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Recipes, history fill guild's Plant Hall fund-raising cookbook

If it was to be commensurate with the building that inspired it, the cookbook would have to be both grand and useful.

After all, the quarter-mile long hotel that Henry B. Plant constructed on the banks of the Hillsborough River is at the same time a fanciful confection of the Gilded Age and a heartily constructed edifice that has lasted more than a century to become the soul and emblem of Tampa.

So when the Chiselers, the ladies' guild that raises money for the restoration of Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, decided to compile a book of recipes, they knew they'd have to outdo themselves.

They chose a title as long and intricate as Plant Hall's sweeping verandah.

They laced the book's pages with decorations adapted from the building's architectural details.

They wove bits of Plant Hall history into beautifully written passages that begin each chapter.

And they got Helen Davis to divulge her friend's recipe for Fresh Corn Pudding.

It seems no sacrifice was too large for Victorian Secrets _ subtitled The South's Newest Collection of Exceptionally Fine Recipes, Set amidst delightful memories of Tampa's gilded past. The cookbook comes out Thursday after a year and a half of work by The Chiselers Inc., which hopes to generate funds from its sale to add to the more than $1-million dollars the group already has raised to restore Plant Hall.

"Every cookbook should have an angle, and the history and architecture of our building is an angle," said Beverly Rogers, the co-chairwoman of the cookbook committee. Rogers said the book was crafted to have a vintage feel, with ecru paper and pen-and-ink drawings by Tampa artist Charlie Graecen.

Besides offering a peek into a glorious way of life long faded, the book also gives a glimpse into a certain gentility that persists right here in Tampa to this day.

"These little pastries are known to the Rubio family as the "little military men of Paris' even though they bear no resemblance," reads the personal note that precedes Sarah Jane Rubio's recipe for Mauricio's Pastelitos Militaires de Paris.

"An excellent light choice for a ladies' luncheon" is Lynn Carlton's introduction to her directions for Angel Bavarian.

Feminists may find certain phrases quaint, such as the note before Charlotte Logan's recipe for Calico Beans: "This is a man-pleasing dish at a barbecue."

But sociological musings aside, Victorian Secrets is meant to be a useful book. All the recipes have been tested by Chiselers tasters, who began with more than 600 submissions and whittled the list down to the 220 best of the bunch.

As Phyllis Kimbel, the Chiselers chairwoman and the author of Victorian Secrets' historical notes, points out, cookbooks aren't a frilly diversion. They're a sound business proposition in a country where sales of mainstream cookbooks totaled nearly $42-million in 1995, or 4.1 percent of total book sales.

So it is with Victorian Secrets, a book from a group that began in 1959 with a corps of women who weren't afraid to get their hands dirty. The original Chiselers really did chisel. They began by scraping layers of gray WPA paint from fireplace tiles in Plant Hall.

Victorian Secrets sells for $24.95 at area bookstores as well as Alvin Magnon jewelers, the Henry B. Plant Museum Store, The Potting Shed and the MacDill Air Force Base Exchange. Tastings are scheduled at the S Dale Mabry Barnes & Noble bookstore Saturday, the Waldenbooks store in West Shore Plaza on Nov. 15 and 16, and at Williams Sonoma in Old Hyde Park Village on Dec. 6. Phone orders may be placed by calling 926-8251.