Scott’s mother passed away a couple of years ago, and because he is a dear and wonderful friend, he brought me a couple of her cookbooks after he and his siblings cleared out her house. When my own grandfather died, all I got was some old bath towels, so imagine my delight at this completely unexpected and very thoughtful windfall. Thank you, Scott. Sincerely.
First, there is a 1962 copy of Joy of Cooking, back before old Ethan started messing around with the recipes. There’s a hand-written note in the corner of the frontispiece directing me to page 320 for the recipe for butter sauce. Nice!
Next up is a crazy-thick binder designed to hold her collection of recipe magazines from 1949-1950. It is pretty awesome, especially if you’re interested in making Liver Souffle or Ginger Marshmallow Sauce.
The absolute, hands-down best cookbook, though, is A Treasury of Great Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price. Yes, that Vincent Price. Apparently, Mary and Vincent were foodies well before the term was coined. These folks loved to travel, loved to eat, loved to cook and loved to entertain. This book has it all–from amazing recipes to menus from some of the great restaurants around the world to a helpful section on how to fold a napkin to a section where you can write down all your favorite recipes. It is beautiful, it is pretty rare, and it is mine! Mwah-ha-ha!
Oh, and this book is beautifully written. Let me share with you a little of his cultured and sensitive style. This comes from his vivid description of a hotel and restaurant in Venice:
The view from the Royal Danieli Roof Terrace at dusk rivals the greatest paintings of Venice. It seems almost a sacrilege to think of food in a setting of such beauty, but the Danieli’s chef is an artist himself, and you find yourself dining sumptuously here, accepting the total magnificence as though you were a Renaissance prince to the palazzo born. p. 99
Or this gem about a Mexican restaurant (as in a restaurant in Mexico), Rivoli:
But the real feast was the food. Knowing of my long love affair with the Mayan ruins of Yucatan, Dario served us a main course called Chicken Chichen Itza, complete with the red and black spices that you can get only in Yucatan. The result was unusual and delicious, but in all honesty I must confess that eating Chicken Chichen Itza wasn’t a patch on the experience of seeing the real Chichen Itza in the moonlight many years ago.
Nevertheless it’s one of our favorite recipes, maybe because we had such fun working out a seasoning that tasted like the Yucatan specialty but was available everywhere. We have each portion brought to the table, wrapped in the leaf it was cooked in. Each guest unfolds his leaf, and immediately the spicy smell of Mexico wafts through the room. It’s the cheapest, quickest way I know to get back there, at least with your senses. p. 209
And, because this is, first and foremost a pastry blog, I give you this, his adoration of the Chocolate Roll at The Whitehall Club in Chicago (where, incidentally, you could get a Sanka for 40 cents):
We have never had this dessert brought to the table without it eliciting a chorus of rapturous sighs–followed by a chorus of calorie-conscious groans. Once in a while everybody should splurge on a good, rich dessert, even if it means doing penance in the gymnasium the next day. I can’t think of anything more worth the pounds and the penance than this velvety brown Chocolate Roll. If you make it at Christmas time, you can put the chocolate topping on to simulate a tree trunk. Then you will have the classic Buche de Noel, or yule log cake with which the French traditionally celebrate their Christmas season. p. 343
By the way, did I mention that Mary and Vincent wrote this book in 1965?! Julia had only been on television for a couple of years, and most American cooks were still making meatloaf. I’m not knocking a good meatloaf, mind you. I’m just saying that most American cooks made what was familiar and what their mothers and grandmothers had taught them to make. There was not a lot of inspired cooking or eating going on in most American households in the mid 1960s. Granted, the Prices were able to travel quite a bit, due both to his career as an actor and, later, as an avid art collector. Even so, the Prices seem ahead of their time. I feel very lucky to own this cookbook, and it is truly a treasured possession.
A Treasury of Great Recipes is a time capsule–preserving the great restaurants and recipes of the past, but it is also a gateway through which we can reacquaint ourselves with dishes that are just waiting to come around on the guitar again (thank you, Arlo Guthrie). Check these out: Endive and Beet Salad; a lovely interplay of earthy sweetness against crisp bitterness. Or there’s Asparagus Dutch Style, with a sort of Hollandaise-ish sauce made of hard boiled egg, salt, nutmeg and butter. Or Nusstorte, a Hazelnut torte consisting of a genoise (“the beating of the eggs is the secret of the success of this cake, the famous Genoise”) which he tells us must be folded together with the hands. 1965, people! Amazing!
And now to you, dear readers. I’m sure you have one or two very cool, very old, very odd or otherwise very interesting-for-some-reason cookbooks. I’d love to know what makes them special to you.