When asked precisely what I do for a living I'm always tempted to reply "collect cookbooks." For, without exaggeration, I receive and give shelf space to several hundred volumes a year, sent to me from publishers throughout the country. Each hoping, I might add, for some small sprig of praise with which to garnish the back of a particular book jacket.
Most of these tomes do not even tempt me to mark down a recipe, no less enter the kitchen. Nonetheless, each one is carefully scanned. Why? Out of obligation. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a precept not taken lightly by anyone who has ever anguished over a cookbook of one's own.
Not all the books are bad. Some become the source of dishes that eventually appear in this column. Others provide bits of culinary trivia or information. But rarely do I find one that I really want to read from cover to cover or use as the basis for a shopping list.
However, I found such a book recently. "Vibration Cooking or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl" by Verta Mae Smart-Grosvenor (Ballantine: $3.50) is an unlikely candidate for the best-seller list. But this undersize paperback, minus glossy color photographs and short on formal recipes, has more kitchen wisdom and real ethnic endowments than any other so-called volume on American food published in years.
A Cult Classic
This book is actually a long out-of-print manual, republished 15 years after it became a cult classic. A compendium of the life and stove times of a black woman whose spunky soul rather than her ability to cook soul food propelled her from the minuscule village of Fairfax, S.C., to Paris, Rome and Brazil.
Smart-Grosvenor isn't a Julia Child but she doesn't have to be. Her recipes are often short and snappy but at heart a testament to 300 years of Afro-American endurance and survival. And anyone who has never tasted a plate of honest-to-goodness barbecued ribs, collard greens, fried okra or short'nin' bread is advised to acquire her counsel on these and other down-home dishes.
Smart-Grosvenor writes: "Everyone has their own way of frying chicken." She's right but rarely will you find a more unusual or tonic fry--straight from her book--splashed with orange soda pop during cooking. My version of her dish received a splash of lemon juice to cut the sweet taste. SMOTHERED CHICKEN OVERSTREET
1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 to 4 tablespoons peanut oil
1 (12-ounce) can orange soda
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Season chicken pieces to taste on both sides with salt and pepper. Place flour in paper bag. Add chicken pieces. Shake until pieces are well-coated with flour.
Heat butter with 2 tablespoons oil in large heavy cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add chicken pieces, about half at a time. Saute until golden brown on both sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer to plate and saute remaining chicken pieces, adding more oil as needed. Transfer to plate.
Pour off excess grease from skillet. Return chicken pieces and add soda, stirring and scraping sides and bottom of skillet. Heat to boiling, reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, until chicken is tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
Remove cover and increase heat. Add lemon juice and hot pepper sauce. Simmer, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Makes 4 servings. BILL LARKIN'S LIMA BEANS
1 (16-ounce) package dried baby lima beans
1 1/2 pounds smoked pork meat (ham hocks, neck bones)
1 large onion, stuck with 6 cloves
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh sage or dash dried sage
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Pick over lima beans and rinse under cold water. Place in large pot with pork, onion with cloves, carrot, garlic and bay leaf. Add water to cover by 2 inches. Heat to boiling, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until beans are tender and all liquid is absorbed, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Remove pork, onion with cloves and bay leaf. Discard any fatty portions of pork, then cut meat into strips and return to beans. Remove cloves from onion. Chop onion and return to beans. Discard bay leaf. Stir in parsley, sage and butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 6 to 8 servings.