THE ONLY tangible presence of the institute on campus is in a place where undergraduates fear to tread--the rare-book col lection of the university library. The 850-volume Simon-Lowenstein collection, which some scholars call the finest accumulation of culinary books in the country, was bought by the institute for $120,000--a big capital outlay for a fledgling scholarly organization.
The collection includes virtually complete runs of the cookery works of the major French authors, including two from the 19th Century: Brillat-Savarin, the country lawyer who wrote "The Physiology of Taste," and Antonin Careme, who defined architecture as "one of the sub-categories of cake decorating." There's a rare first edition of "The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected," published in 1661 and considered to be the first modern cookbook in English, as well as a copy of Mary Randolph's "The Virginia Housewife" from 1824, the first work devoted to American regional recipes.
The volumes are kept in a humidity- and temperature-controlled vault. One food professional carps that the library is indicative of the problems the organization has. "They've got all these books that (virtually) no one can see," she says.
A book pulled at random from the shelf is by a Mr. Simpson, chef to the Marquis of Buckingham. Published in 1804, it contains the bills of fare for the marquis for an entire year. Under the heading "Larks," it informs the reader: "Larks take about 10 minutes."
IN THE WORLD of food, there's almost universal respect and affection for Julia Child. But while Child wants everybody--even the bus boys--in the world of food to plop down the group's $50 annual membership to further the cause of good eating, the ranks of the American Institute of Wine & Food have remained decidedly upscale. "People working in food don't think it's for them," says a critic. The celebrity chefs who do attend the annual conference also tend to look down their talented noses at the merely wealthy who support the conferences. "Everybody grouses about where they're going to sit," says the critic. " 'Mrs. Rich Rich from Dallas is not going to sit with me!' they sniff."
"The professional food and wine world is small," says executive director D. Crosby Ross, "and soon more people will join. We've done a good job of getting some chefs on board, and it's just the tip of the iceberg."
Founder Jeremiah Tower cooked masses of lobsters at its first big bash on the bluffs above the ocean at UCSB. Robert Mondavi is honorary co-chair with Child. Michael McCarty of Michael's Restaurant in Los Angeles is treasurer and serves on the board of directors. Joseph Coulombe of Trader Joe's was also a founder. Chalone, Sebastiani, Trefethen, Firestone, Jordan and other great family vineyards have pitched in with significant donations. Middle-brow food purveyors, including Campbell Soup Co. and General Foods, have become benefactors. Fritz Maytag, founder of Anchor Steam beer, is big in the San Francisco chapter (there are 10 chapters throughout the country); Hollywood support has come from Vincent Price and his wife, Coral, and the late Danny Kaye.
And though the cooking-and-eating conference is an annual highlight, no one should join "just because they like to drink good wine and eat good food," says Robert Clark, who has been editing American Wine & Food, the institute's monthly newsletter. "There are other organizations for just eating." The charter, after all, mandates "the broad exchange of information and ideas on critical issues in the fields of food and wine."
"The long-term goal is not to be 'academic' about it," Clark says. "It's about creating an atmosphere where that kind of thinking can happen."
In a scant six issues, Clark's 12-page newsletter has created a literary but not pedantic forum for culinary musings. Its contributors all seem to share a sense of wonder at the edible world. Gardening columnist Leslie Land has found Rabelaisian qualities in sprouts: "a growing, root-and-leaf-complete plant that is, oyster-like, alive when consumed." A recent issue featured an essay on the spoon, "the ur-eating tool, the implement from which the other tableware take their cues." Writer John Thorne went on to say that the spoon's "amorphous shape is not only in tune with the softness of the food it most often conveys to our mouths, but offers in itself--alone of all eating tools--a uniquely sensual pleasure."
The Journal of Gastronomy is a more conventional scholarly publication. Now edited by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, formerly a star food writer at the New Yorks Times, its content can range from an expose on cheap Mexican false vanilla, the flavoring of which is closely related to rat poison, to an issue devoted to the facsimile reproduction of "Seventy-five Receipts," written by "A lady of Philadelphia" in 1828. Included is a recipe for oyster pie, calling for "a hundred large fresh oysters, or more if small."
When subject matter becomes too lofty, however, Child is not afraid to criticize. In a letter written last May, she sounded a warning to institute leaders about what she terms "the we-happy-few syndrome: (that) nothing produced for the mass market is worth considering by the cognoscenti, be it coffee, bread, vegetables, wine, or whatever. . . . We should be just as much concerned with bottled mayonnaise, canned chicken broth and jug wines as we are in truffles and foie gras ."
ON THE STEEPEST part of steep California Street in San Francisco, the institute's small staff has temporary offices in a Victorian house surrounding a garden. On a cool spring Saturday afternoon, plans are under way for a series of fund-raisers in Santa Barbara. Institute founders--those who have given between $5,000 and $100,000--are calling in with late reservations. "You'll have to hold them off--we don't have any more room on the bus!" development director Susy Davidson tells a secretary.
"People who drop by figure that we have the greatest lunches here," Davidson says, laughing. "But I usually just have Triscuits and cheese. Or, the other day we all got together and sent out for pizza." Everyone who works with the institute is in some way serious about food. But not too serious.
Ross, 35, the new executive director and a founding member of the institute, began his career in food selling homemade granola and subsequently started a successful culinary emporium in Santa Barbara. Carping among the founders about the institute's lack of direction led to his hiring.
(George Trescher, who followed Graff as AIWF president, was, according to Child, "interested in doing conferences and so forth. But he was not any good with the organization." His successor, Franklin P. Conlan, "was fairly good about the office but knew nothing about food. So we're fortunate now that we've got Crosby--he's got both sides.")
AIWF associate director Greg Drescher grew up in what he calls "a food-oriented family" in Wisconsin. "We had cream from local dairies, wild watercress, wild berries--and I assumed that was how the rest of the world lived, too," he says. His job gives him the freedom to speculate about the importance of eating. he asks. "To many white Americans," he points out, "the taste of chiles is a uniform taste. But to those used to Hispanic cuisines, there is a whole range of tastes in different chiles." As the ethnicity of America changes--as cross-cultural foods like "fajita pitas" appear in fast-food restaurants--tastes change, too.
And the institute believes it can be of use not only to gourmets but also to the massive multinational food producers. A whole generation of middle-class Americans has been liberated, as "Trader" Joe Coulombe puts its, by the advent of the 747 and cheap air fare. It has traveled the world and returned with a taste for exotic cuisines. The slow-moving, mainstream food distributors have had to scramble to keep up. Boston-based Flying Foods, importers of specialty delicacies, was recently purchased by Kraft. General Foods and Campbell Soup pay close attention at the annual AIWF national conferences, where the influential foodies mingle with the small producers of, say, a new mushroom species that may be next year's big thing. The big firms can't afford to ignore new taste trends; billions of dollars in profits are at stake.
ACROSS THE San Francisco Bay in Berkeley is a woman who has done more than any other American restaurateur to cre ate a new cuisine.