It’s been close to 50 years since Helen Witty put on a military uniform and left Los Angeles for good.
A family, some grandchildren and several cookbooks intervened before she returned to Los Angeles last month. It was an occasion to promote her new book, “Home Style Cooking” (Workman Publishing: $22.50; $12.95, paper), and to recapture the smells of and images of times past.
Mention patty pan squash, tiny as buttons--the kind that grew in her mother’s garden in Santa Monica many years ago--and she will pretend to cry. “Boo-hoo,” says this Long Islander. “You don’t know how lucky you Californians are. Sure, we get good stuff on the East Coast, but it’s nothing as varied and beautiful as you find in Los Angeles.”
Mention home-grown avocados, the kind that her mother served sliced on warm whole-wheat toast, or loquats, ripe apricots, quinces in winter, the fruit trees that seemed to erupt in a riot of color the moment the family car emerged from Coldwater Canyon tunnel (when the tunnel was still there), and she’ll bury her head in her hands.
It isn’t just the beautiful produce she’s missed, the exquisite fruits and vegetables that even today are considered exotic elsewhere in the country. It is also, she says, the California sense of openness and freedom to experiment, which shaped her own approach to food. Her previous cookbooks--"Better Than Store-Bought” (co-authored with Elizabeth Colchie), “Mrs. Witty’s Monster Cookies” and “Fancy Pantry,” which earned her a prestigious R.T. Tastemaker Award--may reflect this openness.
“California opened my taste buds and shaped my cooking,” says Witty. “It expanded me as a cook and diner.” Her books take us back to California when orange groves and nut orchards grew on land now paved with houses and laced with freeways. Perhaps more charming than the nostalgic recipes are Witty’s reminiscences, a glimpse of a California that no longer exists:
“We lived in California-style houses on streets edged with palm trees, acacias and jacarandas; there was a many-doored oak icebox in the kitchen (later, a clunky Frigidaire) and a vegetable garden in the back yard. . . . The grocery stores were stores, not supermarkets, and had clerks and counters. Mr. MacCampbell, the egg man, came around with eggs, chickens and walnuts from his place in the San Fernando Valley; the Watkins man visited every few months to sell spices and flavorings; milk and cream came from the Adohr dairy in chilly bottles with little pleated caps that were delivered daily to the built-in box by the back door. Peddlers’ trucks full of vegetables and fruits appeared all year, and in summer, entrancingly, our street was visited every other day by a tin lizzie ice cream wagon piloted by a woman with flaming-red hair. . . .”
“Home-Style Menu Cookbook” is a back-to-basics menu cookbook of favorite American recipes that celebrate honest-to-goodness American cooking. What you get are basic recipes out of the past, beginning with homey breakfast suggestions such as nutty hot cakes and fruited syrup, picnics and cookouts of steamed clams, or classic lobster salad, fresh corn popovers and blueberry pound cake pudding.
Dinners are American, which means they are as varied as the ethnic cuisines that spawned them. A menu entitled “Assimilated Italian Fare” includes antipasto with Jerusalem artichokes, linguine with clams, and white-wine ice with orange-nut cookies, all adapted and assimilated in such a way that no Italian from Italy would recognize. A Cal-Mex dinner starts with Margaritas and goes mix-and-match with chili beans and a Chinese cabbage slaw served with jalapenos.
There are company meals, slow meals you put on a stove and simmer forever (a bean-pot chicken dish served with noodles, for instance) and quick meals of steak with potato pancakes. There are impromptu dishes such as a delicatessen ham you throw together with some Chinese cabbage and an ice cream dessert that will remind anyone of home.
Witty’s lifelong experience with food and cooking pop out at the reader at every turn.
“Take the wares of the Tamale Man, who came around with his steaming containers in quiet Santa Monica when my siblings and I were quite small. My mother, unlike some of her California neighbors--nearly all were transplants from elsewhere--tended to be open to new foods (she was herself an unusually good cook), so thanks to her adventurousness we experienced Mexican food, or at least tamales, while young (just as we experienced avocados and loquats and guavas and ranch-raised rabbit and artichokes and chayote and barracuda).”
And thrown in with it all are words of wisdom, tucked away on most pages in a corner box, that will give you a few tips from an experienced cook.
* “Anyone who doesn’t have a garden patch or who doesn’t live in corn country will do better to use frozen or canned whole-kernel corn--both can be very good--in corn pudding, fritters, oysters, or succotash, instead of risking the disappointment of poor corn on the cob. I want to weep when I see the dreadful ears in supermarkets, ‘fresh corn’ that hasn’t been fresh for several days.” Maybe longer.
* “Please don’t jeopardize the excellence of this simple dish by substituting Alaskan king crab--a good-enough creature no doubt, but not what’s wanted here--and don’t even think of using a crab analog. This fake crab meat is marketed in look-alike chunks made almost entirely from processed white-meated fish imbued with flavors extracted from genuine crab; it’s identifiable at the fish market by the uncanny symmetry of the pieces and the also uncanny red coloring painted on each chunk.”
The nice thing about experienced cooks who write cookbooks is that you can count on their words and not be bamboozled by them. Witty really does know her stuff, because she’s paid her dues in the kitchen with hard work and experimentation for years and years. Not many razzle-dazzle authors can make that claim--they are all show and no substance. Witty is a workhorse cook who was turned loose in the kitchen to make biscuits and help mother with preserves. And because of her own love of cooking, she inspires the reader to pick up a knife, a fork or bowl or skillet to start cooking.
If you don’t, you can always enjoy a vicarious journey through American cooking by reading through the book’s format: breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper and a few feasts. The format may require some studying. There is a bit of confusion in having the recipe ingredients meander from page to page in columns adjacent to instructions, tips and bons mots.
If a journey through American cooking does not inspire you to take up the stove for real mashed potatoes (with garlic and leftovers), pot roast and gravy, ambrosia, carnitas or upside-down fruited ginger cake, there are always the tips:
“If there’s a hand (or a mere thumb) of fresh ginger in the house, a little of it will add liveliness to the flavor of either the upside-down cake or the plain gingerbread. Grate enough of the ginger (peel it only if the skin is tough) to make between one-half and one teaspoon of fine pulp. The best gadget for doing this is one of the most ancient, a small Oriental plaque of white porcelain studded with tiny hooked teeth. Reduce the ground ginger by one-half teaspoon.”
Now that’s another good thing to know.
You can bet, if you are a novice cook, that no guessing is necessary in following instructions of her recipes. You are instructed to oil a dish lightly and told exactly how long to simmer a food, how to transfer a mousse into a souffle dish and how to serve the plate. You are even told how ripe a lemon, tomato or orange should be, and given reasonable alternative ingredients when necessary (heavy cream or undiluted evaporated milk). Details.
It’s the kind of book any bride, young cook or veteran cook who wants to get in touch with basic American cooking will find useful and, more to the point, touchingly entertaining.