Potluck Now, Cookbook Later

Potluck Now, Cookbook Later - An article in the New York Times

MITCHELL DAVIS organized a cookbook party. Once his guests arrived, he began working on the book.

Mr. Davis, 27, a food writer and director of publications for the James Beard Foundation, is writing a cookbook for "young, hip, urban professionals who love food but don't know how to cook or don't have time to cook.'' He pitched the idea of a collection of recipes from people who share his passion for food to his editor at Macmillan, who gave him the go-ahead. Mr. Davis, an avid entertainer, thought the book should include "the kind of dish that you would bring to a party"

"So I thought, 'Why not have a party?' '' he said. He drew up a list of 150 people who he thought would be the audience for his book; friends from the food world and from college, former roommates and co-workers.

He asked them what they liked to cook, and told them to bring the recipe of a favorite dish - and the dish itself. The invitations requested "simple recipes for good food that a novice or an experienced cook would be proud to serve."

Potluck dinners are not new, "but it was interesting to see what people brought,'' Mr. Davis said, adding, "By the dish they made, they told me what they knew about cooking.''

About 125 people crammed into a friend's Greenwich Village apartment recently, bringing 75 dishes (some couples brought only one dish). Several guests were intimidated by having their cooking skills judged, so they didn't bring anything.

Cooks were asked to fill out a release form explaining where they got their recipe, whether there was a story behind it, and stating whether the recipe had been published before.

The publisher wanted to aim the book at younger people, whom Mr. Davis defined as Generation X and a bit beyond. "But it's really for folks who haven't learned to cook but are surrounded by better food," he said. "It's not presuming to teach people to cook, but how to make good food from simple recipes."

With the dishes piled on the main food table, tucked on shelves and balanced on window ledges, the tastings began, led by Mr. Davis, the sole judge. Guests piled their plastic plates high throughout the evening.

Aiding cooks without skills

Food seemed to arrive in the appropriate waves: salads, and dishes like the ricotta clam dip made by Marion Nestle of New York University's nutrition and food studies department dominated at first, followed by a flurry of chicken dishes, including one of the two recipes made by Mr. Davis. Mr. Davis's friend Evelyn Patterson, a vice president at New York University and the party's host, made an aspic with tomatoes she had canned herself. She served it with a "ham mousse" made with Spam.

Mr. Davis offered no guarantees of which guests' recipes would appear in the book, which he says will be published in the fall of 1997. He estimated that he would use half of the recipes from the party and would develop another 125 or so on his own. He rejected the dishes that took too long to make, those that didn't taste good and those, like the flourless chocolate cake with chocolate palm trees, that were too complicated.

Instead of dividing the book into appetizer, entree and dessert categories, Mr. Davis plans to organize it by "primary ingredients and situations." For instance, there will be sections on dishes for large parties, what to serve for breakfast; and comfort foods. Recipes will be variations on a theme. Thus, the Gorgonzola chicken brought by David Roth, associate publisher of Fodor's travel guides, might be featured as a basic roast chicken option.

Toward the end of the evening, just when it seemed that everyone would be full, Juan Pablo Vincente, a waiter at Osteria del Circo, arrived with Ecuadorian tortillas and tempted some people back to the table.

Then came the desserts: a chocolate mousse; doughnuts; pineapple cream-cheese cookies; brownies made by Gary Tucker, a writer at Food Arts magazine, and chocolate hazelnut biscotti from Nick Maglieri the director of baking and pastry at Peter Kump's cooking school.

The cocktail of the evening was Fresca, fresh lemon juice and tequila - named London Fog by its creator, Adam Rappaport, a co-worker of Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis mentioned that his brother and sisters had sent him a care package with some of his mother's recipes. Turns out this nod to mother was the central theme of the evening: about half of the dishes brought were made from mothers' or grandmothers' recipes.

THE NEW YORK TIMES, WEDNESDAY, JULY 17, 1996

By VICTORIA SPENCER