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Square Meals

By John Edward YoungStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 1984

''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.

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''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.

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.''