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WORLD FOCUS: Around the world, in the kitchen

February 27, 2014
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Elaine Baker and her late husband, Jim, visited roughly 70 countries during their 59 years of married life, some of them only for a few hours.

But during Jim's two decades in the Foreign Service, the Bakers and their two sons, James and Glenn, lived for extended periods in five foreign countries: India, Turkey, Pakistan, Philippines and Tunisia.

"People often have asked me which was my favorite, and I always have to reply 'I don't know. Each country had its good points and its bad,'" Elaine said in a recent interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette.

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Elaine Baker

After having sampled the native fare in so many countries, she would have had a harder time to answer the question, "What's your favored cuisine?"

"I have always been a recipe collector, clipping recipes from everywhere, and had an extensive cookbook collection," she said. "Sometime after Jim retired and we moved to Williamsburg in 1983, I conceived the idea of gathering together the many unusual recipes in my collection, testing them and compiling them in a cookbook, hopefully with commercial possibilities."

Alas, she noted, it has taken her 30 years to test and sometimes adjust recipes and finally get them printed into a book.

"I gave up long ago on commercial possibilities," she said. "A good number of the recipes I tried were failures and were discarded, but many I found interesting either because of the unusual combination of ingredients or an unusual method of preparation."

So, instead of having her cookbook on the shelves of bookstores, she recently published a limited edition, intended for family and close friends. The book is titled, "The Kookbook: A Kwirky Kollection of Kulinary Konkoctions."

Although, some would consider a number of recipes among the hundreds collected in the 237-page volume "exotic," Elaine doesn't consider any of them in this category.

"Our living overseas had very little influence on the recipe collection," she said. "No one ever taught me how to prepare a dish. I just followed the recipe."

Apparently, with great success because during Jim's service overseas with the U.S. Information Agency, editing magazines distributed abroad, the Bakers' house was known as a showcase for American hospitality. It had a welcome mat out for all kinds of visitors.

Jim Baker became the first recipient of the USIA Director's Award for "Outstanding Creativity." He, however, always maintained it was Elaine who deserved the award. Not just for creativity but for projecting American family values in every country Jim was stationed.

Elaine's "Kookbook" lists recipes from appetizers to hot and cold soups, salads, vegetables, meats, fish, breads and rolls, desserts and even how to make pumpkin pickles or zucchini-citrus marmalade.

I asked her whether she ever tried out her unusual recipes on an unsuspecting "innocent" invited for a meal to their house.

"The only time I can remember trying out one of my recipes on someone who was not a family member was in Williamsburg," Elaine replied. "We invited a close friend, whose wife was out of town, for dinner. I served him cheesecake with a topping which included one jalapeno, a very hot pepper. He seemed to enjoy it. Later, I disclosed to him the "secret ingredient," which my guest had not even noticed."

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.



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