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The non-essential cookbooks every chef should have on their shelf.

Betty Crocker
Recipe Card Library

In 1971, Betty Crocker published its first Recipe Card Library. A complete set, which could be collected piecemeal via coupons or purchased outright, consisted of 648 cards and came filed away in a mustard-yellow box.

Today, these iconic cards—photo on one side, recipe on the other—appeal as much to our sense of humor as to our taste buds. Betty Crocker’s recipes date from a time of outlandish culinary innovation: Artificial colors were in, conventional divisions between sweet and savory were most definitely not. If a food item could be suspended in gelatin, frozen, molded or creamed it was, and flamboyantly so.

But in the 1970s, Betty Crocker’s Recipe Card Library was a kitchen countertop icon that reflected radical changes in American society. Women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and domesticity had fallen out of fashion. For cooking to be considered a worthwhile pursuit, it had to be deemed cutting-edge. Processed foods and quick cooking styles such as microwaving were thought of as sophisticated. Perhaps most importantly, the modern woman was a hostess, not a homemaker: The Recipe Card Library placed a disproportionate emphasis on cooking for guests.

Recipe cards were not unique to Betty Crocker. The concept had sprung up alongside women’s magazines, which would offer mail-out recipe cards to subscribers to promote consumer loyalty. They grew in ubiquity from the 1930s onward, in line with the exponential popularity of women’s titles.

Betty Crocker came to the recipe card trend from the position of canny advertiser. To the surprise of many, the eponymous Betty was never a real person, but rather a friendly face created in the 1920s to front a flour brand. Being imaginary meant that she was uniquely malleable. 1920s Betty was a bouffant housewife who taught women how to bake cakes; 1970s Betty was a socialite and self-professed feminist with an effortless knack for entertaining.

The recipe card format was a smart way of transitioning the Betty Crocker brand toward its modern identity. The cards were aspirational—an affordable sliver of the lifestyle sold by glossy magazines. But they were also evocative of tradition—a descendant of the handwritten recipe cards that had been lovingly passed down within families for centuries.

By the mid-1980s, cookbooks had become easier to mass-produce. Recipe cards faded in popularity and lost their purpose entirely with the advent of the internet. But, almost a half-century on from the publication of Betty Crocker’s Recipe Card Library, they are now getting their due as objects of unique futuristic beauty.

In 2015, the surrealist artist Maurizio Cattelan and his frequent collaborator, Pierpaolo Ferrari, styled Betty Crocker recipes for an extravagant front-page photo shoot in The New York Times Magazine. It was a madcap celebration of party food: In one image, a woman with shrimp for fingers serves up a radioactive pink terrine; in another, a man stirs his coffee with a hot dog—a wry reference to the 1970s enthusiasm for incorporating hot dogs into pretty much every dish.

For some fans, it is the simplicity of the recipe card format that lends it a contemporary edge. This year, the British photographer Rick Pushinsky has made a collection of cards based on his father’s much-loved family recipes. Called Haimisha, the project is a corrective to the plush, expensive cookbooks currently in fashion. “Recipe cards are lightweight and easily shared and, I suppose, sit somewhere between the weightless internet and a heavy cookbook,” Pushinsky explains. “They’re easily propped up in the kitchen or stuck to the fridge with a magnet and, if made with the right materials, easily wiped clean of Bolognese.” Pushinsky adds that he likes that the recipe cards are so evocative. “The format reminds me of my childhood in the ’70s and ’80s, and I think, for many people, it’s very nostalgic,” he says. “Perhaps it’s time for a comeback?”

  • Words:
    Harriet Fitch Little and Molly Mandell
  • Photography:
    Pia Winther

Les Dîners de Gala

Rare cookbooks are great fun: the Prohibition dazzle of Giggle Water, the raw prestige of an early-edition Escoffier. Among the strangest, and rarest was Les Dîners de Gala, a grotesquely opulent cookbook penned and illustrated by Salvador Dalí. It was an object whispered about here and there among chefs, a near-myth that few had actually held in their hands.

