This post, I’m writing about a cookbook that has been part of my life for longer than anyone I know, other than my immediate family. It’s A Treasury of Great Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price, first published in 1965. (Yes, that Vincent Price.) I remember when my mother bought it. We were at The Outlet Company, a department store in New London, Connecticut. It was the late 1960s and the book cost $25, which was an exorbitant amount for a cookbook – heck, for a lot of things – in those days. And it looked completely different than any cookbook I’d seen up to that point. The padded binding and embossed gold lettering made it seem like something important. Even our set of the Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t look that impressive.
The subtitle, “Famous Specialties of the World’s Foremost Restaurants Adapted for the American Kitchen,” is accurate, but makes it seem like a tome, which it definitely isn’t. There are indeed all sorts of recipes from restaurants all over the world. What makes it fun is that it’s arranged geographically and by restaurant, with reproductions of menus and photos of the restaurants themselves. And the chapter and recipe introductions, written by Vincent Price himself, are a delight. The design and layout were Mary Price’s creation. The look and feel of the book made it somehow not surprising to me to learn that she had been a costume designer on Broadway and in Hollywood.
I figured that the creators of this book would have some interesting wine stories. So I asked their daughter, Victoria Price, for an interview. Victoria is a designer, like her mother was, and authored a book about her father, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. She’s also busy with a number of other non-family projects, as you can read on her website.
Victoria worked on and released a 50th anniversary edition of the cookbook last year, and had steeped herself in the cookbook and its history. We had a fun conversation. I’m afraid I gushed a little. After all, the book was responsible for my first tastes of lots of interesting foods. But Victoria told me she loves hearing people’s stories about her parents’ book, all the more so since until the new edition it had been out of print for decades.
I’m so happy to talk with you about A Treasury of Great Recipes. It was the introduction to so many first dishes for me; Paella, spinach lasagna noodles, chicken with lobster. Did you get to eat like that when you were growing up? There was always a lot of good food around. I had the opportunity to eat very, very well. But I was a picky eater and probably a disappointment to my parents in that way.
Did your parents use their cookbook at home? It wasn’t a family recipe book, although it contains some recipes we all enjoyed. My parents always called it “The Cookbook,” it was their project — one of a number of projects they took on together over the years.
How did the idea for the book come about? My father had always collected recipes for foods he enjoyed, even before he and my mother were married. He’d charm chefs out of their recipes and then recreate them for friends. But he and my mother didn’t set out at first to write a cookbook. That idea came later, and was an outgrowth of work they did for Sears Roebuck.
What work did they do for Sears? My parents developed an art collection for Sears, The Vincent Price Collection. They selected and bought art – things like Picasso prints – and some were sold in a special edition of the Sears catalogue. My parents were collectors of experiences, they absorbed the culture of places they visited. So it seemed natural to bring those same kind of experiences with food to a wider audience back here at home.
So was the thought originally that the cookbook would be a Sears cookbook? I don’t think so – or if it was, it didn’t turn out that way.
When I read the cookbook, I feel like goodwill and good humor come through on every page. It seems like your father was enjoying himself. Does it sound like him to you? The parts he wrote are very much like him. And people tell me all the time they can hear his voice in their heads when they read it.
And do you feel like the design represents your mother as well? Yes, absolutely. It definitely feels like her. She got the idea for the look of the book from the kitchen at home, and their collection of copper pots and molds. I put the photo of my parents in the kitchen on the dust jacket of the new edition – and it was opposite the introduction in the original. There were lots of variations, but that was the idea for the overall look.
Do you think your parents would be surprised by the popularity of the cookbook? In overall terms, yes, I think they’d be stunned. After all, it sold thousands of copies and it was expensive for the time. I don’t believe they necessarily expected that. But in terms of the book itself, I don’t think it surprised my mother that the book stood the test of time. She was a long-term planner, and saw trends before they happened. Plus she was a perfectionist, absolutely meticulous about everything she did. It all had an eye toward posterity, as though it was meant to last. And she was right – it did.
One thing I have to ask – although I really love the book, two things bother me about it: the recipe ingredients are listed up front but not the amounts, and you have to read the whole recipe to figure out how much of stuff you’ll need. And then there are instructions and things that people won’t do these days, like scaling a whole fish. Has the recipe format changed in the new edition? I think that the decision about the ingredient list was made by the editor and publisher. It has a really clean look to it, with the ingredients listed down the left-hand side of the page without numbers in there. I can see where it would make it more difficult to make the recipe, though. We didn’t do anything to the recipes themselves in the new edition. I wanted to leave it the way it first came out, but with new introductory material.
Your father was a spokesman for many products and organizations. I remember seeing the American Dairy Association commercials, and one for Sun Country Wine Coolers. But until I was preparing to talk with you, I didn’t realize he had been a spokesman for the California Wine Institute. My father was honored to be a spokesman – really happy that they asked him. What he did for the organization or company depended on what they wanted and the type of product. The commercials were almost all funny. But the wine stuff was more serious, he traveled and spoke at dinners. Plus he made a spoken word album, Wine Is Elegance, to promote California wines.***
I had no idea! Spoken word recordings are really a throwback to my elementary school days, along with filmstrips. Yeah, they seem pretty quaint now. My father did a bunch of them on various subjects, including art and even the bible – with his distinctive voice he got asked a lot. But this one was part of a record/cassette cooking course that came out in 1977.
