Monday, July 8, 2013


 The old, battered books pilfered from my mother’s kitchen cabinet over the long years I’ve been away, cookbooks and pamphlets and recipes ripped out of magazines taken surreptitiously and snuck through the house and into my waiting suitcase, have found their way back to France where they stand proudly at home next to my own purchases and gifts from friends and loved ones. Each of these timeworn and tired books seems so overjoyed to be pulled out of the darkness and brought back to life, sharing its secrets and retro recipes in my European kitchen.

 I carefully lift the cover of each, pull back spines that are cracked and hanging free, cloth covers faded and frayed, and look at the dates of publications, looking for those printed 1953 and know that these were wedding gifts to my mother. Her old Joy of Cooking sits in my kitchen next to The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, jumbled together so appropriately with my mother-in-law’s old, faded Ma Cuisine by the great Escoffier.

 A mixed marriage.

 I poke through these cookbooks, turning over the stained pages, and spy the recipes my mother cooked for us when we were kids, before she stopped cooking, conceding the battle like some old Civil War General when the game was up.

 The Settlement Cookbook. I adore the old cookbooks written by hale and hardy, stout old women who are published under their wifely name: Mrs. Simon Kander. Like the old well-worn Junior League cookbooks in which recipes are each credited to the owner, the homemaker who contributed the recipe: Mrs. Harold Davis, Mrs. Orville E. Comer, Mrs. Jake Dampf, Mrs. Calvin L. Simpson III, the rhythm only broken by the occasional Miss Winnie Thomas, Evelyn Wilsford, Dr. Elizabeth Faust. Spinsters? Old maids?

 Handfuls of brochures, promotional pamphlets chock full of recipes for Florida Seafood, Crisco, Florida Citrus or 300 Sensational Salads and Pickles & Chutneys, claiming their rightful place on a shelf full of hardcovers. Photographs in black and white or day-glo primary colors offer tempting images of Egg-Rice Salad, California Strawberry Salad, Celery Fingers, Dilly Tuna and Vegetable Toss. A Treasure Trove of dated recipes, our cultural history.

 Printed or hand typed, the plastic rings binding loose pages cracked and chipped, I scan each of the Sisterhood Cookbooks, 1950’s, 1960’s, ages old, as old as my siblings and I, looking for familiar names. I bump into my own mother’s name, among great aunts, the next door neighbor and women from the synagogue, under recipes, many long forgotten, some as sharp in my mind as to evoke a grimace of disgust or a smile of pleasure, a tingle of the tastebuds.

 Pot Roast and Sweet and Sour Tongue, Veal Scallopini and Easy Cream Cheese Cake. Peach Pie and Crown Jewel Dessert, just the very titles evoke sensations, tastes and sounds of clattering around the kitchen, noises of lawnmowers and hedge trimmers breaking the silence, white noise of a Saturday afternoon. Mealtime early evening, odors wafting from a pot on the stove, reaching us where we crouch over games and drawing us to the table.

 Why do old cookbooks seem more valuable than the shiny, flashy new ones we receive in the mail or select from among the multitude of beautiful bound tomes, the hottest latest editions, at our favorite bookstore? Those coveted volumes, some cheap publicity gimmicks, others our parents’ generation’s version of the e-book, recipes gathered from friends and snapped together between laminated paper covers with the image of a shapely young housewife offering up something on a plate hand drawn in blue or black, are handled with love and care, caressed and held with a near-religious awe. There is a certain charm, something nostalgic that draws us back to the jumble of paper stapled together or once bound in plastic loops, sentiments so much stronger than simply the joy of owning one more cookbook, adding flavor, sweetness and spice to each recipe made.

Here you are, finally 
Happy Birthday * Happy Cooking 
Your bro 
2 – 1 – 81 

 I packed up my suitcases and moved north to a bigger, brighter, more cosmopolitan city and to dreams of changing who I was, where I thought I could go. This perfect gift from my older brother, my mentor, my guide in all things culinary, the vegetarian epicure book 2, added recipe upon recipe to my repertoire alongside the already well settled dishes of its sister tome vegetarian epicure, dishes made with joy and pleasure over the years as I moved from city to city, country to country, as I married my Frenchman and raised 2 sons. This book, like its predecessor, is torn and faded, split in two, but loved immeasurably, kept in the kitchen and near my heart, not pushed off into some dark corner or carton, nor left forgotten, lost among so many others on the hallway shelf stacked with my many, so many, cookbooks.

