Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why Red Pie?

It's no secret... I obsessively love vintage cookbooks. It started out innocently enough but don't all collectorating obsessions? Honestly, my first cookbook that I acquired wasn't even vintage. It was a high school graduation present from my mother. I think either she was trying to make up for not being a better kitchen mentor (certainly not her fault, she was a single mom by night and teacher by day so she didn't have a lot of time, but what she did teach me I still cook to this day). Maybe though, she was just terrified that I was moving off to live with my father for college, and if I didn't have some directions about cooking I'd starve to death. Her reasoning was probably closer to the truth than mine. The cookbook she gave me was Betty Crocker's 40th anniversary edition. I admittedly didn't use it that much until I lived by myself, and at that point I thought there would never be a reason to own any other cookbook. It had most every recipe you could want and so between that book and recipes from my mom, grandmother, and two closest aunts I couldn't imagine a reason to buy another cookbook.

Until one day in 1997 when I saw the brand new Joy of Cooking cookbook. I had never seen such a compendium of recipes before. Suddenly I decided, I must have that, and then I'd really never need another cookbook...right.... That resolve lasted two years when I happened upon a brand new version of Betty Crocker's original Picture Book at Restoration Hardware. I thought to myself why would you release a new version of a vintage cookbook that you could still find in perfectly good condition at the antique store?? I passed on the new version and promptly went on the hunt to find a vintage copy, which I did thanks to the new thing I had recently discovered...ebay.

By then, I was cooking often. I really enjoyed comparing the recipes between the three books, and I started to notice something interesting...sometimes the older recipe was just better. It had fewer ingredients, had more distinct flavors, and it was easier to make. And like any good Collectorator has thought one time or the other, if one is good, then two might be better. So it was, I had to find more vintage cookbooks. I stuck with the Betty Crocker thene for awhile in a valiant effort to "collect" something finite. I mean, if you just collect vintage cookbooks, well, it could go on literally forever. I started with the spiral bound speciality cookbooks like "Dinner for Two", the "Cooky Book" etc. Eventually, I found all of those, but the obsession did not go away. There were so many others that seemed interesting for one reason or the other....Better Homes and Gardens, Fannie Farmer, The Culinary Arts Institute, Helen Corbitt....I realized I had more cookbooks by then that I probably would or could ever use but really does that matter?

Somewhere in the middle of the obsession I discovered that my aunt who is considered the best cook in our family was a strictly a recipe/cookbook chef. I say this not to diminish her cooking skills but to raise them to a new level. Somewhere down the cooking line the definition of a cook really got lost. It seems now to be considered a good cook you have to practically be able to cook with your eyes closed or only cook things that have the most bizarre or unique combination of ingredients.

I don't subscribe to that, my aunt was and is one of the best cooks I know, and I aspire to be as much like her in the kitchen that I can be. That feeling has inspired me to buy even more cookbooks mostly old but also a few new ones too. I want to learn how cooking has changed, how recipes and ingredients have changed, but most of all I want to get my hands and cooking utensils on those recipes that make everyone think "now THIS is the perfect comfort-food". Along side some pretty bizarre recipes (check out reclark's blog on Wednesdays for the Mid-Century Menu where her and her husband bravely try out the weirdest recipes they can find from vintage cookbooks), there are some really, really good recipes in these vintage cookbooks that are better and more fulfilling than anything new I can find, especially lately.

My absolute favorite that demonstrates just this point is Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. This two volume set is pure vintage culinary comfort. For a long time, I wondered why this particular cookbook set was so expensive though. I thought maybe because it was old? But there are older cookbooks that sell for less. So why do you sometimes see this set on ebay for $100 or more? CollectoratorOne finally pieced together a set for me for a lot cheaper, and I finally got to see inside these books. Honestly I love the set, but at first glance it didn't help me understand why it is so expensive. I could go on for pages and pages why I love this set (and I will soon), but I couldn't point to any one thing that made me think oh now I understand why some could sell Meta Given's books for over $100 and someone would pay that much for them....

A similar conundrum occurred lately for me regarding Betty Crocker's red pie cover cookbook from 1969. That one is not even that old, not nearly as old as Meta Given's books, but you'll see it on ebay for $100 as well, and that cost is sometimes for a 21st printing in 1972...why??? Then the epiphany came to me one day recently looking for a favorite recipe in my Betty Crocker's 40th anniversary cookbook that I have cooked out of for almost 20 years now. Books like Meta Givens and Betty Crocker's red pie cover book (and now my 40th anniversary book) are the culinary bibles of people's lives. Our mothers and grandmothers had these books. They are like a family history in food if you will. Every recipe, every page in these books can take you right back to a certain meal or a certain holiday or a certain every Sunday and they allow you to recreate that feeling or moment at any time.... I feel that way about my grandmother's recipes and cookbooks that I have inherited as I am sure we all do.

I found an article somewhere online recently that described this lady seeking to replace her mother's favorite cookbook because she had just buried her mother with it... That's exactly why someone will pay $100 for a 1970's cookbook that was so widely printed that you can almost find one in any one's house. I don't know why this didn't occur to me before. I guess I was hoping there would be some wow-factor about this or that vintage cookbook that made it somehow more special than another one. I can only imagine I thought like that because of the new perception of cooking I have witnessed that insists a meatloaf recipe has to go where no meatloaf recipe has ever gone. Why can't it just be meatloaf anymore? It has to be "sun-dried tomato meatloaf with red-wine currant sauce"... now I am not saying that isn't a good recipe, I am sure it is fantastic. I just sometimes want plain old meatloaf, and likely I have everything in my pantry and refrigerator to make the plain old meatloaf. So, no, my vintage cookbooks do not contain any magical, awe-inspiring tricks that hold the key to cooking other than they remind me that food, and life, can be simple, sometimes weird, but mostly just comforting.

I am ecstatic to say I have the Betty Crocker red pie cover cookbook now thanks to CollectoratorOne who snagged it the other day for $2, yes just $2(!!!), at an old library book store. It is on my nightstand right now awaiting me to discover all its culinary family secrets that are tucked away inside.