Picking a Peck of Peter Paupers
Well, maybe “peck” isn’t the correct word to describe the little cookbook volumes from the Peter Pauper Press that I’ve collected over the years. You might even have one tucked into a bookcase somewhere. (Maybe at grannie’s?) The company, which began in 1928 in a family basement in Larchmont, New York, is still publishing, and they are still producing a few cookery books today.
Most of those 4 1⁄2- by 5 1⁄2-inch pocket/handbag-sized books I have were published in the mid to late ’50s and on into the ’60s. The titles, cover art, graphics, and copy are just plain charming. There are the ABC series of books: The ABC of Gourmet Cooking, The ABC of Cheese Cookery, The ABC of Herb and Spice Cookery, and the ABC of Salads and (ditto) Desserts. The Merrie Christmas Cook Book and its companion Drink Book. The decorations in these books are by Ruth McCrea, whose work can truly be called winsome. Or maybe whimsical. (They would be great, enlarged and framed, to decorate a kitchen’s walls.) And scattered through all of these pages are corny poems about food. Here are a few examples: Drink down a toast / To the best of all cooks, / Who plays it by ear / And not by the books.”
That’s from Gourmet Cookery. However, in Cheese Cookery, there’s another, a caption for a drawing depicting a guy on his knees, proposing. I assume it’s she who says: It’s true that I love you, / But, Dear, I can’t cook; / I’ll marry you, Darling, / But buy me a book! Perhaps my favorite: ’Long with the drinks, / Bring on the cheese; / Jaded old gourmets / To tempt and to please!”
I originally started this little essay with ten books in hand and then a friend called. She’d found Herbs and Spice, and I added it. Published in 1957, this turns out to be a collaboration between the publisher and Spice Islands. (We’re told they supplied the recipes). We hear the words “retro” and “vintage” applied to fashion, but applying it to food? Between the Pauper Press’s cookbook covers are supremo examples of some of the food we ate back then.
The Whys of Collecting
Yes, I plead guilty. I am a collector and about as far from being a neo-Luddite (look it up) as one can get. My particular passion: cookbooks! But there is a reason I’ve been drawn to the Pauper Press output. Let’s time travel back to the late ’50s, early ’60s. The scene is our beloved A&P on the main drag in Delmar, New York. The players in this little drama, probably staged twice a week, are yours truly and his mother, Genevieve. We meet about 5:30, as we are both working. Mom stands near the aromatic coffee-grinding machine. (We are a black-bagged A&P Bokar coffee family, never even considering Eight O’Clock in the red bag or that yellow-bagged Family Circle. Talk about brand loyalty.)
Anyway, during this encounter mama opens her purse and produces one of the Peter Pauper cookbooks. (I wish I could remember which one.) This is going to help solve the eternal question: “what’s for dinner.” Plus, we are having fun. Having decided, say, on chicken, we graze through the possibilities. We have to figure on that favorite word “fast.”
This little scheme produced a few real successes—and I’ve managed to forget the flops. I do remember that many of the chosen recipes went into rotation and some were tarted up with varied herbs (in those days all from a jar). I pushed the cart, always—and then we’d scoot home to share the peeling, slicing, and then the actual cooking.
I have a hunch that it was the Queen of Hearts Cook Book mom used. (I discovered there was a The King of Hearts Drinks Book too: men being the supposed handler of the spirits back then.) Queen is the earliest of the bunch (1955), and it has some things in it that trigger a vague taste memory. Do you recall making canapes from English Muffins topped with a shredded cheddar-onion based mix and then broiled? Or “homemade” pizzas using those same muffins? I do. Those ’50s hors d’oeuvres would have been perfect for martini hour for the Don Drapers of that Mad Men era and their, um, dining partners du jour: I should know, I worked in advertising in the late ’60s. Gulp!
Back to Mama: perhaps we sometimes used The Melting Pot, another Pauper presentation, showcased as “A Cookbook of All Nations” and crammed into the sixty-page format. It came with the following ditty on the back cover (the books even had dustjackets). Within the pot-shaped drawing (emblazoned with flags flying and three lively-looking dancers below it) was this: From the East and from the West / Come the foods / We love the best! / Be they bland / Or be they hot. They’ll simmer in / Our Melting Pot!
What I remember simmering in our frying pan—and for many years—was a variation of a dish that used to be on so many restaurant menus. Remember Hamburger Steak? Well here’s the Melting Pot version:
- 2 pounds ground chuck
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves, garlic, cut in half
- 1 cup Burgundy (use any good tasting Finger Lakes red)
Combine meat and salt and pepper. Use a light touch and form into 6 patties. Fry slowly in melted butter. Remove to a platter and keep warm. In butter remaining in pan, brown almonds and garlic. When almonds are slightly browned and the garlic just colored, add Burgundy (or cabernet or merlot, etc.). Bring to a boil. Remove garlic and pour liquid over hamburgers. Serves 6.
