IF YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE who gets hysterical when someone is invited to dinner, relax and listen to Lee Bailey.
Sure, you say, it's easy for him. He's an interior designer and a wonderful cook, who has produced a slew of cookbooks that are beautiful enough to push Martha Stewart's tomes right off the coffee table.
But this oh-so-charming Southern gentlemen who retains his Louisiana charm despite his sophisticated years in the Big Apple asks you to look more closely at those beautiful photographs in his nine books on food and entertaining.
"In several cases you will notice cracked pies or souffles that have fallen slightly," he said last week in Baltimore on a tour to promote catfish. "Neatness is tremendously important, but it shouldn't be contrived. We don't adjust the food. We just cook it like you will and make it look the way it comes out."
Food, he said, should look beautiful but real. Over-styling is obscene, he said, because it puts pressure on average cooks, making them feel like they can't possibly measure up to this standard of perfection.
In fact, many times people get all nervous about inviting friends over to share a meal because we forget what the point of entertaining is supposed to be.
"People today are using restaurant food as a criteria because they grew up in households where their mothers didn't cook," he said. "They have been encouraged to produce food as art and anything less is construed as a failure. It's a lot of baloney. You go to a restaurant and pay a lot of dough and that's what you expect.
"But home cooking is different. Neatness is the main thing. Entertaining is a way to get together with friends and have an interchange with friends. The food, the flowers and the way the apartment looks are secondary. A lot of people think the dinner party is the food, it isn't. It's the people."
Even some failures are good, he added, admitting that his friends are still talking about the perfectly terrible turnips and cheese dish he made years ago.
Whether you are learning to cook for your family and friends or for special entertaining, he emphasized keeping things simple. Let your family be the testers. Never try anything new for guests.
"If all you know how to do is make a meat loaf, make the best meat loaf you can and serve it simply with a baked potato and salad and buy dessert," he said. "Then you can build from there. Maybe next time you can make meat loaf with peppers or something a little more daring."
Or maybe you could saute a little catfish. Catfish? Did we say catfish? Lee Bailey, who fished for wild catfish when he was a child growing up in Louisiana, is now promoting a different kind of catfish on a 10-city media tour for the Catfish Institute. The institute is a trade association of catfish farmers and feed manufacturers based in the Mississippi Delta region.
Old timers would never serve catfish to company. It just wasn't done. Catfish received a bad rap in the past because it was considered downscale, associated with the food of the poor who had little other choice. Wild catfish was shunned by the environmentally conscious because it is a bottom feeder, LTC scooping up less than desirable unmentionables from the bottom of polluted lakes and rivers.
But not only did the old-style catfish have social and environmental stigmas, it looked funny -- rolled in cornmeal, fried and served with the head on. The taste was inconsistent, varying with its diet and often described as muddy, oily and strong. The flesh was dark and unappealing.
But these days, catfish has undergone a make-over fit for the finest white tablecloth restaurants. In fact, according to a Gallup poll done for the National Fisheries Institute, catfish was the fifth most popular seafood eaten last year.
"The way catfish is raised today makes the flavor better," he said. "They are raised in clay ponds fed by artesian wells and the water is aerated so that it is kept fresh. And they are fed with protein pellets that float on the top of the water so we have turned bottom feeders into top feeders."
Because of the controlled feeding, the flavor of farm-raised catfish is mild and sweet, without a fishy odor or taste. The fish is high in nutrients, low in calories and cholesterol, and versatile.
Mr. Bailey demonstrated how easy preparing catfish can be even for amateur cooks. The fish fillets are firm enough for pan frying or sauteing, he says, but you have to pay attention so you don't overcook them. All it takes is a few minutes on each side to fry the fillets. The fish should be golden on the outside while moist and flaky inside.
As part of his promotion of catfish, he has written a brochure, "The Fish with Impeccable Taste." For a free copy, send name and address to: Lee Bailey Brochure, P.O. Box 3376, Grand Central Station, New York, N.Y. 10163-3376.