MaryJanes Ideabook Cookbook Lifebook, By MaryJane Butters, Clarkson Potter, 416 pp., $35
Every good cookbook sells an illusion with its recipes. Some offer glamour, others authenticity, even nostalgia. Cookbooks can house dreams and aspirations, experiences we never had but wanted.
MaryJane Butters knows all this. In fact, she knows a lot about marketing. Butters has a line of organic camping foods and nostalgic home furnishings, a website (www.maryjanesfarm.org) that hosts chat forums, a magazine, and a camp at her Idaho homestead. ''MaryJane's Ideabook Cookbook Lifebook" was the logical extension of the brand.
As an ambassador of rural chic (she's been called a ''country Martha Stewart"), Butters deftly romanticizes the hard work undertaken by farm women of another age. A number of the book's ''recipes" explain how to split firewood, operate a wringer washer, embroider your own dishcloths, sharpen a hoe.
You might think this authenticity would extend to the kitchen. That's not the case. With few exceptions, recipes are either fast (30 minutes or less) or use a limited number of ingredients. Many dishes call for MaryJane's own brands. Those include gelatins made with seaweed extract for molds of salmon and chicken, an eerie visitation from a '50s kitchen.
Accordingly, I went to the website to buy what I needed. A mock-Key lime pie looked attractive and easy, with a pressed almond-and-date crust. The ''Chillover Powder" from her site worked like a charm, but the custard had no velvety texture and the nut-and-dried-fruit crust crumbled on contact.
Southwestern zucchini salsa was more successful. ''Healthy" popcorn, air-popped and drizzled with olive oil and nutritional yeast, was surprisingly clean-flavored -- with no aftertaste.
Butters's signature innovation, called a ''BakeOver," is touted as an infinitely adaptable one-dish meal -- vegetables, fruit, or meat with a crust. First I had to buy MaryJane's Organic Black Bean Corn Bread Mix, which proved hard to roll for a crust; after baking, it was thin, dense, and a bit gritty, though the flavor was pleasant. Without the crust, the BakeOver is essentially a stirfry.
Pemmican, a vegetarian version of the native American meat-and-fruit cake, packed a sweet, chewy wallop, though it was almost impossible to slice thanks to whole figs and dates scattered throughout. If they were supposed to be chopped, the recipe never mentioned it, and my e-mail plea for guidance went unanswered. Except for the popcorn, not one of the recipes resembled its glamorous photograph.
Perhaps Butters' central message is not that you should undertake the chores and trappings of a modern-day farmgirl, but that you could. Even if you never crochet a doily or darn a sock, you can rest reassured that knowledge has not been lost to the fast pace of globalization.
Those dreaming of rustic bliss could do worse than snap up a copy for the living room table. That said, it's probably not a bad idea to leave it there.