Cookbooks that celebrate American food

Now that the experts have informed us that it's OK to cook, enjoy, and even speak openly about the food that has kept America on the march for 300 years, cookbooks on American food are dropping faster than McIntosh apples in a hurricane. Here are some of the latest to hit the ground.

An American Folklife Cookbook (Schocken, New York, $18.95), by Washington Post food writer Joan Nathan, is an absolute delight.

Through folksy snapshots, anecdotes, interviews, and recipes we get to meet Millie Fletcher, who goes crabbing on St. Inigoes Creek in Maryland; Roger Hanson as he awakens Washington State logging camp boys and spoons out 50 pounds' worth of griddle cake mix; and Mrs. Eddie Washington in Appalachia, to whom cooking was ``just a song.''

The folks here are as true, honest, and American as the recipes. Even if you don't cook, this book is first-rate.

Then there's life on the other side of the tracks.

No, it's not a hardbound copy of Architectural Digest, it's Lee Bailey's City Food (Christian N. Potter, New York, $18.95). This book is strictly Upper East Side. Mr. Bailey dedicates his latest slick, sophisticated, and stylish book to ``. . . all our forebears, who came here from every country in the world. . . .

That opens wide the kitchen door. There are recipes for North African Chicken with Prunes and Hot Peppers, Tandori Chicken, Couscous, Taztziki, Gravlax, and many more. This is an extravagantly beautiful menu cookbook which, if you dare take it into the kitchen, should be handled with appropriate sterling silver tongs.

Roland Johnson's The American Table (William Morrow, New York, $19.95) is a good solid collection of interesting, no-nonsense recipes.

Mr. Johnson treats the simplest of foods with great respect. Even the much abused cole slaw is treated as well as Lady Bird Johnson's Fillet of Beef. Especially interesting are the chapters on Summer and Winter Pies, Starchy Dishes, and Special Dishes. A fine addition to any cook's library -- and best of all, a book that is really useful; each recipe is footnoted by a paragraph of helpful comments and advice.

If you're like me and get sweaty palms just warming up a cold croissant, get The Fannie Farmer Baking Book (Knopf, New York, $16.95). Marion Cunningham's classic book on the subject gives you everything but the ingredients. Nothing, but nothing, is assumed here.

Old favorite recipes for cakes, pies, and tarts have been reworked and updated. For the first time I made popovers that didn't go under. No one ever told me how to start them in a cold oven.

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