I’ve recently been introduced to the legendary Time-Life series of cookbooks called Foods of the World, published in 1968. In response to my question about what to do with my freezer full of game, Darrell Corti suggested I make paté, and that I buy the Cooking of the British Isles edition of the series, written by Adrian Bailey, as a resource. Each edition of the series came with a hardback book — full of beautiful photographs and lots of narrative — and a spiral bound recipe book. The hardbacks cost about $1 on the internet, as well as being fairly easy to find in thrift stores, but the spiral recipe books are a bit more rare. The hardbacks on their own are less useful as cookbooks than they are as history books, but there are a few recipes in the back. Buying the complete set of 27 can cost you a pretty penny. The impressive thing about this series is that Time-Life managed to pull together some of the best food writers of the time. The Cooking of Provincial France is written by M.F.K Fisher and Cooking of Italy by Waverly Root! There are also contributions by Julia Child and James Beard.

At any rate, I started with Bailey’s British Isles, and also bought Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, because I saw that it was written by Joseph Wechsberg — author of the wonderful Blue Trout and Black Truffles and numerous New Yorker articles.  Soon after these arrived in the mail, my very good and very resourceful friend deposited a stack of several other editions on my doorstep (she’s the type of person who has everything worthwhile at her fingertips, so as soon as she knows you’re interested in something, she brings it to you).  Among these, was Wine and Spirits by Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s brother and Auberon’s uncle. A very hard to find book that I desire is Auberon’s “Waugh on Wine.”) Wine and Spirits is a delightful book, elegantly written. Here is an excerpt from a section called “The Cocktail Hour.” This sort of cultural history is like treasure to me:

“When I started to go to dinner parties in 1919, the cocktail habit had not reached London.  You were invited for 8 o’clock; you were welcomed by your host and hostess, you were introduced to the lady whom you were to “take in” to dinner, and you stood around. It was le mauvais quart d’heure — and very bad it could be on occasions, particularly for a young man of 21, as I was, not too sure of himself and anxious to make a good impression.  The young of today are lucky to have been spared that experience. And even after the cocktail had made its first appearance in the more avant-garde circles, it was only one cocktail, and you had to drink it quickly if you arrived seven minutes late; if you were invited for 8, at a quarter past you went in to dinner.  The cocktail dissolved le mauvais quart d’heure and that was all it did. Today, almost 50 years later, the preprandial session may last an hour or more and is considered by some to be almost as important as the meal itself.”

In 1968, the world of wine hadn’t yet been modernized, so the photographs capture techniques and cultural practices that are all but gone now. For instance, there is a picture of women weaving the straw flasks coverings once common on bottles of Chianti and Bardolino.  And the Portugal section features young men thigh-high in a trough of grapes, pounding drums and playing harmonica to keep themselves entertained while they crushed the grapes for hours. In the Madeira section there is an adorable photo of a naked boy being bathed in Madeira to “promote health.” The book also covers beer and spirits, a subject which is introduced with a photograph of a smiling blond biergarten waitress in Munich and one of an international cocktail party overlooking the newly built U.N. building respectively.  There is a section called “Cellars to Fit Three Budgets,” which has charmingly outdated pricing. For instance they suggest that it would cost $100 to set up a cellar with 6 bottles of estate-bottled red Bordeaux, 2 Graves blanc,  and 1 Sauternes; 4 village level red burgundy, and two bottles of village white; 2 bottles of rosé, 6 bottles of “local wines” (a category which includes Beaujolais, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes de Provence, Cotes de Rhone, Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, Alsace, Muscadet, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre and Vouvray); 2 American reds, 2 American whites, 2 estate-bottled “Rhines” or “Moselles”; and 2 American “champagnes.”  The list is laughable now — one bottle of the “local wine” Hermitage would just about exhaust the $100 budget these days.

After examining the series, I realized that I had previously been familiar with one of these books. My mother had Cooking of Southeast Asia and the Pacific by Rafael Steinberg, and I remember that she used it for her Gourmet Club back in the 1970s. I recently looked at her spiral recipe book, and felt a tug at the heart when I saw all the splatters of sauce and grease on the pages. It’s the kind of thing that would be gross if you saw it in a thrift store copy, but for me it was a visceral bridge to a time when my mom was whipping up dishes wrapped in banana leaves in a Colorado college town. 

I’m excited about collecting the rest of the series, reading them and using them as a resource in the kitchen. In addition to covering international cuisine, there are eight devoted to American foods! My favorite so far is the American Cooking: Creole and Acadian due to my extraordinary love for soft shell crabs.

After that, I’ll have to move on to the Time-Life series called The Good Cook, published ten years later and edited by Richard Olney. That series has titles like Eggs and Cheese and Beef and Veal; and contributors like Jane Grigson.  Apparently, these are more focused on technique, and have plenty of recipes.