THE WORLD ON A PLATE

By Joel Denker (Westview Press, $24)

Subtitling his book "A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine," Joel Denker also provides a rough trip through the shameful record of generalizations about immigrants to our country: how Italian immigrants "had a special zest for produce and were adept at growing and preparing it"; how the Chinese laborers who built the Western railroads were "quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical" (the little item quoted from Leland Stanford, who built his fortune by exploiting those very virtues); how this group was industrious, that one pinched pennies to bring their families to America. . . . Do these clich├ęs really need to be repeated in a book about cooking? Denker is intent on placing food along the folkways of America's growth. Perhaps it is naive, but isn't it obvious that any immigrant anywhere would want to buy, prepare, and eat the foods of their homeland? This book is too heavy on the immigrants as huddled masses and too light on the fabulous smells and tastes of the melting pot they have created. Denker's broad brush threatens to efface the real historical gems he's uncovered: Nathan Handwerker's creation of Nathan's Famous (hot dogs) on Coney Island, and where the name came from; how Luigino Francesco Paulucci invented Chun King Chow Mein (in Minnesota, of all places); and how chili in Cincinnati evolved into a five-way ziggurat of layered spaghetti, beans, chili, cheddar, and onions. Too bad you have to pick through the recycled biases to find them. JOANNE GARRETT

 
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