FOR ten years, Allison and Margaret Engel have investigated America's small, specialty-food producers. Rounding the country, ordering and tasting foods, writing down the details, these identical twins - both journalists - have documented their discoveries in "Food Finds: America's Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them."
The Engels' latest edition is new and enlarged, profiling more than 400 small businesses that churn out quality foods such as Chugwater Chili (Wyoming) and Cougar Gold Cheese (Washington). With great pride, the authors present their delicious directory, part mail-order and visitor's guide, part historical and nostalgic homage. "It is a grass-roots book," affirmed Allison Engel in a phone interview from her home in Des Moines.
The Engels' original files included some 6,000 companies. They actually looked at 1,500, then honed in on the 400 they considered the best. (After visiting companies, they would go home and mail-order to make sure products came through the way they should.) After the first edition of "Food Finds" came out in 1984, the twins immediately received letters telling of wonderful companies that they had left out. "We felt so guilty," Engel remembers. "How can we not tell people about this wonderful food? That's
why we did a second book. We added 150 new ones."
The criteria? "We wanted primary producers," says Engel. "We didn't want companies that had mass mailings that everybody knew about. We wanted `finds.' " The main concentration was on companies that produced high-quality food and had been in business a long time. "After ten years, most are in it for the long haul," Engel notes. Close to 95 percent of the businesses listed are family-run, or were family-run and then taken over by a longtime employee. "We were also interested in ones that were extraordinar y places to visit ..." Engels notes.
With down-home appeal, the Engels put to shame the snooty, fancy-food companies that flaunt gorgeous packaging and obscure the manufacturing process. "People really want that connection with where your food comes from," Engel says, "so that when they're buying that raspberry jam from Deer Mountain [in Washington] it's so nice to know that [the Graham] family is picking the berries, making jam, and has their label with their name on it."
A food "find" is also affordable. "We found that over and over again - that these foods were bargain-basement price and high quality. It amazes us that they're not better-known," Engel says.
One of the reasons that some of these companies are able to keep prices low is that they hardly ever change their packaging, Engel says. Her and her sister's journey yielded a graphic history of American package design. Grandma Brown's Home-Baked Beans, for example, features a picture of Grandma Brown on each can of beans and soup.
Unlike some modern-day personalities fabricated by marketing consultants, Grandma Brown was a real person - Lulu Brown, a lifelong resident of the Mexico area of New York. Her granddaughter now runs it.
Surprisingly, some of the food finds aren't even available in the supermarkets of the towns in which they are made. Why shouldn't we consider a Register of Culinary Landmarks? Engel asks. "There are these real treasures."
* `Food Finds' (HarperPerennial) sells for $16 in bookstores; $20 by mail (includes postage and shipping): (800) 255-2665.