A Vintage Salad with a Vintage Dressing
From another one of our vintage treasure hunts
I’M IN MY HOMETOWN IN VIRGINIA for a visit, which usually means I’m going to be poking around in antiques/junk stores, in search of vintage cookbooks. And if I luck out, you can bet you’re going to be getting an interesting and/or delicious salad recipe I’ve discovered in one of them.
And today, you’re also getting a photo of this lobster dish that I came across in one of those stores, which I found both grotesque and gorgeous. I left it where I found it, but I am very seriously considering driving the hour-and-a-half back to the antique mall in NC to get it. What do you do with a dish like this? I feel like I should leave it for someone who knows, but I wonder if anyone does—which makes me want it even more.
When it comes to cookbooks, though, I’ve struck gold in my pursuit of vintage culinary treasure often enough to trust my instincts—and to believe that I have become quite savvy at it. But the truth is “treasure” usually falls into a few pretty obvious categories for semi-compulsive neurotics like me.
For instance: a cookbook by a big name or someone with a cultish following; a famously rare or out-of-print cookbook; a “rediscovered” book (such as Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book, which has sold over 3 million copies since its publication in 1964 and in recent years has conjured renewed awe that mid-century women could be smart, witty, and rebellious).
I will also snap up cookbooks that fall into the anachronism category, for my own personal socio-anthropological reasons: they satisfy my curiosity about the past and allow me to also imagine we’ve come far in this country. My copy of The Thousand Recipes Chinese Cookbook, an enormous volume published in 1970, falls into this category (even though I was ten years old when it was published). It has perfectly admirable, encyclopedic aspirations, but was written by a New Yorker named Gloria Bley Miller, who was not Chinese nor was she a Chinese scholar; her other books were about teaching art to children and how to hold a wine tasting. It was touted as knowledgeable and definitive (it still gets great reviews on book sites). And it was panned as the work of an enthusiastic amateur, “conceived at the typewriter and the reader seldom feels a sense of the author’s affinity for the stove,” by a writer who also pointed out that she lifted recipes whole-cloth from cookbooks by Chinese authors without citing them. (This was in this review, offensive even then, in the New York Review of Books. Yes, it was 1970, but it’s still jarring to read in the present day.)
I will also buy vintage cookbooks simply for the wonderful illustrations.
And then there are books that qualify as treasure simply because they flip your switch, the way The Oskar Davidsen Book of Open Sandwiches did mine. I own three copies, which I wrote about last year, when I examined the peculiar hold vintage cookbooks have over me.
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