Quick-Fixes

The year is 1961, and people are not very interested in cookbooks. Only 49 cookbooks were published the year before, and even the redoubtable Julia Child is having a difficult time getting her first manuscript, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, accepted for publication. (The editors at Houghton Mifflin who originally gave her a $250 advance for the book have turned it down twice.) Things look grim until finally an editor at Knopf decides to take the book.

Since then, Julia Child's book has gone on to sell more than two million copies, and the book industry has undergone a sea change in its ideas about cookbooks, recognizing them as notable moneymakers for the publishing industry. Talk to an editor about a book of poetry and watch him or her doze off. But mention the words "celebrity cookbook" and dollar signs suddenly appear in the eyes. Cookbooks of all sorts have become big stuff, and the industry is publishing some 280 this fall season alone.

Why do people buy cookbooks? "Probably 75 percent of the cookbooks we sell," says Gayle Shanks of Tempe's Changing Hands Bookstore, "will be given as gifts. Wedding showers are big. People like to give cookbooks to children going off to college. Mother's Day and even Father's Day are big. And, of course, people give them during the holidays."

Yes, people are buying cookbooks, but are they actually cooking with them? Hard to say, but one popular new culinary-lit category apparently is being pressed into service.

"We have more and more people coming in," says Shanks, "looking for ideas on fixing dinners that you can start as soon as you walk in the door." The enormous modern stress we're under to cook the daily meal quickly is reflected in a specialized category on the bookstore shelves, reserved for "quick and easy" cookbooks. Their titles explain it all: Cooking to Beat the Clock, Quick Mexican Cooking, Fresh 15 Minute Meals and even Florence Henderson's Shortcut Cooking. Quickies by Minda Rosenberg also turned out to be about cooking, by the way.

The need for speed has invaded our crazy, hectic lifestyles to such an extent that after a busy day at the office, we keep the same pace when we approach the kitchen. We're a country of fast drivers, fast talkers and fast eaters, so why not fast cookers? As a household cook who has the number for Nello's Pizza programmed on my telephone's speed dial next to 911, I appreciate that dialing has become an essential culinary skill for many of us. But don't you hate it when you order food to go and they recognize your voice? Practically speaking, the best alternative to quick dialing is probably quick cooking.

If you find yourself reading parenting magazines instead of gourmet magazines, here's the book for you. The anguished title Desperation Dinners! The No-Time-to-Cook Cookbook, by working mothers Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross, offers some 250 recipes with the promise that they are not difficult, do not require expensive equipment (beyond a microwave), can be made from start to finish in 20 minutes and--most important--taste good. Apparently, there is some sort of life beyond serving electrocuted hot dogs to the kiddies.

What's the concept behind fixing Minute Minestrone Soup or even Garlic-Roasted Salmon? It begins with a sad commitment to using less fresh food. If you want to save time, go to the grocery store only once a week. Stop using fresh herbs (they take too long to wash, clean and cut up). Instead, pick up a bottle of dried Italian herb mix. Start developing a healthy respect for the salads in a bag you can find now in the produce sections. Of course, you're already using the peeled baby carrots, the shredded coleslaw and sliced mushrooms, aren't you? Don't buy regular cheese--buy shredded cheese. If it comes frozen, canned or bagged, it's probably listed in this book's ingredients.

Of course, such foods have their place in the kitchen but are certainly not the most economical. There is a price to be paid for speed. In the car, you get speeding tickets; in fast cooking, you get higher grocery bills. Not only is this stuff expensive, it's much lower in quality: Frozen does not taste better than fresh, but if you're desperate enough, it'll do.

Some of the quick cookbooks are just plain goofy. Take Lickety-Split Meals: For Health Conscious People on the Go by Zonya Foco. On one hand, she has some wise tips on how to organize your kitchen, includes a grocery store shopping list and offers tips on healthful shopping. (Look for a spaghetti sauce with five grams or less of fat and 800 mgs or less of sodium per cup.) But then she'll turn around and tell you to make your own homemade turkey sausage. Sure, it's a more healthful ingredient to use, but you just don't make it "lickety-split."

Consider her suggestion for a Friday night veg-out dinner with her husband: guiltless nachos supreme. Munch on raw carrots, broccoli and cauliflower while chopping onions and green peppers and opening cans of beans and chiles. Then, after spreading this over baked tortilla chips and reduced-fat shredded cheese to bake in the oven, you are to play "Macho Man," by the Village People, changing the words to "Nacho Man." Dance around the kitchen and add a series of jumping jacks and sit-ups while waiting for the dish to heat up in the oven. Follow with grapes for dessert. I don't know about you; at our house, we would not enjoy doing this.

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