Shiela Lukins steps out on her own to put foreign tastes on American tables. MIXED FEELINGS

June 08, 1994|By Kathie Jenkins | Kathie Jenkins,Los Angeles Times

It's October and Sheila Lukins is feeling harassed. Her first solo book is supposed to be published in April, and the galley proofs have just come back from the copy editors with a thousand questions still to be answered.

What size tomato?

What kind of apple?

How much does that fennel bulb weigh?

Now she has to go to a market, buy a bulb of fennel and weigh it. Her physical therapist is coming by four times a week to work on the muscles she screwed up by not walking correctly after a stroke. And she still has to find the time to pack for a quick trip to Paris to visit her daughter.

On top of that, she's worried about how the book will be received. Just last spring her one-time business partner and former co-author Julee Rosso put out a solo book, "Great Good Food," and got trashed in the press.

Ms. Rosso, who pocketed an advance reported to be $625,000, insisted that she and four assistants tested 1,500 recipes in 10 months to select the 800 used in the book. Her detractors said that was impossible. No matter, Crown Publishing won't talk specifics but reveals that the thick paperback of low-fat recipes has been a fast seller: Since last April the book has sold about 500,000 copies.

So was the book really that bad, or was it a matter of the food establishment -- the "Food Mafia," as many call it -- taking sides in the professional divorce of a couple that helped change the way America eats?

In 1977, the dynamic duo -- Ms. Lukins the caterer and Ms. Rosso the marketer -- co-founded the Silver Palate in Manhattan, one of the first gourmet take-out shops in the country. The highfalutin home cooking they pioneered contributed to a radical change in baby boomer eating habits. Sauteed chicken livers with blueberry vinegar, caviar eclairs, pizza pot pie and pesto by the quart were suddenly the rage from Boca Raton, Fla., to Bellingham, Wash. To date, their three Silver Palate cookbooks have sold more than 5 million copies.

By the time the partnership ended, shortly after the sale of their shop in 1988, the pair were barely speaking. "We were great friends," says Ms. Lukins, "It's over now."

After the breakup, Ms. Rosso moved to Michigan and discovered yogurt cheese, while Ms. Lukins began traveling and researching her "All Around the World Cookbook" for Workman, the publishers of the original Silver Palate books.

"I wish with all my heart that Julee's book had been nicely received because everyone is going to want to see how the other one did," Ms. Lukins says. "I'm sure I'll be scrutinized

plenty. . . . And I did not get a huge advance!"

But make a few calls to key people in the food world and you'll find no one filing their nails in anticipation of the Lukins release, as they did with Ms. Rosso's book. Ms. Lukins, who is 51, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1991 and, according to Pat Adrian, who buys books for the Book of the Month Club, the "Food Mafia" rushed to be loyal to her. It took two operations and weeks of therapy before Ms. Lukins was able to leave a wheelchair. "I'm happy not to be dead," she says.

Ms. Lukins is hoping the world is ready for Peloponnesian lamb shanks and Moroccan marmalade, but she's not sure. Her publisher thinks so -- it has announced a first printing of 350,000, believed to be a record for a cookbook. "A huge amount of my pride is involved in this book," says Ms. Lukins. "I just didn't want this book to be another clone [of the others]. Those books are great, fun, and fine but they are what they are. I wanted to do something different."

Yet, the book is unmistakably in the Silver Palate format, down to the little drawings (although Ms. Lukins wasn't the illustrator on this book, as she was on the others) and boxed sidebars. Even the ethnic-inspired recipes are reinterpreted for the American kitchen, in Silver Palate fashion. There are very few ingredients called for in the book that aren't readily available in Omaha, Neb.

But then Ms. Lukins did not intend to go around the world and bring back the strictly authentic recipes of each country. Instead, she took the best of what she found and created food.

Ms. Lukins developed her cooking ability when her husband, Richard, who ran a security business, was transferred to England. A bored housewife, Ms. Lukins enrolled in cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu to occupy her time. The following year, Mr. Lukins was transferred to Paris, and Ms. Lukins signed up for more classes. "That's the way to learn," she says. "In Paris I took cooking lessons and French lessons during the day and then cooked for my darling husband at night."

Back in New York and raising two daughters in the Dakota Apartments, a bachelor in the building called one night in a panic. He had invited a group over for dinner and the superintendent's wife, who usually cooked for him when he had guests, was on vacation.

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