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Kitchen Mailbox Countdown to Dinner Dining
'Three Rivers IV' cookbook sets sail

Thursday, May 11, 2000

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor

The math is amazing: From 1,600 recipes gathered, 343 selected. Each recipe tested by at least six adults. A printing of 50,000 books ordered, but nobody's suggesting these volunteers have followed optimism out the kitchen window -- the three previous "Three Rivers" cookbooks (1973, 1981 and 1990) have sold more than 800,000 copies.

Since Volume I came out, the Child Health Association of Sewickley has donated $2.5 million to children's programs and services in Western Pennsylvania.

The timing for "Three Rivers Renaissance Cookbook IV" -- a name that's hard to fit in a headline -- couldn't be much better. Mother's Day is Sunday, Father's Day is five weeks away and the wedding season will soon be upon us.

    A taste of 'Three Rivers'

Three Rivers recipes are flowing again. Child Health Association of Sewickley will introduce the fourth cookbook in its series, "Three Rivers Renaissance Cookbook IV," at several free events:

Tastings -- 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble bookstores in Waterworks Mall near Fox Chapel, and Cranberry; Borders Books & Music, Northway Mall, Ross; and Waldenbooks, South Hills Village, Bethel Park.

Booth -- 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 20 and noon to 5 p.m. May 21 at Pittsburgh Children's Festival, West Park, North Side.

Cooking demonstration -- 2 to 5 p.m. June 3, Kitchen Theater at Carnegie Science Center, North Side.

Launch party -- 5 to 8 p.m. June, 7, Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Tasting and book sale -- 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. June 9, CNG Tower lobby, Downtown.

-- Suzanne Martinson


These cookbooks have a shelf life most authors only dream of. When the promotional brochure went out to the 10,000 friends of the "Three Rivers" cookbooks, the phone at Child Health's office condo began to ring.

Testing co-chair Susan Nitzberg recalls one particular call: "There was an order for six volume fours, one one, two twos and two threes."

Nitzberg, a native Pittsburgher, was president of the association -- members must live in the Quaker Valley School District to join -- when the 60 members put it to a vote whether they ought to cast their net once again into the shoals of community cookbook production and sales. The vote was barely in the affirmative. They knew how much work a community cookbook that's done right can be.

In an era when volunteers sometimes seem a disappearing breed and up-and-comers are often asked to pack their bags and move to new jobs, Nitzberg and Sara White, both of Sewickley, saw that first hand. Testing is a big job -- just think of the shopping trips required for hundreds of recipes -- and Nitzberg says she knew she couldn't do it alone.

They'd barely gotten started 21/2 years ago when her co-chair said, "Guess what. We're moving."

The same thing happened to co-chair No. 2, but her third, Bonnie Megan, was in for the duration.

The committees for some community cookbooks probably breathe a sigh of relief once the book is off the press. This group knows its work has just begun, and the all-volunteer association demands commitment. "Everybody has to commit to at least two marketing activities," says White, who moved here from Washington, D.C. In another of life's small coincidences, she had "III" on her shelves when she made the move here.

"A friend of my husband's mother had given me 'Three Rivers III' and a casserole for a wedding present when I got married in 1990," she says.

Marketing events include book signings and tastings at area bookstores, a cooking demonstration at Carnegie Science Center and a launch party for contributors and friends from 5 to 8 p.m. June 7 at Heinz Hall.

The "Three Rivers" cookbooks have long been a part of Pittsburgh families' hometown favorites, Nitzberg says. Before she ever began work on IV, she had I in her collection.

All the hard work selecting and testing recipes and the skilled marketing hasn't gone unnoticed. In 1992, "Three Rivers Cookbook Volume I" was inducted as one of 12 charter members of the Southern Living Community Cookbook Hall of Fame. Two years earlier, Volumes I and II had been named to the Walter S. McIlhenny Hall of Fame.

Some would have rested on their range.

"We really did this because people kept asking, 'When will your next one come out?' " White says. "They're great recipes that work."

The women decided not to make their latest edition a low-fat cookbook -- "The Heart Association and other groups already do that," says Nitzberg -- but a book that runs the gamut, from low-fat dishes to recipes you might want to hide from your friend on a weight-loss diet. (My own recipe for Feather Yeast Rolls takes about a half of a pound of butter.) Still, there are several salsas, low-cal by any estimation.

The organizers checked to make sure no recipe was a repeat from the three previous books. Many recipes were five-pointers (the top scorer) but still didn't make the book. As good as they were, you can't overload any cookbook with too many pork tenderloins, chicken breasts or goat cheese.

Variety was sustained. One difference in this one is that there is no beverage section, but there are more appetizers. Reader-pleasers such as a binding that lies flat and each recipe contained on a single page make it cook-friendly. The recipes are designated "easy" to "moderately difficult" -- easy predominates -- and provide preparation and cooking time. The European Raspberry Bars, for example, have only six ingredients.

There are always ups and downs, of course. The tasters were excited about a particular chicken recipe, but when White heard about it, she said, "Uh-oh, that's in the 'Silver Palate' -- it's one of my favorite recipes and unusual enough to remember."

There are several signature dishes, Pittsburgh-style: the Duquesne Club's Macaroons from chef Keith Coughenour; Franco Harris' stellar Immaculate Lasagna; John Heinz's Stuffing; and Sen. Arlen Specter's Giant Apple Popover. The guv contributed Tom Ridge's Fresh Mushroom Soup. Some or all of the contributors may be at the "launch party" June 7 at Heinz Hall.

The Pirates' Kevin McClatchy suggested the Casbah Lamb Shanks, which Lou Durbin provided, and there's QED's Chris Fennimore with his manicotti. Several TV personalities contributed. Former Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso and wife Megan contributed four favorite recipes.

And bring on the ubiquitous Pittsburgh Cookie Table, because there are many great-looking cookies.

In addition to the volunteers, much of the production talent is also home-grown. Kristine Ream, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who lives in the South Hills, did the illustrations, and the photographs are by Pittsburgh-based Frank Walsh. The printing was done by Tom Samuels at Geyer Printing, and Donna Albert of Midnight Oil designed the book.

One of the biggest changes in the recipes mix is the shift to more fresh ingredients with herbs and spices to flavor the dishes.

Cookbook chair Kitty Gross, whose co-chair was Jane Rabe, says she didn't realize what an "enormous" job it would be when she was one of the members to vote to go ahead with the project. "It was my first -- and last," she says with a laugh. "We had great expectations, and I love the end product."

As always, the proof is in the perfecting. Nitzberg says her family was often asking, "Is this from the new book?" and one recent day she had daughter Diane, 10, try Lynn B. Popovich's Mocha Java Bars. With a bit of advice from Mom, she was easily able to make them.

"They were delicious," says Nitzberg.

"Three Rivers Renaissance Cookbook IV" is available at bookstores, or you can call 800-624-8753 or e-mail childhlth@juno.com. It costs $19.95, plus $1.05 tax and $4 shipping and handling.

Related Recipe:

European Raspberry Bars

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