature marshmallows, dried onion soup mix, and Chicken a la King?

As universal as most of the recipes are, some of the most popular took a bit of tracking down to find.

''We had the darndest time getting a recipe for the ubiquitous butterscotch pudding,'' says Mr. Stern. ''Finally we found a wonderful one in a faded copy of 'Let's Talk Turkey.' ''

''But we shouldn't be ashamed of the food we were brought up on,'' Mrs. Stern continues. ''We're paranoid about our food in this country. I'll never forget when de Gaulle came to the White House, and what was he served? Fake French food. What's wrong with pot roast, anyway?''

The Sterns know there are a lot of closet Spam eaters out there and there's nothing wrong with that, they say. They just want us all to stand up and confess.

''Spam is really a good food with a bad name. What was it they used to call it,'' Mr. Stern asks rhetorically, ''ham that didn't pass the physical?''

The Sterns gathered the recipes for their book but admit it's all those suburban housewives who are the unsung authors of this chronology of cooking. During the 40-year period covered by the book, these housewives were spending less time tied to the kitchen stove and more time out working.

''With the wars came convenience foods,'' Mr. Stern notes. ''Women weren't home cooking; they were on the job. But they were extremely creative and had little ways of adding interest to their dishes. You find a lot of recipes with 'Mystery,' 'Surprise,' 'Miracle,' or 'Impossible' in the title.''

Most of the Sterns' research was done while crisscrossing the country writing travel and other food books. The great American Midwest especially was their major source.

''That's where all this native creativity comes from,'' says Mr. Stern. ''These are the people that use everything. They turn plastic Lux detergent bottles into little dolls, and a stack of potato chips into a chocolate tort - the recipe is in the book.''

Were there some recipes the authors found just too awful to include?

''Yes,'' Mr. Stern groans, ''Magic Meat Mound. That's where we drew the line. It looked and tasted just as bad as it sounds.''

On a recent trip back home to Illinois, Mr. Stern's mother announced, ''Now I know you two have become real gourmets, so I've made something very special.''

''Mom prepared her famous Oven-Fried Corn Flake Chicken,'' her son rhapsodizes.

Not only has food changed, so have its symbols. ''Have you seen the Campbell Kids lately?'' asks Mrs. Stern. ''They've lost 20 pounds apiece! And Betty Crocker, who used to look like everyone's grandmother, now looks like Geraldine Ferraro.''

Here is Mr. Stern's mother's recipe. It's from the chapter ''Corn Flake Cookery.'' Oven-Fried Corn Flake Chicken 1 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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Wash chicken parts 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 separately.

Set in well-greased baking pan, drizzle with butter, and bake uncovered for 1 hour.

Serves 4 to 6.

The following recipe is one of Mrs. Stern's favorites. ''If I were going home tonight, that's what I'd make,'' she says. They found it in a 1942 version of ''Good Housekeeping's Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries.'' Rinktum Tiddy on Toast Snippets 1 35-ounce can tomatoes, drained (about 2 cups) 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sugar 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1 tablespoon chopped onion 1/2 pound mild Cheddar cheese, cut into bits 1 tablespoon butter 1 egg Hot buttered toast (4 to 6 slices)

Chop tomatoes coarsely, then heat in saucepan.

Add seasonings and onion. When hot, melt in cheese over low heat, stirring constantly.

When smooth, add butter, then egg, stirring well.

On each plate, cut toast into small pieces and rearrange neatly to resemble an uncut piece of toast.

Pour Tiddy over toast snippets and serve.

From the indespensible handbook, ''Joy of Jell-O'' comes; Quivering Crab Apple Salad 1 3-ounce package cherry Jell-O 1 cup boiling water 1 14-ounce jar spiced apples 1/2 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon grated orange rind Lettuce Dissolve gelatin in boiling water.

Drain apples, measuring 3/4 cup syrup. Add water if necessary to make 3/4 cup. Add apple syrup to gelatin and chill until thick but not congealed.

Beat thickened gelatin in bowl of mixer with sour cream until frothy.

Cut apples and fold into gelatin along with orange rind. Pour into oiled 3 -cup mold. Chill until firm and unmold on lettuce leaves. Serves 6 to 8.

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