Cookbook Tops Success With Honors

HAPPY EATER

May 24, 1992|By ROB KASPER

New York -- As she sat in a Manhattan restaurant eating Italian breads flavored with truffle oil, Julee Rosso glowed.

Part of her radiance came from the combination of her shoulder-length, dark hair and rosy complexion. Some was an afterglow of the honors heaped on her the night before by America's food world. Rosso and her colleague Sheila Lukins had their "Silver Palate Cookbook" enshrined in the James Beard Foundation's Hall of Fame, and were elected to the foundation's "Who's Who in Cooking in America." The book has sold 2 million copies, and a special 10-year anniversary copy of the book is being sold by Workman Publishing for $9.95.

To be sure, "The Silver Palate Cookbook" is not everybody's cup of chamomile. Folks who bridle at the idea of putting orange juice and creme fraiche in their mashed potatoes might agree with one critic who objected to what he called the authors' tone of "tra-la-la yuppiness."

Still, the imagination of its recipes has been widely praised. The book's once-groundbreaking format of putting asides about the recipes in the margins has become standard operating procedure in the cookbook business. Caterers regularly steal from it, even if they recast the recipes. And for many, the cookbook has taken the fear and loathing out of home entertaining.

Rosso is lively. And at lunch the day after the gala, she freely told the tale of "the book." It was born, Rosso said, as the result of an offhand comment made at a press lunch. The lunches were one way Rosso and Lukins had thought up of getting their Silver Palate products and storefront catering operation better known.

At one such lunch, Barbara Plum, an editor at Vogue, told Rosso and Lukins, "You really ought to write a cookbook." Rosso responded, "We're working on one." It seemed like the thing to say, Rosso recalled, even though it wasn't true. It turned out Plum also worked for Workman Publishing Company, and she pressed Rosso and Lukins for an outline of their supposed cookbook.

And so one long weekend Rosso and Lukins got together and brainstormed. Relying on both the cost-out cards they used to figure out how much to charge for dishes and a bottle of Scotch, they hammered out an outline, Rosso said.

When the outline was accepted, they used the advance to test the recipes, Rosso said. Michael McLaughlin, now a cookbook author, was then a Silver Palate employee. At first "the book" was not well received, Rosso recalled. "It was considered radical," she said. "It didn't have photographs. Cookbooks were supposed to have photographs. Instead it had Sheila's drawings. And it had all that stuff in the margins."

Even their publisher, Peter Workman, didn't think the book would be a big seller, Rosso said. As it turned out, the drawings and asides in the margins were major factors in the book's success.

"It looked friendly, and charming," Rosso said. "It made people curious."

And it was the right book at the right time. At a time when people were discovering herbs and rediscovering fresh produce, here was a book that was positively leafy. And at a time when the economy was buoyant, here was a book urging you to float blueberries in Champagne. And instead of lectures from stern European chefs, here were two home-grown girls with imaginative recipes and flair.

"We knew we had something," Rosso said, when in the summer of 1982 a New York friend came from vacation with the news that everyone in Lake Tahoe was cooking from "The Silver Palate." That meant book sales were being pushed by word-of-mouth recommendations, she said, the best kind a cookbook can get.

Since publishing "the book," Rosso and Lukins have written "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook" (Workman $12.95) and "The New Basics Cookbook" (Workman $18.95). (They also write a monthly column called "Simply Delicious" for Parade magazine.)

Their lives are not all black-tie galas and truffle-oil lunches. Lukins, who was recently felled by an aneurysm, is teaching herself to walk again. Rosso said her father was stricken by a similar illness a few years ago.

NB As for her next project, Rosso said, it is a "light cookbook."

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