Two Tomes Set the Tone for US Dinner Bells

The reissue of a pair of classic cookbooks have American cooks smacking their lips.


Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker


1,136 pp., $30


Madeleine Kamman

William Morrow & Co.

1,228 pp., $40

By the time the holidays roll around, home cooks have already dusted off their tattered old culinary guides in preparation for dinner parties, holiday functions, and new twists to keep the dinner table interesting. The powers in the publishing arena seem all too aware of this trend, no doubt observing also that cookbooks make popular Christmas and host presents.

Two cookbooks that are most anticipated this holiday season are the long-awaited "Joy of Cooking" revised by editor Maria Guarnaschelli with help from Ethan Becker, son and grandson of the original authors, and a host of all-star American cooks, and "The New Making of a Cook" by Madeleine Kamman, which has undergone many of the same updating concerns as Joy, but in the hands of one author.

Because both cookbooks have deep roots in American cooking and can already be found on the shelves of kitchens everywhere, their revisions must maintain the integrity of the original while acknowledging the progress our culture and cuisine have made in the last 20 to 30 years.

Shoppers looking for one cookbook to buy this year will have a tough time choosing between these two, but the good news is, it is not possible to make a bad choice.

Last revised in 1975, Joy of Cooking has burned its logo into the consciousness of millions of home cooks. Perhaps for this reason, the outward appearance of the book has not changed much in the last 22 years. But the innards have been updated, rewritten and, in some cases, discarded, due in large part to Ms. Guarnaschelli's earnest efforts to make it a contemporary encyclopedia for cooks of all abilities.

One of Guarnaschelli's goals was to make the daunting old tome an easier, more logical read, which entailed trimming fat (literally and figuratively) from the original glut of recipes and omitting many of the cross-references and runic icons that have frustrated home cooks for decades. The new fonts are clean and easy to read, and the recipes themselves deeply researched and concisely explicated.

There will be critics, of course, who will pore over the new Joy looking for their favorite recipes that have since been bowdlerized. Die-hards looking for classics like Tomato Aspic and Boston Baked Beans will not be disappointed, but those looking for all nine preparations of chicken livers will now find only three.

Eliminating the cross-references has made it possible to create a complex dish without flipping all around the book (accordingly, only one of the two trademark red ribbon bookmarks remains). A recipe for Grilled Pork Chops, for example, suggests three complements to the dish, all of which can be found in the 30-page "Condiments, Marinades & Dry Rubs" chapter. A similar "Stocks & Sauces" chapter, which is also referenced throughout, might appear skimpy, but many simple sauces are included in individual recipes.

One thing fans of the original will miss is the sense of humor and parlor-esque narrative voice. Karen MacNeil's new section on entertaining may sound a bit crude in comparison with the old Becker charm, but opening sentences like Marion Becker's "When you are entertaining, try not to feel that something unusual is expected of you as a hostess" don't exactly ring true in today's America. In a Monitor interview last year, Guarnaschelli herself admitted, "That's the kind of thing we're bringing out the shotgun for."

Illustrations that were line drawings are now, thanks to Laura Hermann Maestro, stippled and three-dimensional - a big plus for chapters like "Fish," which includes renditions of almost every edible fish caught in North American waters. Yet the simplicity of the drawings still demystifies some of the more exotic ingredients and laborious processes, such as forming a brioche.

Like the "Joy of Cooking," The Making of a Cook has progressed considerably since its last publication in 1971. Where the new Joy may have lost some personality, Kamman's guide has enhanced its friendly tone, supplying plenty of explanatory text as well as margin notes that outline methods, histories, and ingredients in a comfortable, anecdotal voice. On the other hand, you can learn (roughly) how to cure olives in Joy, but you will find only what to do with already-cured olives in "The New Making of a Cook."

That said, Kamman's recipes - gleaned from her own vast repertoire as well as numerous sources encountered while traveling - push the envelope of experimentation and flavor while adhering to basics. There is a recipe for Simple Grilled Sweetbreads next to an exquisite recipe for Sweetbreads in Light Tea Smoke, for example, the latter combining the fantastic flavors of Oolong tea, baby artichoke, lemon, and veal stock with a graceful complement of noisette butter. This balance of practical and fanciful makes this reference an invaluable resource for home cooks who fall somewhere between beginner and gourmet.

Unlike Joy, this book's line drawings haven't progressed much, although they are moderately helpful in understanding such things as meat cuts and unusual kitchen utensils. Overall, there are few illustrations, indicating that the text here is sufficiently descriptive. For the most part, that is true. Kamman's profound experience as a culinary school founder and teacher comes across without seeming overly pedagogical.

The only limitation of "The New Making of a Cook" - and the greatest point of demarcation between it and the new Joy - is the relative absence of foods from "beyond the Continent," denying Asian, Indian, Latin American, and African influences their place in the culinary panorama.

Only in her chapter entitled "A Multinational Society" does Kamman tip her hat to foods of Arab, Indian, Spanish, and Far Eastern origin. Under the subhead "Far Eastern Cuisines and Sauces" she purports, "I have ... made use of many ingredients from foreign countries and civilizations, and blended them in a very Western manner," but later she explains, "I have never felt adequate to present really original ideas coming from China, Japan, or Korea, for sheer lack of true deep personal knowledge and documentation."

This shortcoming notwithstanding, it is hard to criticize Kamman for lack of thoroughness. She remains one of the most creative and diligent workers in the culinary field today and will be considered one of its greatest contributors.

* Evan F. Mallett, a freelance food writer and fine home cook, lives in Concord, Mass.

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