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In Good Taste

The Taste of America by John L. Hess and Karen Hess Grossman Publishers, $8.95, 384 pages

By Marilyn L. Booth

EATING IS BAD for your health, to judge by the public controversy and fear which food has stirred up recently. The Saccharin Question has replaced the Cyclamate Debate, but the same anxieties over cholesterol count, caloric content and carcinogenic tendencies are being expressed. Widespread concern about our food and the need for that concern is evident in past and continuing controversies over mercury in fish, bug spray on tomatoes, too much sugar in baby food, bacterial contamination in canned and frozen foods, red dye in anything. The big swing towards "health foods" is an indicator of this consumer anxiety--every supermarket has its granola, three times as costly as the oatmeal on the next shelf. Good eating, once an economic luxury, is a gain becoming a privilege as the price of coffee rises. But can you really give up the caffeine fix?

When edibles cause controversy, it is usually over their chemical content or price. And that, say Karen and John Hess in The Taste of America, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. As we worry about the additives we are ingesting, we have forgotten about what the chemicals were originally added to preserve. We have been weaned on Instant Breakfast, raised on Tastycakes and Big Macs, and disciplined by the threat of "no dimes for a Dairy Queen." Our "gourmet" restaurants serve prepackaged, precooked Lobster Thermidor. Our cookbooks are compendiums of corporate-test-kitchen press releases. And the average sugar consumption in America--mostly of the refined, characterless variety--is one-third of a pound per day per American, which is more of this "poor nutrient," say the Hesses, than any society in history has ever consumed. And the reason? "Americans are starved for flavor."

"The truth is that good food in America is little more than a memory and a hope," claim the authors in their introduction, entitled "The Rape of the Palate." "We were one of the best-fed countries in the world; we have become one of the poorest." This tragedy, according to the Hesses, is as much the result of myths which Americans have been led to believe as it is the consequence of modern methods of mass food production. The high priests of gourmandise and nutrition--home economists, restaurant critics, cookbook writers, food historians, FDA officials--have all contributed to the mythology which has made us a nation of poor taste. These so-called experts on what we should eat and how we should eat it operate on the basis of deficiencies which "laymen" do not realize: conflicting interests, poor or irrelevant training, snobbery regarding what constitutes "good" food, and above all--dulled palates like the rest of us.

Restaurant critics usually have no background for judging for quality of fare. Home economists never learned to cook in graduate school, and as teachers they carry the convenience food torch. (Everyone learned how to make doughnuts from refrigerator biscuit dough in Junior High.) Cookbook writers generally glean their material from their predecessors, in the process often introducing shortcuts which result in a poor subversion of the original classic. They also normally forget to give credit where credit is due--perhaps out of embarassment, for many of their chefs d'oeuvre were lifted directly from similar collections or, alternatively, from magazine advertisements.

The Hesses give Fannie Farmer, the doyenne of cookbook creators, a sound tongue-lashing for starting a trend which transformed the art of cooking into a cut-and-dried duty:

The advent of Fannie Merritt Farmer was an historic watershed. Before her, women wrote of cooking with love; she made it a laboratory exercise. She embodied, if that is not too earthy a word, all the major ills of twentieth-century culinary teaching. She was the maiden aunt of home economics.

Is nothing--or no one--sacred? But the authors go on to show how Farmer subjected all cooking processes to volume measurement rather than the usual weight system, which is more accurate and also more bothersome. Fannie also was guilty of tempting the gullible American sweet tooth, for she added sugar to many foods, such as bread, which Colonial and European cooks (the Hesses' heroes) had left unsweetened. She performed at least that mission admirably--Fannie Farmer candy stores are to be seen in suburban malls throughout the country.

Ironically, because so few realms of food treatment escape the Hesses' criticism, The Taste of America may almost push the average American eater into the three-pills-day-nothing-more school just because after nearly 300 pages of expose with accompanying invective the invasion and triumph of junk food seems almost unsurmountable. And, after a time, boring. The book suffers on occasion from overexposure, or overexpose as the authors feel compelled to make a number of points over and over, ad nauseum, albeit with different examples. And, while their wit makes enjoyable reading, the sustained sharpness gives the book a flavor of a few too many axes to grind. They pan Craig Claiborne so many times that one begins to wonder if he ever put vanilla flavoring in Karen Hess's martini. Or ketchup on her coq au vin.

Nevertheless, both authors are experienced food critics (Mr. Hess for The New York Times until 1974, Ms. Hess as a freelancer), kitchen artists, and dedicated eaters, and in their round-up of the culinary business in America they've given us much food for thought--all of it spicy.

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