Cookbooks `Mushroom' with a `Pinch' of Folklore / New Books Combine Culture with Global Cuisine for Rich, Poor Folks

Article excerpt

If anyone had said 30 years ago that I would be reading cookbooks some day, I would have suggested some sort of therapy - like a jump in the lake.

In 1956, I was struggling to learn how to cook Campbell's soup without burning it. Meanwhile, Jean Anderson was a classmate at Columbia University. She already was attracting attention with sumptuous meals.

Since then, Anderson has built a career in cookbooks, authoring 12 for major New York publishers. I was reminded of my soup struggles when her latest book, "The Food of Portugal,'' came across my desk.

However, I didn't do anything about it until 10 more cookbooks arrived from various authors and publishers about everything from hot peppers to Dina Shore and her celebrity friends to "White Trash Cooking.''

I thought maybe I better take a look at the business of cookbooks, what with Christmas coming up and unusual gifts hard to find. It's a growing industry, according to Publisher's Weekly, which reported cookbook sales estimated at more than $208 million in 1984, up 15 percent from 1983 and rising.

The average homemaker has 6.8 hardback cookbooks and 8.5 softback cookbooks, said the report.

So, after 25 years as a sportswriter and six in business reporting, I tried something new.

To my surprise, cookbooks have become fascinating in a way I never expected. They seem to have a rich mixture of folklore and tradition these days, adding a generous "pinch" of background to the recipes, which I still don't understand.

While I flat don't care how many figs it takes to make Figos com Presunto in Portugal (sorry about that, Jean), or how many tablespoons of minced green onion it takes for Martin Yan's classic wontons, I loved learning how various cultures are reflected in the culinary arts.

Anderson's work on Portugal, published by William Morro and Co. of New York, was the best, though I certainly admit to some bias. As a former managing editor of "The Ladie's Home Journal,'' and a contributing editor to "Family Circle,'' she is a journalist as well as a great cook. She reported on several dozen trips to Portugal over the last 25 years.

She points out that Portugal's cooking differs extensively from neighboring Spain because of the variety of spices, fruits, peppers and vegetables imported from Portugal's overseas empire starting with Vaco da Gama in the 16th century.

As a result, Portugese cooking is punctuated by "stunning juxtapositions'' such as trout and ham, salt cod and eggs and olives, or clams and sausage.

"Who would have thought to reycle the shimp cooking water with yesterday's bread,'' asks Anderson, "and create a masterpiece known as "acorda de mariscos (a dry soup)?''

Her recipes are often mixed with history, visits to restaurants, folklore of certain provinces and color photos remindful of National Geographic magazine.

A similar work is "The Spanish Table, a Doubleday & Co. work by Marimar Torres of Spain. She describes the various areas of Spain and how the cuisines and wines fit the various cultures and geographic backgrounds.

She debunks the myth that all Spanish food means spicy dishes washed down with tequila or beer. Torres is president of Torres Wines North America and recently was named "wine woman of the year." That means this is a book to sell wine, but it's still a learning experience.

My personal appetite for nostalgia was well fed by "The Illustrated Book of Preserves,'' which was published by Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri of Italy and translated by Sara Harris for Doubleday & Co. It could be renamed, "Tales Mine Grossmuter Told.''

I grew up in a family that "canned'' everything from jellies and preserves to vegetables, including corn on the cob. My late mother-in-law, Inez Conroy, continued the art to her last years in the tiny town of McCurtain, Okla. …