Saturday, January 07, 2012

How insulting to Jamaicans

"Fresh from Wisconsin"
I can't decide which is the most revolting recipe in Best of the Best from California.

Is it the chip shot chicken? (Coat chicken thighs in nonfat sour cream, roll in crushed barbecued potato chips, bake.)

Or is it the Jamaican chicken? (Slather chicken breasts in blend of instant coffee and lowfat vanilla yogurt. Bake. Top with pineapple slices.)

How about the hot chicken salad casserole? (Mix chicken meat, canned water chestnuts, canned cream of chicken soup, chopped hard boiled eggs, rice, and mayonnaise in casserole dish. Top with buttered cornflakes.* Bake.)

See? Impossible to choose. The name for this style of cooking is "American Grotesque."

The other night for my husband's birthday I served the lemon chicken pasta, a recipe Isabel had flagged when she chose the book. It sounded pleasant enough, but with Best of the Best even apparently innocuous dishes can turn out to be deeply weird once you start cooking. To make lemon chicken pasta, you saute sliced chicken breasts and mushrooms, then season the mixture with oregano, lemon juice, and Butter Buds. (If you're unfamiliar with Butter Buds, it's a cheap yellow powder that smells like movie theatre popcorn and supposedly contains no fat but loads of butter flavor.) To the chicken-mushroom-Butter Buds mixture, you add some broth and cornstarch to make a really thick sauce that gives the whole dish the shine and slippery, gelatinous mouthfeel of a Chinese stir fry. My husband said, "This is just terrible."

Fortunately, his birthday cake was somewhat better, a mocha torte that calls for only staple ingredients like nuts, chocolate, flour, and cream. The book is inconsistent like that, veering from the synthetic and outlandish to the respectable and pretty good. Confusing!

the rare dessert recipe that doesn't contain instant pudding, Cool Whip, or a can of  fruit cocktail
But even a pretty good mocha torte can't compensate for the overall heinousness of Best of the Best from California. The authors, Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley, claim to be trying to preserve America's culinary heritage by plucking the most beloved and "popular" recipes from regional spiral-bound cookbooks like The Tahoe Parents Nursery School 40th Anniversary Alumni Cookbook and We're Cookin' in Cucamonga.

A thoughtful anthology of great spiral-bound cookbook recipes would be a wonderful thing, but this isn't it.  No thoughtful anthology would claim that a salad of sugar-free Jell-O, raspberry wine, cranapple juice, crushed pineapple, and pine nuts represents the best of California cooking.

I've made 12 recipes from the book and most of them were either so-so or pretty good. That sounds like a very decent return, but bear in mind those were carefully selected recipes. After perusing the ingredients I was game to tackle Mexican stroganoff and chicken lasagna. But I could not bring myself to make the cream of broccoli  soup spiked with Cheez Whiz. And I had no interest at all in the Tunnel of Spuds meat loaf, which contains hamburger meat, instant mashed potatoes, Parmesan cheese, applesauce, catsup, lemon juice and grape jelly. Call me a food snob. I don't care.

Here are two things I have liked about the book:

a. the recipes are easy

b. I am not even slightly tempted to eat them.

I'm calling it a day with Best of the Best. I may let Isabel choose another title, because I didn't spend very long with this one.

On another subject, if you are in the Bay Area, I am speaking/reading at Omnivore Books in San Francisco on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Please come!

*I have no idea how you butter cornflakes.


  1. What in the world. That meatloaf recipe sounds like a prank.

  2. I can't believe that anyone would publish such a cookbook! Sounds like the worst of the worst of 50's and 60's women's magazine recipes. Better luck on your next adventure. I bet you will appreciate it after this one.

  3. Ugh...Butter Buds? Sounds like the only thing that this truly ghastly cookbook is good for is kindling.

  4. This book sounds hilarious and vile. A funny thing to have as an artifact, but not to eat from. Gross.

  5. I do know how to make buttered cornflakes. Whomp the cornflakes in the food processor. Spread them over the casserole. Pour melted butter over them and bake. Not exactly gourmet but everything tastes good when you pour on melted butter.
    Miss Tipsy, congratulations on your weight loss. Do be sure to eat the minimum calories for your body, probably about 1200 per day, or you body will think it's in starvation mode and you will not be able to lose a pound. Sad but true.

  6. butter buds? grape jelly? whaat? At least now you can say I told you so to your family ;)

  7. No chicken should have to die for those recipes.

  8. Homygosh. I'm drooling over here D:

  9. I just finished reading "Make the Bread..." and then to read the latest installments of your blog is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I don't want to read about you making this processed, boring stuff! I know that you're doing it for a reason, but man what a harsh jump.

    I love the book, though.

  10. Vanilla+chicken=atrocity

  11. I get the feeling that Sandra Lee of Food Network fame is a "silent contributor" to this book.

  12. Butter cornflakes = fake spray butter bleh

  13. P.S. I hope you don't let Isabel choose another cookbook, because that would delay your foray into Owen's choice, the Mozza book, which I'm eagerly anticipating. (I have made the pizza dough, slightly modified for my super-hot oven, and it was pretty amazing.) But, alas, you will probably be tempted to eat the food you will cook from it.

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