 The years have flown by, sometimes racing at top speed leaving little time to do what we want, some years dragging slowly, painfully by, yet these cookbooks, my very first, the two cookbooks that were with me, my companions, from the very start of my journey through time and space, along the road of life, are with me still. These two cookbooks like two jewels among my most treasured belongings, objects dear that are the first to be boxed and packed when another move is upon us, the first to be unpacked and placed on a kitchen shelf. Along the road they have been joined by many friends, cookbooks British and French, Indian and Middle Eastern, cookbooks from around the globe to join these so very American cookbooks; they are all there, each one begging to be tugged off the shelf whenever I pass in the hallway or pause, running my fingers across their spines like a lover caressing the soft skin of a most beloved.

 Like the wrinkles on an old woman’s skin, the silver threading through once-ebony hair, the stains and marks, the torn pages and frayed covers of these cookbooks mark our passage through time, the wisdom and experience that comes with it. Pages bent down to mark certain dishes made for certain meals long ago, guests or loved ones, romantic tête-à-têtes or spooned into the rosy lips of a baby, a cookbook is not simply a bound volume of ingredients, measurements and instructions. A cookbook is memories and life.

 I handle the book delicately now, gently, like a newborn babe, like a broken heart; I carefully, very carefully turn back the front cover of my vegetarian epicure and reread the dedication – I have heard many times that offering a book to someone without a dedication is bad luck. The cover is faded, the pages brittle and torn, a book opened, perused, used and loved for close upon 30 years. Pages are stained, the pages upon which are printed my favorite recipes, bits of paper stick out between pages on which are penciled notes, calculations, measurements. This gem of a cookbook contains recipes I make over and over again, recipes loved by my new family, dishes even eaten by my persnickety, vegetable-hating son, his nephew.

 A cookbook remaining long after the one who gave it is no longer with us.

 We found an old notebook tucked away in a drawer of the house we were renting in the middle of nowhere in Italy. We turned back the cover and realized what a treasure we had stumbled upon. The pages were filled with the gentle, elegant handwriting of the wife of the house’s owner, Ettore, a man just short of 90 who lived next door with his brother. Ettore’s wife Anna had been a gracious hostess of dinner party after dinner party for friends, colleagues and family until she passed away in 1960 and she had scrupulously noted down the details of each and every meal, the guests, the wine served, the dishes made and shared. In this notebook, among many others, no doubt.

 The odd recipe jotted down, maybe something concocted at the moment, too good to be forgotten, possibly passed on from a friend or sister-in-law, a cookbook in its own right, a record of the times yet varying little with what she would have lovingly, attentively prepared for her guests today.

 A sure sign of her time, Anna refused to make the faux pas of ever serving the same guest the same dish, the same meal twice, no matter how far apart their invitation. In the weathered pages of this notebook, an endeavor of love and time, one could peruse the years, pass from decade to decade, holiday to celebration, and imagine the setting, hear the laughter, breathe in the smells emanating from her kitchen, the kitchen in which we stood while flipping through the pages of Anna’s notebook, her history overlapping with ours.

This recipe comes from my oldest cookbook, La cuisine Royal et Bourgeois by Charles De Sercy, published in 1691. The book is worn and much used, a little treasure I keep in my kitchen as a talisman, something that reminds me of all the cooks and cooking that has been going on for so many thousands of years. There are many recipes that are easily adapted for cooking today and I have chosen a sweet little pie/cake that reminds me of the modern galette one now finds in France. //Ilva

4 servings

pie dough for 4 small pie forms
4 egg yolks
4 tbsp sugar
4 tsp soft butter
1 tsp orange blossom water
zest of 1 small lemon

  Line the pie forms with the dough, keep the sides low. Stir sugar and butter, mix with egg yolks, orange blossom water and lemon zest. Spread out the the mixture on top of the pie dough and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 10-12 minutes or until golden. If you want, sprinkle with a little sugar while warm. Serve with fresh fruit, berries and/or whipped cream.


  1. Dearest Jamie and Ilva, I think this is my favourite post so far!

    I too treasure old cookbooks, especially one in particular that was posted to my mother in Australia from her mother in Budapest, circa 1958. I must take it to a bookbinder who could sympathetically fix the spine of the book, which disintegrated over the years.

    Oh, and the photo of the aubergine above is beautiful!

  2. I love old cookbooks! It is a pity that I don't have access to any, though...

    A delightfully written and illustrated post. This recipes is a real gem.