Ingredients a Food Historian Would Love
Which brings me to the subject of mushrooms. I’d sauté as few sliced mushrooms to enliven the sauce on that fancy burger. Funny thing is, some of the recipes in these books call for fresh mushrooms, others call for canned, and still others for “mushroom powder.” We wince. The “spice biggies” such as McCormick and Spice Island do not list “mushroom powder” these days, but you can make your own by going online and entering “mushroom powder.” It gives a needed jolt of that elusive taste sensation called umami.
More wincing: the veal cutlet Parmigiano in “Melting Pot” lists mozzarella as an ingredient, not Parmesan. And in a few of the recipes there is the odd can of soup or soup base. And fancy dishes might have sherry. So tres chic.
Back then, if bell peppers were called for they’d usually be green (a taste I happen to like). And I recall grating onion when I was a kid to obtain onion juice, a favorite ingredient (you could add some to that burger.) It was available bottled back in the day.
It rarely happened, but sometimes mom was too pooped to pie-it, so we had fruit or, on a particularly tough day, applesauce for dessert with striations of cinnamon and whipped cream on the side. (Today I’d add Calvados, a French apple brandy, to the cream. Gourmet? Oui!). But here is a seasonal delight I found in Peter Pauper’s Simple French Cookery. It’s definitely for grownups, so have that jar of applesauce handy for the kiddies. And my mom would have loved it. (She’d probably have made small meringue disks to top with the berries.)
Strawberries a la Reine
This is a dish for a mature audience, including a Queen, but it is so easy and delicious I was delighted to find it again. I made it with Grand Marnier, not having Curacao on hand. And I dished the fruit over some strawberry ice cream. Halve the berries if they are large; quarter them if they are super-large.
- 3 c. stemmed strawberries
- 3 Tbsp. powdered sugar
- 3 Tbsp. Port (Ruby would be my choice)
- 3 Tbsp. plus 1 teaspoon orange Curacao or Grand Marnier
- 3 Tbsp. Brandy
- 1 c. heavy cream (preferably not ultra-pasteurized), whipped
Toss the strawberries with the sugar and then chill (them, not you). Blend Port, 3 tablespoons orange Curacao, and Brandy, and pour over chilled berries. Add the teaspoon of Curacao to the whipped cream. Place berries and 1⁄4 of the liquid in 4 individual dishes; cover with whipped cream and serve. Maybe save out 4 nice berries to top your creation. Serves 4.
The Press’s founders back in 1928 were Peter Beilenson and his wife Edna. It was Edna who started the cookery series that, she boasted, covered everything “from abalone to zabaglione.” (And that was the title of a ’57 effort.) It was she who insisted on the decorative bindings and artwork that make these gift books such small treasures. In an interview, Nick, the son of the founders of the press, claimed that the books were sold “at prices even a pauper could afford.” Indeed. These little cookery books, typically about sixty pages, cost a dollar. As I recall, they were displayed in stores on a little stand near the cash register for impulse buys. They made a dandy little gift for the relatives, friends and neighbors who were into cooking, and an inexpensive indulgence for cookbook collectors like moi. (By the way, I just recently snagged another copy of the The Merrie Christmas Cook Book, only this is the 1984 edition. There is a very attractive new dust jacket but with contents identical to the ’55 version. That one cost a buck, the “newer” one is $6.95.)
But Wait—There’s Lots More
I happened to mention my fascination with the Press to two friends and they introduced me to their friends, a couple living in the Ithaca area, who have a collection of ephemera. You know, booklets, ads, all manner of paper devoted to kitchen and other things. So we arranged a visit. I was, as the British say, gob-smacked. Their holdings are vast, and wonderfully indexed. I discovered my eleven little volumes are a very small part of the fifty-odd cookery and drinks books published in the small format to date. As I implied, many of them had a holiday cooking or drinks theme. And what good stocking stuffers they must have made.
Moreover, you can almost trace the evolution of cooking styles over the years by reading the titles and the year they were published. My new friends have a list that I eagerly perused. As the ’60s morphed into the ’70s, All you Need to Know About Wine and Fabulous Fondues appeared; and in ’72 along came Simple Organic Cooking and 1974’s Making Wine at Home. Then followed The Microwave Party Cook Book (1976), The Geisha Cook Book (1976), Festive Cookies (1985) and Early American Cooking from that same year. I gotta get me that there Geisha book!
A Final Ditty
I found this in Herbs and Spices: So sprinkle herbs, and sprinkle spices, / And have a real good day. / But, remember please, / A little bit, will go a long, long way!