The book, now reprinted by Taschen, commemorates Dalí’s profound love of elaborate eating. It is also a passionate ode to his wife and muse, Gala, whose image haunts the illustrations and with whom Dalí hosted decade after decade of lavish dinner parties. Guests could expect fish served inside slippers, or frogs jumping out from medieval tureens. They dined amid the howling of hired monkeys. These were parties designed to present a living manifestation of the surrealist ideal.

And yet to read through Les Dîners is to understand that food was not just another vehicle for Dalí’s exhibitionism. His friend Pierre Roumeguere, introducing the book, quotes him as saying, “The sensual intelligence housed in the tabernacle of my palate beckons me to pay the greatest attention to food.” The religious allusion is not careless. We are given to understand that for Dalí, the act of eating represented a sacred opportunity for self-realization amid existential crisis. “I know what I eat,” he once said, “I know not what I do.”

The careful language he uses in the recipes bears this out. Sure, the chapter titles are full of his trademark exotica (“Les Entre-Plats Sodomisés” for meats, “Je Mange GALA” for the aphrodisiac course), but the recipes themselves are lessons in humble, crystal-clear delivery. It is a very sober Dalí who writes, “First of all, let us prepare the slices of the conger eel by removing the skin and the central bone, one by one…” He wants us to experience exactly what he did while consuming his Conger of the Rising Sun. This wild inventiveness alongside careful execution calls to mind his paintings—famously strange, yet everywhere full of technical mastery.

Dalí warns us right away that his recipes are not for the faint of heart: “If you are a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive, and far too impertinent for you.” The warning is well-taken. Oasis Leek Pie is harmless enough, but soon we arrive at Larded Meat á la Mode, the Breast of Venus and Toffee with Pine Cones. All 136 recipes are doused in Dalí’s surrealism; all are meant for real-world preparation.

Still, the book can be enjoyed without ever melting a pat of butter in a pan. It carries our minds back to an unrestrained era of French cooking, when rich sauces were considered so de rigueur that they are only casually referenced at the end of recipes. A handful of the instructions were provided by the old high-command of Parisian restaurants—La Tour d’Argent, Maxim’s, Lasserre—where Dalí regularly held court throughout his life.

And then there are the illustrations—some of them fully-executed paintings. The illustration for the “Soft Watches Half Asleep” chapter features a macabre parade of crayfish topped by deranged human faces. Halved fruits sit beneath them like fascist banners, and beneath those we find a cartoon narrating the attempted murder of a frog. The images are wrapped around each other and presented on a silver platter. What sort of dish is this? Whose appetite could it possibly arouse? Everywhere in the visual elements we find perverse juxtapositions between violence and delight, plentitude and decay—the “coincidence of opposites” that was the elemental component of Dalí’s life’s work. No opposition delighted him more than that between sustenance and death. To eat well, he once said, is “to die a lot.”

Foods of The World

“Time-Life Books invites you on a food lover’s tour of provincial France,” reads an advertisement in a March 1968 issue of LIFE Magazine. “You may stop and visit such fascinating places as an open-air market in Gascogne or a charming old inn on the road to Chartres.” This “tour” cost only $4.95, plus shipping and handling. After submitting payment by mail, The Cooking of Provincial France, written by M.F.K Fisher, would arrive at the buyer’s doorstep.

The cookbook adventure series didn’t stop in Eure-et-Loir but traveled to remote regions in Italy, China, Russia and the Middle East. The 27 volumes that comprise the Foods of the World series are now classic pieces of culinary history, celebrated as much for their illustrious contributors as for their penchant for self-parody.

The bimonthly series started publishing in 1968, at a time in postwar America when a taste for the “exotic”—and in general, an interest in parts of the world outside the confines of the US—was expansive. The series offered an opportunity to learn how to cook delicious international fare while congratulating oneself on one’s worldly sophistication.