Did dinner parties at home include wine? As you can hear in the recording, he did pair wine with food, and yes, wine was around. I never developed a taste for it, though!
Did your father collect wine? He did, to the extent that someone as cheap as he was in his later years would collect wine. He had some European wines at home. But he really did love California wines, which is why we partnered with a California winery to release a line of wines with his name on them.
What other sorts of things did he like to cook? He cooked lots of different foods. But there were a few cookbooks he loved. The Joy of Cooking was always around. And he was proud of himself every time he made Marcella Hazan’s risotto. He also loved a book called First You Take a Leek, which had a cover drawing that looked like someone was, well, you know.
Thanks so much for letting me relive part of my childhood talking with you! It was fun for me too. I love that so many people have vivid memories of my parents’ book – thanks for helping spread the word!
***Before I go on to the recipe, I want to say something about the Wine Is Elegance recording. There’s a lot of information about California wines in it, walking you through different wines and varietals, and how the wines are made. It’s a fun listen, especially with Vincent Price’s voice.
But the recording is also a time capsule that’s coming back around. It was released in 1977, at a time when the results of the Judgment of Paris weren’t well known. That now-famous wine tasting, which took place in May 1976, had a huge impact on California wines – in addition to making them justifiably popular, it also dictated to a large extent which varietals were planted and which wines were made for a couple of decades or more. Maybe you could still find Italian varietal wines made in California in the late 1990s if you were in California, but they didn’t make it to the east coast. Today, however, you can find all sorts of California wines made from many varietals all over the country, as Price describes was the case in 1977.
I think you’ll enjoy the recording. One piece of Vincent Price’s advice definitely holds up: Trying different wines is a wonderful game that you always win.
It was tough deciding which recipe from A Treasury of Great Recipes I should include in this post. I was going to use the recipe for cheesecake – it’s very light in texture and is still my favorite cheesecake ever. But I decided I’d go with this recipe for tortellini instead. They’re mixed in a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, beef stock, and mushrooms, then topped with cheese and baked until the whole dish is hot. This is the end of tomato season so it’s just in time. Go out and get the best tomatoes you can find this weekend. You won’t be disappointed.
According to Vincent Price’s introduction, “One of the oldest restaurants in San Francisco is Ernie’s on Montgomery Street. It is lavishly Victorian in décor and aromatically Italian in cuisine. One of their most popular dishes is this first course of tortellini, a miniature snail-shaped pasta similar to ravioli, and a happy change from the more commonplace Italian starches.”
I love that he felt the need (or perhaps his editors told him) to describe tortellini, since we can find them in nearly any grocery store these days. But probably not back in 1965, unless you lived near an Italian deli. I’m lucky to have two Italian specialty stores nearby and buy their frozen cheese tortellini. The pasta is usually a little thinner than the ones you find in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, and they’re a bit more delicate. The original recipe calls for 24 tortellini per person, 8 dozen in total for four people. You can make this amount, certainly, but it’ll probably feed at least six people, if not eight. I’d make six dozen at most. I suspect that the tortellini used to develop the recipe were a bit smaller than some of the behemoth tortellini we find these days.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of variations on this dish, including adding cooked shrimp in before putting it in the oven. I’ve also substituted vegetable stock for beef stock. I don’t usually peel the tomatoes, because there’s a lot of flavor just underneath the skin that gets peeled away if you do. It certainly looks neater if you peel them. But some of the heirloom tomato varieties have very thin skin, so it might not matter to you one way or the other.
I’ve put the recipe in more user-friendly form than the way it appears in the book, but otherwise it’s pretty much the original. Serve it with a white wine with a bit of acidity, like Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône White ($12). Or the Cave la Vinsobraise Rosé (also $12). You can also serve a light red, but because the tomatoes get cooked very lightly, they still taste fresh – the white and rosé keep that freshness going. Then settle in and stream your favorite Vincent Price movie — and take the opportunity to remember him and Mary Price as the trendsetters they were.
From A Treasury of Great Recipes, by Mary and Vincent Price
Serves 4 to 6
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium onions, chopped
4 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped (the original recipe calls for peeled tomatoes, but I don’t always peel them)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup beef stock
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 mushrooms, minced
6 to 8 dozen frozen tortellini (The original recipe specifies two packages or 8 dozen, but you’ll want enough for everyone to have about a dozen each. The recipe header describes tortellini as small, so 4 to 6 dozen of today’s larger tortellini may be enough.)
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a large saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the garlic and onions and cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions are transparent. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, flour, beef stock, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Stir to mix well, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then stir in the mushrooms.
Cook the tortellini in boiling, salted water according to the package directions. Drain them. While the tortellini are cooking, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a shallow ovenproof baking dish. Add the drained tortellini and cook over moderate heat, stirring to coat them with the butter, for 3 minutes.
Pour the tomato sauce over the tortellini. Add 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and stir gently to mix. Top with 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces, then sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes. Serve very hot.