USA Cookbook

by Sheila Lukins

Workman Publishing, 1997. 605 pages, 600 recipes.

Go To Cookbook Archive

Fresh Salmon and Potato Salad

Lentil-Barley Vegetable Stew

Anne Rosensweig's Watermelon Salad

Plum Tart with Ginger Crust

Delicate Cauliflower Salad

Garden Orzo Salad

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Slightly Off The Subject

Speaking of Americana, I don't know if writing "the great American novel" is still something that writers and would-be's aspire to. And maybe that term dates itself because it implies that one novel alone could definitively capture the American experience. Some of the great American novels in recent years capture that vivid "stranger in a strange land" experience of recent immigrants in the U.S. Some of my favorites are Maxine Hong Kingston's TheWoman Warrior and Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and Oscar Hijuello's Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love .

There are some other American novels where you can practically see the particular landscape on every page. New York City is virtually embedded in the DNA of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and Tom Wolf's Bonfire of the Vanities . (Even with a century's time between Wharton and Wolf, not much has changed in New York society except the clothes.) The American West has always inspired good writers (and bad). For Willa Cather, the harsh midwest plains define the characters and their lives in O Pioneers. And Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose without the wide unsettled (and unsettling) open spaces would be unimaginable. (I think this book has the most fascinating and believable portrayal of the long duration of a marriage I've ever read.)

No one can accuse Sheila Lukins (co-author of the legendary Silver Palate cookbooks) of being an underachiever. Her latest creation, a 5 lb., 600-recipe tome, is the result of her cross-country travels as she tracked down "oldest, newest, boldest, most authentic, best American fare". The resulting USA Cookbook certainly does cover a dizzying amount of culinary and geographic ground from the traditional Southern Grits Souffle to a contempory Alaskan Salmon Potato Salad. But even Lukins' enormous energy and enthusiasm can't accomplish the impossible task of covering such an exhaustive culinary itinerary in one book.  

I wish her editor had told her to forget about dutifully recording regional standards and other familiar classics like Glazed Country Ham and Strawberry Shortcake; you can find those in other cookbooks. Lukins wasn't born to be a chronicler; she's an innovator. I want the kind of delicious, exciting Lukins-esque recipes that made the Silver Palate books so popular: dishes that are different without being weird; special without being complicated; impressive without being pretentious.

Happily, there are plenty of Lukins' signature bright, flavorful recipes in USA. She gives a traditional plum tart a salutatory wake-up call with a zing of ginger. Her take on gazpacho, an inspired combination of roasted and fresh vegetables, stands out from the many gazpacho interpretations I've seen in other cookbooks. Lukins also proves she can adapt her cooking to the less-meat spirit of the times. While the Silver Palate books had few meatless entrees, she has some terrific ones in here. The flavors of the Lentil Barley Vegetable Stew are wonderfully fresh and clear, and her Vegetable Chili is substantial as a chili should be without sinking into your stomach like a viscous brick (as chili often does). Lukins at her best is hard to beat, and even her less than stellar dishes are awfully good. She's has created some out-of-this-world stews in previous books, but I don't think her Pork Ragout in USA makes it out of the "very good" category. Likewise, her Zucchini and Swiss Chard Soup just misses the mark for me.

You could argue that the best of the recipes in USA Cookbook, the ones where Lukins' style shines, don't have a definitive American character as, say, Boston Brown Bread or Deep South Catfish. On the other hand, the Lukins/Silver Palate style of cooking helped define a new kind of American cooking in the 70's and 80's as those distinctive red-and-white books took their place on kitchen shelves all across the USA. In the end, Lukins' signature recipes really are as American as, say, apple pie....with maybe a little ginger added.