I’m an habitué of used bookstores. Cliff’s in Pasadena, the late Acres of Books in Long Beach, Brand Bookstore in Glendale. I buy books at these stores and usually read them, and am always looking for cookbooks, as our kitchen bookshelf attests:
For years, I'd seen the two-volume “The Gourmet Cookbook” for sale at these bookstores, usually several copies, and never bought one. But the day they announced the demise of Gourmet magazine last year, they all disappeared, and I kicked myself. (The magazine now lives on online.)
My mom, the late Maryann Elizabeth Rady Rabe, was a good cook who belonged to the LSSC faculty’s Gourmet Club (they took turns holding dinners with gourmet menus, a must in Northern Michigan).
Here’s the two of us, c. 1967, in a photo by Joe Clark, HBSS, who used to take the photos for the Jack Daniel’s ads.
My mom had a huge box of Gourmet magazines. I never read them, but Gourmet reminded me of her, and when the magazine died, it felt like an old family acquaintance died … one I didn’t know especially well, but had warm feelings for, and I was mad I hadn’t thought to pick up a set of the Gourmet cookbooks when they were plentiful.
But, lo! Saturday at Brand Bookstore, they had a mismatched (1960 & 1974) set for sale for $35. I snapped it up and started reading through it that night.
I love the vignettes by artist Henry Stahlhut, sprinkled liberally through the book. (As my friend James Lileks would point out, these birds are perversely cannibalistic, in the style of Charlie the Tuna. Of the seven lives birds in evidence, only the capon seems concerned that their buddy's legs are sticking out of a cooking pot. Maybe they think it's a hot tub?)
And the hundreds of richly saturated but somehow flat color photos …
… which remind me of the photos in “La Cuisine, Secrets of Modern French Cooking,” by Raymond Oliver. “La Cuisine” is full of them, including a selection of lavish table settings at “Chez Madame Nicole Mourlot,” “Chez Madame A. Wilson,” and – like in a Balzac novel – “Chez Madame de N.” In the photo below, note the necessary accoutrement at any French table in 1969 – matches and cigarettes.
When he died in 1990, at the age of 81, the New York Times lauded Oliver as “one of the great chefs of postwar France who at the height of his popularity was famed as much for his theatrical style as his cuisine.”
"The important thing is design," he once said. "To make good cuisine it's necessary to have a solid base." That translated to the use of filet mignon, baby lamb, lobster and pheasant, which might be slathered with truffles, caviar, foie gras, cognac or armagnac. He was not a chef to stint. … In 1948 Mr. Oliver bought Le Grand Vefour, a restaurant dating to 1760, and slowly (sic) made it into one of the gastronomical centers of Paris. Six years after Mr. Oliver bought the restaurant it was awarded the prized third star by the Michelin guide. During World War II, Mr. Oliver operated a hotel in the French Alps, organized a Resistance cell, and hid Allied airmen who had been shot down on bombing missions. He sheltered an 11-man American bomber crew until the liberation and was later decorated by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
So Oliver was an old school cook, old school hero … and an old school chauvinist.
""No woman was ever a great cook," he once told a group of American women. "A woman cooks like her mother, to please a man. But when men cook, it's to please themselves. They like to experiment, to explore unknown frontiers."
But at least Oliver gives explicit directions in his recipes that, apparently, only men can appreciate, although a good friend's mom swore by "La Cuisine," and perhaps, at it.
As I persued “The Gourmet Cookbook,” I remembered my mother’s complaint about Gourmet magazine … that the recipes didn’t include enough directions for the non-expert. "Cook a venison haunch as you would boar or mandril, omitting the anise. Then add enough butter a la Mauvaise for proper browning in a not too hot oven."
That’s, I think, a valid criticism. It would be unfair, however, in 2010, to fault it for recommending in the 1960’s that roast chickens be entirely covered in rich sauce and piled with some sort of aspic, not to mention the liberal applications of mayonnaise as decoration.
But the “Gourmet Cookbook” is an excellent idea book. There are hundreds of recipes, most of which I’m unfamiliar with, and at the back of Volume I, there’s a two-page “sauce sampler,” with sauce suggestions for various kinds of food. 35 hot sauces for fish, 15 cold sauces, 7 cocktail sauces. More for beef, veal, lamb, pork, cold meats, smoked meats, innards (!), game, game birds, chicken, duck, vegetables, and eggs.
This is very valuable for amateur gourmets like me and my husband, and if a recipe isn’t specific enough in Gourmet, I can always turn to Oliver or Julia Child or Madame E. Saint-Ange’s “La Bonne Cuisine,” which wallows in detail (her 937 methods for boiling eggs are just one example).
As a friend e-mailed about the Gourmet Cookbook:
"They shouldn't in any way be mistaken for a modern guide They are more like artifacts than they are great cookbooks. They're time capsules. Kind of a snapshot of how a certain group of well-educated high-income East Coasters ate in 1963. That's not to say that the dishes are bad ... in fact, I often find sparks for ideas in those kinds of books ... good food is good food.
And, best of all, they remind me of my mom, and that’s worth $35.
(Check out John's weekly show Off-Ramp.)