Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Book before The Book

A few weeks ago, I was flipping through The Book looking for something to make for Father's Day. I absent-mindedly stopped at the Preface. Now, I'm sure that I read Ruth Reichl's introductory essay before I started The Project, but the first few lines apparently didn't register with me until now.

"The book that taught me to cook was a big brown leather-covered tome with The Gourmet Cookbook stamped in gold on the front. I called it 'the Book,' but to a little girl in the fifties, it was more than that."

What? But I thought that I was reading The Gourmet Cookbook? The Book was published in 2004, not the 1950s. It's yellow, not brown. Was Ruth mistaken? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so I put The Book aside and pulled up Google. I typed "Gourmet Cookbook 1950s" in the search window. After a few minutes, I had learned that, in 1950, as Gourmet Magazine was approaching its tenth anniversary, the magazine's editors decided to publish a cookbook "based on the cream of the recipes that had appeared in the magazine during the first decade of its existence." A few years later, in 1957, the editors published a second volume of The Gourmet Cookbook, meant to be a companion to the 1950 book, but at the same time "a complete and independent cookbook in itself." Whereas Volume I is a broad-based general cookbook, Volume II delves deeper into "pastry making a la francaise, outdoor cookery, and the accouterments of the grand buffet." After a number of printings, the editors undertook a complete revision, and in 1965, they published a second edition of the two volumes. (The early 1960s also saw the publication of a couple of other Gourmet books: The Gourmet Menu Cookbook and The Gourmet Basic French Cookbook.)

I had to get my hands on these books. My local library was no help. But e-bay came through. I found a set of the 1965 second edition available in an auction set to end in a couple of days. My first instinct was to lunge and make a "buy it now" offer, but I decided to play it cool. There were no bids yet, and the minimum bid was $9.99. I stalked the auction, checking it almost hourly as the end-date approached. A few hours before the auction ended, there were still no bids. I could smell victory. With only minutes left in the auction, I typed my bid into the dialogue box. After a few tense moments, and for the bargain price of $9.99 plus shipping, I was the proud owner of The Book's mama and papa.

A few days later, a great big brown-paper package (not tied up with string, but that's OK) was waiting for me when I got home from work. I tore the package open, and there they were. The pages were slightly yellowed and had that faint, mildewy high-school library scent. They are both big, heavy, and more than 700 pages each.

If The Gourmet Cookbook is the food Bible, the 1965 edition is the Old Testament. The pages are crammed with recipes written with an economy of words. The recipe for French Onion Soup, for example is only six sentences long. Notably absent, however, is the list of ingredients that precedes recipes in modern cookbooks. The recipes in Volume I and II are written in paragraph form, in the style of the classical cookbooks like Escoffier's. Apparently, ingredient lists, like those printed in the margins of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), were still innovative in the 1950s and 60s. The books are also liberally illustrated with red ink line drawings, and lush, if somewhat corny, technicolor photographs. For instance, the photo of Caneton a la Orange au la Bigarade (Duck with Orange) includes a creepy prop ceramic duck sitting uncomfortably beside its cooked cousin. And the photo of Chocolate Bavarian Cream is decorated with a statute of Napoleon and a model of the Arc de Triomphe.

As I sat on the sofa flipping through Volume I, my wife asked me, "So, are you going to cook through that book, too?" Just then, I happened to stop flipping at page 473. I looked down at the page, and without hesitating for a moment, I answered, "No, I am not going to cook through this book." The recipe I had stopped at was for Ours Grand Veneur, or "Bear Huntsman Fashion." That's right, a recipe for roast bear loin. Apparently, "bear flesh is rich, sweet, and delicious." I don't think that they carry it at Stop & Shop, though. But if you don't like your bear "huntsman fashion," perhaps one of the three other bear recipes will appeal to you. What's that, bear's not your thing? That's OK. There are six pages of recipes for venison, two recipes for woodchuck, and six for frog's legs.

So, while I won't be making Brunswick Stew any time soon ("Cut 2 plump young squirrels into serving pieces..."), I know that I'm going to enjoy flipping through the pages of these books for ideas and inspiration.


Bethany said...

I found the 2 volumne set in wonderful condition at a flea market for $10.00 last summer and have loved everything i have tried from them so far! I stumbled across your blog as I was searching or another set fo rmy mother and just wanted to stop and say "what no bear?" lol! I agree though this is not a cook through book some of the recipes I don't think I could pay my family to try but the ones they have they love!!! Good luck with your cooking!

Mary said...

I found the Original 1950s book at the used book store I volenteer at.
I couldn't find any info on it until I came across this site..The vol I have is in very good condition..
some shelf wear but hardly used.
I was wondering if anyone might know the value of it. I would like to sell it. Thank you!

Tiff :o) said...

I found my copy of volume i at a library book sale for $1.00. I have loved it! I haven't made anything from it that I didn't like. It wasn't until this past weekend that I found out there was a second volume. I am now searching for one to buy! I can't wait to see the recipes in that one. There's a whole section for game in that one.