Imagine, if you will, that it is 1965. Avant-garde jazz is at its peak with albums like John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure; post-modern fiction is on the rise with the arrival of Thomas Pynchon’s V; Hollywood is releasing a steady stream of taught psychological thrillers (Bunny Lake is Missing and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, to name a few. There is a palpable friction in the air that anticipates the consciousness explosion which would arrive in the late sixties. America was clearly hungry for something new. To feed that hunger, a bevy of cookbooks exploded onto the scene in the early 60s (Julia Child’s famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961). Then in 1965, Mary and Vincent Price decided to throw their hats into the ring with the publication of A Treasury of Great Recipes through Ampersand Press.
Now, this gilded austere relic with its mandate to cater to the “housewife with only two hands–and a husband who loves to dabble in the kitchen,” might not seem like the most daring artifact of counter culture from the 1960s. But, with it’s cornucopia of globe-trotting international cuisine–ranging from the highest plateaus of French Micheline starred restaurants to the lowly American baseball field ‘franks’–reveals itself as an open minded, curious, populist work that sought to bring luxury, refinement, and joy to the every American home.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, Vincent Price was a respected film star from the 1940s and 50s. He starred in the 1944 film noir classic Laura by Otto Preminger as well as a slew of other classic and lesser known classics from the hey days of Hollywood (some of my personal favourites being The Baron of Arizona in 1950 and His Kind of Woman in 1951). However, as the 1950s progressed, Price’s rising star was waning and he found himself relegated more and more to the small screen. Ever a man of perseverance and ingenuity, Price reinvented himself as a horror film icon in the late 50s, developing a cult following as the ‘Master of Macabre,‘ with films like House on Haunted Hill in 1959 and followed by his fruitful partnership with B movie producer legend Roger Corman with a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptions (The House of Usher and The Masque of Red Death, to name a few!).
However, Price didn’t just reinvent himself as a horror film star in late 1950s, he also came in to his own as an ambassador of fine taste to the American public. First, with his 1959 memoir a la art appreciation I Like What I Know followed shortly by his partnership with Sears Roebuck in 1962 to curate a massive national art gallery that brought original works of art to the American public at affordable prices.
Enter A Treasury of Great Recipes. Part cookbook part travelogue, A Treasury catalogs the Prices culinary travels to restaurants around the world. Reprinting the original restaurant menus and filled with on location photography by famed photographer William Claxton, it takes you on a whirlwind tour to some of the most renowned restaurants from France, Italy, Holland, Scandinavia, England, Spain, and Mexico before settling in to a hefty final chapter on the United States. We even get an intimate glimpse into the home of Mary and Vincent with dazzling set designs by Mary Price, who was herself a professional costume designer for the film industry. Extravagant and yet intimate, A Treasury is truly one of the most bewitching culinary curios of its day.
As far as ‘gourmet plunder’ goes, this is really as good as it gets. Vincent Price fills every page with an abundance of flavour text. Writing a personal introduction for each country as well as lengthy introductions for many of the restaurants. However, what is really remarkable is that almost every recipe gets its own small paragraph. All of it filled with Price’s ebullience, charm, wit and immense reservoir of knowledge, culinary and otherwise. This is really that rare cookbook that’s as much fun to curl up and read as it is to roll up your sleeves and try your hand at the recipes inside.
To me, A Treasury of Great Recipes is kind of the perfect culinary zeitgeist of its period. By combining a reverence for tradition with an unabashed love of the novel, it is able to seamlessly transition between continental and ethnic cuisine, tapping into the burgeoning world food movement with forays into Polynesian cuisine, Indian curries, Chinese stir-fries, Japanese tempura and more. It is remarkable in its versatility. Capable of functioning as the-only-cookbook-you’ll-ever-need while still bursting at the seams with exotic and extravagant gems.
Vintage recipes can often be the butt of many a joke and often for good reason. However, the goal of Gourmet Plunder is to sort the gold from the dross. To dig deep into the archives of vintage cookbooks and find recipes that still have a story to tell, that still shine with a special culinary magic. Lucky for us, there is still a lot of magic in A Treasury of Great Recipes.
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