Shameless Sterns defend politically incorrect food

October 27, 1991|By Marian Burros | Marian Burros,New York Times News Service

WEST REDDING, Conn. -- Some of us would rather forget the recipes of the 1950s and '60s that we embraced with such enthusiasm.

We blush at what we thought passed for "gourmet," like roast duck with gala soda pop glaze, a recipe that called for a bottle of 7-Up, and noodle doodle and cheese made with canned macaroni and cheese, frozen broccoli and a can of French fried onions.

Not Jane and Michael Stern, who treat meatloaf Wellington and Grand Marnier souffle as equals.

With the publication this month of their 17th book, "American Gourmet" (HarperCollins), the Sterns, pop culture anthropologists and pop culinary historians who celebrate what others discard, have written a culinary memoir for their own generation.

"We are kind of baby boomers from hell," said Mrs. Stern, who will be 45 Thursday.

Her husband's 45th birthday is Saturday.

"We are very self-referential, as horrifying as that is," she said. "We are part of a generation that wants to preserve its recent history and we're concerned about saving it because everyone vilifies it."

In the two decades after World War II, the Sterns write, "a nation once known for square meals and the bluenose abstinence of Prohibition fell in love with deluxe food, vintage wine and the joy ,, of cooking."

Gourmet became gourmania, and France was the chief source of inspiration. Grand Marnier souffle, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic or quiche Lorraine on the table were status symbols.

"In the '50s and '60s, the middle class was yearning to be sophisticated," Mr. Stern said. "That meant travel, foreign films, the sexual revolution, abstract art, gourmet food. The concept of gourmet was popularized even though a lot of it was bogus."

Mrs. Stern added, "We felt we had to write this book because we get furious when trends come in and sweep away everything else. Now quiches, rumaki and lobster thermidor are gone."

Gone, perhaps from the repertories of the culinary trend-setters who root around in lemon grass, cilantro, infused oils and tomato water, but not from bar mitzvahs and church cookbooks.

In 1981 you could still find meatloaf Wellington in "Too Busy to Cook?", a Bon Appetit book whose recipe uses the same refrigerated crescent rolls the Sterns use to embalm their meatloaf.

But Bon Appetit's sauce uses a package of instant gravy mix; the Sterns' sauce is made with Campbell's condensed golden mushroom soup. Such recipes are gone, too, from the files of the "nutritional Nazis," whom the Sterns expect to "come out of the woodwork to decry the butter and cream, the nutritionally incorrect."

They wonder if the book will be "politically incorrect" because of the chapter "Cook Your Way to Romance."

A politically incorrect cookbook? The chapter on seduction and cooking, an emerging sport of the period, quotes from Mimi Sheraton's "Seducer's Cookbook," written in 1962: "What we are concerned with here is the delectable and subtle art of luring, tempting, enticing, leading someone into going to bed with you in the most delightful way possible."

"Basically," Mrs. Stern said, "what that book is about is date rape: how to get someone to go to bed with you through food even though they don't want to." Other such titles: "The Naked Chef," "Playboy Gourmet."

There's no tsk-tsking from the Sterns. "We try to be culture relativists," Mr. Stern said. "If something is stupid and idiotic, we try to let it speak for itself."

"Our childhoods spanned ethnic into purist into convenience cooking," said Mrs. Stern, who grew up in Manhattan, sat on James Beard's lap as a child and was taken to Lutece. Her husband grew up in the Midwest and ate Jell-O molds and cornflake chicken.

Their refrigerator and pantry reflect the dichotomy: Cool Whip, baguettes, Le Slim Cow, blue cheese, frozen coffee yogurt, Spam, sun-dried tomatoes, Starbucks coffee ordered from Seattle. "The true American cooking is a mishmash of purist cooking, ethnic cooking and garbage or convenience cooking," Mrs. Stern said.

On a trip to Shenandoah, Iowa, Mr. Stern said, "We were frequently served fresh berry pies with hand-rolled lard crusts that were topped with Cool Whip."

"There's no laziness involved in using Cool Whip," Mrs. Stern continued, finishing his thought; "they use it because they like the taste."

On their way to fame and fortune as chroniclers of post-World War II America, the Sterns were sidetracked by master's degrees in fine arts. "The day Jane got her degree she stopped painting," Mr. Stern said.

She did do sketches for some of their books and hand-tinted the pictures on the cover of "American Gourmet."

This is the Sterns' first food book since "A Taste of America" in 1988. They deliberately moved between pop culture and food, writing "Elvis World" in 1987 and "The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste" in 1990.

"We hate being type-cast," Mrs. Stern said. "As soon as we start feeling like card-carrying foodies, we rush over to the pop culturalists. We always seem to butt up against the politics of both worlds."

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