By September of 1968, the series had 500,000 subscribers. Writing in an issue of New York magazine, however, Nora Ephron revealed that, at least to its editors, Foods of the World was no more than an inside joke. Author Nika Hazelton worked on the project merely for the money, and M.F.K. Fisher said she wrote The Cooking of Provincial France for the free trip to France.

Regardless, Ephron noted, the cookbooks managed to include “nearly everyone who [was] anyone in the food world”—including Julia Child, Waverly Root and James Beard. Given that the contributors were established food writers, the subscribers didn’t seem to care “one whit whether the soufflé on the cover [was] actually a meringue.”

Today, the books are collectors’ items. Jim Leff, founder of Chowhound, refers to the series as “miraculous,” calling its volumes “legendary tomes penned by top reporters pampered with uncommon time, budget and editing.” Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of Gourmet, says the series “opened up whole new worlds” for her.

Renowned Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson has also read every book in the collection and calls The Cooking of Scandinavia “a masterpiece.” Nilsson ordered hundreds of books on Scandinavia while writing and photographing The Nordic Cookbook, but says that Time-Life’s shone for its accuracy and detail.

“It’s clear that the author went to Scandinavia. He spent a serious amount of time trying to understand the food culture of the region so that he could offer a thorough explanation for non-Scandinavians,” Nilsson says. “It sounds mundane, but think about it—how many books about food are actually made that way? Not many. That’s why they still hold up.”

The Book of Tasty
and Healthy Food

First published in 1939, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food is a narrative of Soviet culinary history, replete with overflowing caviar tins, mounds of cheese and carefully decorated pastries.

The book is the work of Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, an Armenian politician who was appointed as the Soviet People’s Commissar of the Food Industry during the 1930s. Upon stepping into his new job, Mikoyan set off for the United States, where he scoured food plants, cafeterias and department stores for inspiration. When he returned to Moscow, he enthusiastically introduced prepackaged kornfleks, ketchup and frozen treats not unlike American Klondike bars or Drumstick cones to the Soviet people.

“Food anchored the domestic realities of our totalitarian state, supplying a shimmer of desire to a life that was mostly drab, sometimes absurdly comical, on occasion unbearably tragic, but just as often naively optimistic and joyous,” Anya von Bremzen writes in her memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. “Food, as one academic has noted, defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future and connected to their past.”

Over time, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food became known simply as Kniga or The Book. More than eight million copies have been printed and over a dozen different iterations have been released, generally in accordance with Soviet regime changes. Of these, which vary in both physical appearance and political commentary, the 1952 edition is the best known (though it was replaced only one year later with a version absent of any Stalin references). In 2012, an English translation provided those outside the former USSR with an opportunity to attempt vareniki (Ukranian dumplings) or rassolnik (a Russian soup with pickles).

Despite its many manifestations, the recipes have remained mostly unchanged. Some are modest, like cabbage salads and straightforward soups. Others—suckling pig in aspic with a horseradish sauce—offer a dreamlike vision of the supposed fruits of communism. Noting the importance of variety, the book ignores the USSR’s limited supplies and intense rationing: “Not all housewives take the time and effort to make a plan for food preparation in advance. Mostly they only have around 10 or 12 dishes that they alternate throughout the years, and the family receives monotonous meals… Borscht, shchi, cutlets will appear more delicious if they appear on the menu once every ten days, or every week, at most.” Seasonal sample menus each consist of a three-course dinner and dessert.

For those who grew up eating pelmeni (dumplings) and borscht, the book and its recipes are bathed in nostalgia. Although a piece of propaganda (lavish dinner spreads featuring Champagne and oysters were few and far between), it became, and in many instances remains, a mainstay for residents of the former Eastern Bloc. It is what von Bremzen calls “a totalitarian Joy of Cooking—a kitchen bible so cherished, people lugged it with them even as they fled the State that published it.”

  • Words:
    Harriet Fitch Little and Molly Mandell
  • Photography:
    Pia Winther
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