What's cooking in America: discussions and demonstrations

A few miles from the airport on Industrial Highway just across from ``Smashies Used Auto Parts,'' I spotted my first Philadelphia Soft Pretzel. ``Three for a buck,'' shouted the hawker through the cab window. ``One?'' I queried. ``Three,'' he bit back. Fortunately the taxi driver offered to share the difference. A squiggle of yellow mustard on top, and we were off.

It was an inauspicious but appropriate start to a whirlwind ``Book and the Cook'' weekend sponsored by this city. Here was a chance for public and press to dine with 27 prominent cookbook authors. A chance, too, for the city to remind everyone that although the restaurant renaissance peaked here some years ago, there are still wonderful places to dine.

Folks had a chance to chew the fat and gnaw barbecued ribs with ex-Black Panther Bobby Seale (his cookbook on barbecued ribs is in the works). Craig Claiborne humbly served as host at a tr`es-French repast at Le Bec-Fin, while Martha Stewart served a party of 300 with as much ease as it takes the rest of us to pull the wrapper off a Pop-Tart.

Madhur Jaffrey -- trading a toque for a sari -- brought her recipes and Eastern charm to Siva's Restaurant; Helge Rubinstein left a budding chocolate-chip cookie business in England and flew in to serve her special mussel soup at La Truffe.

The real meat of the weekend was a panel composed of the 27, where the whats, wheres, and whys of American cuisine were hashed out.

Moderator Julie Dannenbaum posed the first question, which more or less set the theme: ``Is American cooking a lost art, or a developing treasure? In other words, what is cooking in America?''

Barbara Kafka answered first. ``What's cooking in America is everything,'' she said. ``It is neither a lost art nor a developing treasure. We have people here [in the United States] from all over the world. They brought their techniques, enthusiasm, culture, and out of them we have developed and created a cuisine.

``It's very important for us to both respect the past and to look with enthusiasm toward the future. We shouldn't make the mistake, however, of embalming our food,'' she added, explaining that it's OK for ``foreign'' recipes to be prepared with American ingredients.

Ms. Kafka is all for researching old cookbooks for ideas and education but draws a pragmatic line. ``I have baked in fireplace and beehive ovens, [but] I don't happen to be a Pilgrim, so it's hard for me to overidentify with that culture,'' she said. Asked if she cooked with a microwave oven, she sniffed, ``Reluctantly.''

Martha Stewart finds that American cooking is a matter of heritage. ``I find the most interesting foods . . . are those which stem from one's own tradition and experience. The things we love to eat are the things our mothers and grandmothers made.''

Barbara Tropp -- with all due respect -- would rather forget her culinary heritage. ``In our house, we had paprika and salt. That was it. Mother cooked Swanson TV dinners,'' she said. ``Today food comes from thought and the heart. Today's young chefs are cooking out of intellectual passion, as well as hunger.'' But not, in her case or that of many of her contemporaries, ``from memory.''

``Food,'' according to Bobby Seale, ``is a very broad act of human creativity.'' He remembered his ``Uncle Tom Turner, who had people coming from a hundred miles around just to get a hold of his barbecued ribs and chicken.''

Craig Claiborne perhaps put the cover on the kettle when he said, ``We are the most sophisticated nation in the world where food is concerned. You can, through the stream of cookbooks, cook food that is Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Thai. This is not true in Italy, France, or Germany.

``Where else in the world can you talk to your taxi driver about gravlax, sushi, and guacamole?''

Mr. Claiborne also observed that ``the best quality of cooking is not done by professionals. It is done by amateurs, where the food and the elevation has been phenomenal.''

So what is cooking in America? Well, there was little agreement on specifics, but general agreement that people care enormously about their food, whether they cook a lot themselves or eat out. They have acquired a knowledge and curiosity from the avalanche of cookbooks, which are found in bathrooms, bedrooms, and on coffee tables, as well as in kitchens. TV chefs are proliferating. Home videotapes are appearing. The best, freshest ingredients are being demanded, and the technology and means to deliver is there. Travel has expanded interest in ethnic and foreign dishes.

Americans, armed with knives and forks, are in the midst of a food revolution.

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