Back To Basics With Meals Like Mom Used To Fix

October 21, 1990|By Charlyne Varkonyi

We've had it. We have been frou-froued to death. If we see one more dish that is a weird aberration of a classic, we're going to start screaming like Peter Finch in "Network." A lot of us are as mad as hell and we aren't going to take this silly pretension any more.

No more creme brulee tostadas. No more green pea guacamole. No more squid ink pasta. No more fussy food.

We want real food like Grandma used to make -- meatloaf and creamy mashed potatoes, hearty stews, chicken pot pie. Even Jell-O mold desserts and seven-layer salads are starting to look good again.

These classics may have started sneaking back into many of the weekday family menus for the past few years, but now we are realizing the pressure is off and it's OK to make real food for real people who aren't our relatives.

Welcome to the return of nostalgia entertaining. Mom food is back. Suddenly we are trading Martha Stewart for Betty Crocker.

Jane and Michael Stern, authors of "Square Meals" (Knopf, 1984) and the "Taste of America" syndicated column, have been preaching this back-to-the-basics philosophy for more than a decade. They made a reputation praising the joys of meatloaf and the silliness of baby vegetables. But it wasn't until recently that food-conscious people agreed.

When "Square Meals" was published at the height of America's "art on the plate" obsession, the authors wondered if anyone would buy their book.

"Jane and I and the publicist were talking about the book and wondering how many copies should be printed," says Michael Stern. "We thought maybe we should print three -- one for each of us."

Thankfully for their pocketbooks, the joke was not a premonition. The book sold 75,000 copies in hard and soft covers and is still selling. But they were ahead of their time. America's love affair with pretentious food didn't start to sour until the stock market crash in October 1987. After the crash, even the big spenders began to rethink their economic priorities. Restaurant receipts dipped and Americans came home to down-home thinking.

"Now that the 1980s are gone, the whole decade of materialism is gone," Mr. Stern says. "Things used to be appreciated for their status value and people were striving to live up to their materialistic ideals. . . . Now people are more willing to let their belt out a notch, sit on a whoopee cushion and enjoy themselves."

But it isn't just a willingness to let our hair down. Back-to-basics food is bound to get a boost from the depressed economy. As economists talk recession, shoppers are forced to head for the ++ macaroni and cheese instead of the filet mignon.

"Not only are people tired of this kind of food, they just cannot afford truffles and squid ink pasta," Mr. Stern says. "Today these things seem like such a wasteful indulgence and often they are not nearly as satisfying as a good pot roast."

Indeed, six years after the Sterns' book was published, both economics and attitudes have changed. As a result, more and more cookbook authors are elevating the basics to new heights.

*In the recently revised "Fanny Farmer Cookbook" (Knopf, $24.95), author Marion Cunningham praises "good cooking" and says it's time to forget about gourmet food. She says that we have gained a new respect for the classics and this 13th edition restored many old favorites that were excluded in other editions -- from wasp nest cookies to Parker brownies.

*"Betty Crocker's Old-Fashioned Cookbook" (Prentice Hall Press, $17.95), declares baked beans or chicken and dumplings as "heritage cooking" -- the kind of food that never really goes out of style. But the classics are slightly updated for the 1990s with excessive amounts of fat and salt reduced for these more health-conscious times.

*"Irena Chalmers' All-Time Favorites: A Lifetime of Recipes for the First-Time Cook" (Prentice Hall Press, $19.95) focuses on recipes that the author says reflect today's return to the foods of our childhood.

"These are the kind of food that people really want to eat," says Ms. Chalmers, who recently participated in a food trend think tank. "Gradually, I think a home-cooked meal is going to be the best invitation in town."

Simple food can also be liberating. No need to worry about polishing silver or ironing a fancy tablecloth for guests if you don't want tofuss. You have the option to keep the presentation simple -- with place mats and pottery.

"I don't think you need to bend over backward," says Rebecca Atwater, a senior editor at Prentice Hall Press who worked on "Betty Crocker's Old-Fashioned Cookbook."

"Dress the table in whatever way makes you the most comfortable. When the food is relaxed, you can create a Sheridan period with silver in the middle of the table or use chipped blue and white china. There are no rules or special compliments for this way of life. Just relax. I hope people can leave the need to impress behind them."

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