Book Review – A Treasury of Great Recipes

pricebookA Treasury of Great Recipes
Mary and Vincent Price
Dover Publications; 50 Anv edition, 512 pages

You’d hear stories about people finding copies in used book stores. Or thrift shops where an unknowing relative had dumped the belongings of a deceased loved one, never knowing what an actual treasure they were giving away. There was a small re-pressing in 1974, but for decades, people talked about it with a bittersweet awe, for only a lucky few would ever possess it.

Until now.

Last month, A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price was republished in all its original 1965 glory.

Yes, that Vincent Price.

It seems the actor was a great gourmand, and along with his wife Mary, an enthusiastic home cook. Both were avid travellers who enjoyed trying new restaurants. Together they toured the world, eating in the best bistros and cafes, convincing chefs along the way to share their recipes, and writing a number of cookbooks together. Because if you were a chef in the early 1960s and Vincent Price showed up at the door of your kitchen, wouldn’t you give him a recipe when he asked for it?

The new edition includes an introduction by the Prices’ daughter Victoria on why she decided to republish the work, and her personal recollections of her parents and their love of food. There’s also a forward by Wolfgang Puck, who was a good friend of the Prices. The rest of the book remains, in all its mid-century perfection, exactly the same as the original edition, sectioned off by country/region and then by specific restaurant, with original menus and photos, and offering up a selection of dishes the Prices had reworked to make more practical for the home cook, with an assurance that every recipe had been tested in their home kitchen and was both practical and economical.

Well… economical for the 1960s. The second recipe in the book, a roast chicken dish from Chef Fernand Point’s Restaurant de la Pyramide, calls for “1 large and 1 small truffle” to be sliced thinly and placed under the chicken’s skin. Currently, a small truffle of good quality costs around $50, in season. So to make this dish today, you’re looking at around $200 to do it properly.

That’s not to say every recipe is a financial investment, nor are most of them particularly complicated. Price was, above all, an everyman, and made great effort to ensure the book would be usable.

The selections are heavily French and European, though, as this is what was considered fine dining half a century ago. There’s also little attention paid to the regionality we look for in cuisine today; no ingredients of the north versus the south in the Italian section, for example. Mexico merits an introduction by Price in which he discusses various regional and cultural influences, but the recipes are all from a restaurant in Mexico City with a French and Spanish background. So there’s a dish “influenced” by spices from the Yucatan, but you’ll find no Oaxacan mole here.

A chapter of Mary and Vincent Price’s own recipes finishes the book and includes a section on napkin folding and the wonders of that great new kitchen appliance, the blender.

It may seem as if I’m making fun, but I’m truly delighted to own this massive tome. I’ve been yearning for a copy for years, so was crazy happy when this version was published. Will I cook from it? Probably, if I can find a way to fit it on my counter (it’s physically huge and unwieldy) as it does actually include a number of classic recipes that have been edited down to be accessible, both through ingredients and instruction (alright, large truffle notwithstanding), to the home cook. I’d totally use the souffle recipe and many of the others.

Mostly though, it’s just a really fun read. As a food writer and historian, being lucky enough to own A Treasury of Great Recipes makes me do the dance of joy because it’s such a clear snapshot of the foodways of the early 1960s. As a Vincent Price fan, I adore this book because with every chapter, every introduction, every photo caption and every step of every recipe, I hear Vincent Price’s voice, slightly raspy, slightly nasally, so distinct… as if he’s here in the room reading it to me.