  3. When my dear friend Betty died, her family sent over two boxes of her cookbooks, pamphlets and culinary magazines to add to my growing collection. Treasured cookbooks, history, memories the taste of life. Thank you so much for this beautiful post.

  4. Old cookbooks are the best. I hold ones belonging to my grandmother as reverently as I would hold her fragile hand, clasping softly to steady her gait, grateful to be of help and to spend time with her. As I flip through the pages, I imagine the young mother she used to be and I remember her stories of riding to school in a horse and buggy and birthing my father on a houseboat in rural Louisiana. I treasure the handwritten recipes even more than the old books.

    As always, your Plated Stories evoke beautiful memories and emotions. They bring me joy straight in my inbox. Thank you both.

  5. My grandfather always keeps an eye out for old cookbooks at emmaüs, he knows I go crazy for old books in general and old cookbooks are even rarer to find. How will our childrens children feel in the future when they read our words online. Will they perceive old book odors? will they feel the old ink on the paper? They won't... but at least they should be able to read everything from A-Z, whatever we have published in our life time.

    mhm orange flower water, one of my favorite flavors. =)

  6. So lovely, and something all of us cooks can relate to. While not all cooks love all ingredients, all cooks love cookbooks. A universal post.

    "I handle the cookbook delicately a broken heart." You got me on that one Jamie. I was Just Fine until then.

    Thank you, Jamie for your words and Ilva for your evocative photos. Monday is my new favorite, and *that* is saying something. =)

  7. I loved this story and the recipe sounds wonderful. You two have made my day.

  8. Love vintage cookbooks. I have a torn one from my mother which was in an older metric system, its pages are yellowish brown but cherish it trying to visualize what she cooked. Great post and love the photos.

  9. Love, love, love it! Särskilt bilderna på den gamla svenska kokboken. Kul att den är med här.
    It's somewhat scary though, how your posts hit the spots of where my thoughts have been this year, regarding food, our eating and cooking habits, and, of course food blogging.
    I've put a lot of thoughts into (and trying to write some smart about it) the lack of history I've been sensing lately among several food blogs. On one hand, the currant "the-way-to-do-it" is to go organic, make your own jam, lemonade, to preserve, grow your own herbs and vegetables and even stuff your own sausage i.e. make use of history and well-tried cooking methods in order to hopefully make a better and sustainable world. On the other hand, there is so many that feel the need to be inventive and so originative that they intend to forget about history, and, what is written in your post "all the cooks and cooking that has been going on for so many thousands of years" is totally absent in their stories. Like everything is invented right here. Right now. In their kitchen, filled with every expensive utensils you can imagine. I even feel "history" as young as 5-10 years i lacking and I'm really missing a greater respect for food, both how we get our food and who we learn from to handle and prepare it.

    Well, English is not my language. When I go all philosophical about life, I do miss the vocabulary to express my thoughts proper. Hopefully you get my point. If not, I do love your posts anyway ;) They are all very perceiving and fun to watch and read. Thank you!

  10. Vintage and antique cookbooks are a passion of mine. My mother (and her mother) weren't really great cooks, so I have to look elsewhere to get my supplies. Some days it is a passion that can get a little pricey, although you can also get lucky sometimes. I have a second edition Mrs. Beetons that cost so much I had to hide the receipt from my husband, but I also have a first edition Mastering the Art of French Cooking (with dust jacket) that I found for $25 before Julie & Julia came out.
    My personal favourites are always the ones with butter stains on the pages and notes in the margins - I love seeing the tracks of the previous owners.

  11. I was dismayed recently that when I asked my Mum about her Good Housekeeping cookbook, the one she was given when she first got married, the one I used to pour over, the one with the inscription from her colleagues, the one that was spattered and stained, that she'd found a newer looking copy from a second hand store and thrown the old one out!! I didn't know about this lovely other site of yours. I'll be back - beautiful writing and pics.

  12. Many thanks for the glimpses that race me back to the hours spent poring over the many well-used cookbooks at my parents' and my parents-in-laws' (sp???) houses. On one of those occasions, I can across a box full of recipe cards (many with very promising looking recipes) written in a spidery hand. My favourite card contained the following:
    "Mad Dogs": wrap wiener in bacon. Secure with toothpicks and grill.

    But back to Plated Stories... Tourte d'oeufs look and sound wonderful. And like Jenni, I too was fine until I read "I handle the cookbook delicately a broken heart." What stunningly beautiful images and words, Ilva and Jamie. I am overwhelmed.