Save These Books!

30 May

Ah, books. Cookbooks to be precise. To be even more precise, out-of-print cookbooks. And the real cherry, the favorite out-of-print cookbooks of some of the food world’s cooking and writing illuminati. Grey Lady, you did good!

For some reason, I knew Batali’s choice would be hard to find and obscure. But I expected something less sentimental from my hero Anthony Bourdain… You know, a book about how to butcher buffalo or something. Nigella’s book is suitably sexy, homey and delicious sounding, Harold McGee’s a little off the beaten path and Maya Kaimal’s book is one I must track down.

In case I hadn’t told you guys before, I am an avid out-of-print cookbook collector. So Ann, you say, what is your choice then?

To The Queen’s Taste – A Cook Book For Moderns – Helen Train Hilles (1937)

This book was written for a certain kind of lady during the Depression. I remember doing research on the author when I first found this little gem and recall that she was a woman of some means in New York City, and I believe that her husband was on the board at the Met or something like that. Either way, this book is a wonderful snapshot in time. Even though people were suffering, and from the tone of this book Mrs. Hilles and her family were suffering to some degree as well, a woman of her social standing were still expected to keep her household and entertain in a very certain way. As she states:

We live in a certain amount of style. The maid may be general or non-existent. But the beds are turned down. We dress for dinner, even if it’s in pajamas, when we are alone. And our meals for two are as well-cooked as when we have guests, though the meat may be hamburg. Our grandparents, you see, did leave us something. We have standards, even though they be elastic.

Written 70 odd years ago and read at a more prosperous time her words (especially the part about the pjs!) still ring true. This is not a cookbook in the modern sense. The recipes are just vague, there are no recipe lists, no step-by-step instructions are included. Mrs. Hilles writes assuming that her audience has had the proper schooling, the proper instruction from her mother, so that she doesn’t have to write it all out for her audience. I love this.

Some of the recipes I could never imagine making, for example, Tongue with Spiced Fruit Sauce (p. 113) or Mousse of Tongue (on the very next page). But one I will definitely be trying soon? Dandelion and Tarragon salad. (instructions: Chop tender dandelion greens with watercress. Add to this a tiny bunch of tarragon. Three or four leaves will do.) I think i would serve this with Beet Dressing (yum!).

To The Queen’s Taste is not just a cookbook however. Mrs. Hilles feels that a proper modern woman is always prepared, so she offers advice on how too cook for your husband if he happens to come from *gasp* the South. My favorite chapter is entitled “Fire Burn And Cauldron Bubble” and explores what to do when:

You are planning to spend the weekend at your home in the country and have invited two guests. It is mid-winter and the building you are going to has been closed tight for some time. You know that this weekend can be either delightful or a failure and have chosen the least risky of your friends as guests.

She goes on to explain what supplies should be dragged from the city, how the pantry should be stocked so that upon arrival from The City a proper meal can be made and how to cook in the fireplace. This is my kind of life, just reading about it makes me happy.

Finally, she offers a list of things that a proper lady (and a good cook of any era) should and should not do. To wit:

  • I will never serve peas and carrots mixed, canned soup without the addition of something, rolls cold, or dry cereals untoasted.
  • I will not serve strange, fruit-juice or liqueur cocktails.
  • I will omit tutti-fruitti salad, artificial coloring, matching color schemes, or any wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Sandra Lee take note!)
  • I will never serve steak on cold plates nor salad on lukewarm ones.
  • I will never say “I love onions but they don’t love me!”

And finally, possibly the most important words printed in this book for both moderns, and MODERNS:

I will never apologize for my food.

Truer words were never spoken.


2 Responses to “Save These Books!”

  1. Julie May 31, 2006 at 5:56 am #

    I’m fascinated by the reference to toasting cereal. Would this be boxed cereal?

  2. ann May 31, 2006 at 7:20 am #

    I went back and looked some more and couldn’t find any more references to cereal in the book. Did boxed cereal exist in the ’30s?
    If not, I’d assume she was talking about oatmeal and other whole grain cereals that would probably taste pretty good if they were toasted!

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