SALISBURY — When Mitzi Perdue approached the New York publishing house about writing a chicken cookbook, the first reaction was downright scepticism.
"Who would believe that Frank Perdue's wife can cook?" the editor asked. Sure, he scoffed, people will think here's another blonde wife of a high-powered tycoon with a staff of thousands to make her look good.
But Mitzi Perdue is no trophy wife. It doesn't take too long after meeting her to realize that this dynamic woman has the right stuff to be anything she wants to be from a cookbook author to a TV talk show host.
The jacket of "The Perdue Chicken Cookbook," (Pocket Books, $18.95), which pictures this tall, lithe woman with her famous husband, makes her seem like a cross between the perfect farmer's wife and a Junior Leaguer. Wearing a feminine white apron and a broad beauty queen's grin, she looks much younger than her 50 years and seems a compatible match for the credentials on the book flap -- author of five other cookbooks, immediate past president of the 35,000-member American Agri-Women, and former star of "Mitzi's Country Magazine," a Sacramento, Calif., television talk show.
What the book jacket doesn't say is even more revealing. She has an undergraduate degree in government and international law from Harvard Uni- versity and a masters of public administration from George Washington University. A Bostonian and the daughter of the late founder of the Sheraton Hotel chain, she decided to use her inheritance to invest in a California rice farm instead of a stock portfolio. And she recently passed a competency exam on food chemistry and safety that made her her a Certified Culinary Professional.
Obviously, this is one smart chick. And she sure knows her field.
No, she didn't develop the more than 300 recipes in the cookbook. She did what she does best -- she manages, analyzes and compiles data. In this book, she used the same winning formula that she used in her other books.
"The niche that I have developed is going to experts for advice on the particular food," she says, during an interview at the Perdue house. The house, with a grapevine wreath on the door and a unicorn on the porch, looks like an unpretentious ranch home from the front. But the back of the house is typically Eastern Shore -- with a knock-your-socks-off view of Tony Tank Creek, sweeping lawn and tennis courts. She, too, is low key. No huge diamond rings dazzle on her fingers during the afternoon. No fancy car is in her driveway. Her choice is one of those generic-looking gray Buick sedans that could be anything -- Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile.
"If I want a rice recipe I go to a rice grower," she adds. "If I want to know what to do with a tomato, I go to a tomato grower. They know best how to select their crop and what to do with it."
This time she went to the staff at Perdue to find the best chicken recipes and the questions customers most commonly have about chicken -- from freezing and storing to getting the best flavor. She now feels as at home with chicken as she did with the rice she used to produce, but it wasn't always that way.
The first time she began to make a chicken dinner for her new husband, she panicked. After all, this is the man who emphasizes in his TV commercials that it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. And she feared if the chicken wasn't tender, he would get tough.
Frank would be coming home around 6 p.m. and she knew he would be hungry. The 30-year-old oven didn't seem to be heating properly and the new bride started chickening out. She took the easy way out and prepared a meal of salad, pasta and store-bought Perdue Tenders, part of the Perdue Done It! line. But she also made herself a promise.
"In return for letting myself off so easily, I'd make it my business from then on to learn how to make the best chicken every time," she says. "That meant asking Frank every question that popped into my head; getting tips from farmers who grew the Perdue chickens and systematically going through thousands of recipes that Frank has in his files, trying a different one each night."
During the nearly three years that she has been Mrs. Frank Perdue (third marriage for him and second for her), she has learned a lot about chicken and chicken cookery. Likewise, she has kept her promise.
When she started researching, she went to the library and began to notice that no cookbook authors seemed to agree on what temperature to cook chicken for how long. Temperatures would range from 350 to 375 degrees and cooking times varied from 20 minutes to an hour. Typically, cookbook authors just test chicken recipes in their ovens and record how long it took to cook. But ovens can vary as much as 50 degrees in calibration, making cooking times like a game of Russian roulette.