|Robert J. Hughes, “Cooking Into the Past,” in The Wall Street Journal, December 31, 1999, p. W12.|
Mrs. Isabella Beeton was the Martha Stewart of her day, and her day was Victorian England. Author of "The Book of Household Management," she gave brides tips on boiling suet pudding and avoiding the unfortunate "family discord" that arises from "badly cooked dinners." Mrs. Beeton's 19th-century bestseller sold for a few sixpence in 1861, a few hundred dollars earlier this decade — and $2,000 at auction last year.
That might seem a lot to pay for cleaning hints and recipes for pheasant, but it isn't uncommon anymore. Antique cookbooks are soaring in value, perhaps the hottest sector in the rare-book field. And it's all because of a sea change in how academics study history.
For decades, History was concerned with major events and political movements; now it is as concerned with details of everyday life, how people lived — adn what they ate. As a result, academics are viewing ratty old cookbooks as important source documents. Even outside the ivory tower, the success of the Food Network and the celebrity status that many chefs now achieve has gotten Americans more interested in cooking.
Julia Child as the new Samuel Pepys? Don't laugh, acopy of the author's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One," from 1963 would bring $300 at auction.
There may even be a few valuable antiques on your own shelves: Many people have a copy of a revised edition of "The Joy of Cooking." It was first published in 1931 by a small Midwestern firm, and later by Bobbs-Merril (Scribner did a thir, revised and expanded version, last year). The first edition by the small press is now extremely rare, and can fetch as much as $3,000. Even the Bobbs-Merril 1932 first edition can sell for upt $500 — if you could find one without the gravy stains. Indeed the poor condition of most cookbooks is part of what is boosting their prices to bibliophiles. "There's something particularly rich about antique old food books," says Ben Kinmont, an antiquarian-cookbook dealer based in New York. "They can be read in many ways to unlock a particular time, or an approach to eating. Unlike other fields such as astronomy or medicine, with a cookbook you can recreate what you read in your kitchen. You can achieve a kind of intimacy with the past."
A Changing Palate
But may cookbook collectors don't cook. Robert Pincus, a Cleveland investment consultat, has more that 1,000 volumes but doesn't use them. "I enjoy reading them and seeing how food has changed, and how people have changed what they eat."
It's a good thing, too. Many onlder cookbooks wouldn't bee too useful for most chefs. With inexact measurements and terse directions, they assume people already know how to cook — or that their servants do — and most of the recipes merely lay out ingredients. And, as far as the palate goes, most food, even dessert, was cooded to be more spicy than sweet in the years before refined sugar. Vast quantities of cinnamon or saffron disguised the taste of less-than-fresh food and boosted business for an earlier era's spice traders.
When it comes to using antique recipes, "you have to adapt," sasy Terry Ford, the executive editor of the Lauderdale County Enterprise, a newspaper based in Ripley, Tenn. He has a cookbook collection of 11,000 volumes. "My first breads baked from some of those arly cookbooks were doorstops, and... I'm a good baker"
Getting Good Help
Old recipes were a lot more work, says Fritz Blank, chef and owner of Deux Cheminees restaurant in Philadelphia, who has a library of more that 10,000 old cookbooks. Every year, for a ocal charity, Mr. Blank creates a multicourse meal based on foods that composers of different eras might have eaten.
"There is a wonder Austrian dish from the 18th century, a stuffed calf's breast, that was prized because it was so labor-intensive — things like meat grinders you needed to prepare it weren't available," says Mr. Blank. "Anything that was chopped had to be done by hand and required a kitchen staff. Also, what makes the dish is that after stuff it and truss it, you put it on the rack and you pour boiling lard on top of it." Hard to believe, but the result is a beautifully braised, succulent dish, he says — a favorite of Mozart's and now an item at Mr. Blank's restaurant.
A Holy Grail for cookbook collectors is what may be the first printed cookbook, by Bartolomeo Platina, from 1498. It features recipes for pasta and directions for slicing open sturgeon to get caviar; it has changed hands for as much as $30,000. At even more lofty levels, book dealer Mr. Kinmont is offering a bread-baking manuscript from 14th-century Italy for more than double that.
Another pricey book is the first cookbook both devoted to American foods and written by an American, Amelia Simmons. It was first published in 1796, and even back then, it included recipes for American stapes such as cranberry sauce, turkey, stuffing and apple pie. A rare 1798 copy of it sold for about $10,000.
For collectibles at a lower price point save that old recipe booklet that came with your Cuisinart or crockpot. The market for old commercial pamphlets produced by appliance and food manufacturers is increasingly brisk, dealers say. Food historians search them out because they infuenced what people ate 50 or 100 years ago. What happened was that manufacturers, eager to sell their now products, such as Jell-O or baking powder, began to create recipes for their use.
"These booklets are mandatory for understanding American food history," says Jan Longone, owner of Wine & Food Library, an antiquarian-cookbook dealer in Ann Arbor, Mich. "For example, with the introduciton of easy-to-use shredded coconut in vacuum packs at the end of the 19th century, coconut cakes became popular."
Collectors also appreciate the look of these old booklets, since many of them had fine lithographs or color plates, "Companies hired the best artists, illustrators and cooks to intrigue you to use their products," Mrs. Longone says. Especially rare are the Jell-O pamphlets illustrated by Rose O'Neil — who is known for her illustrations of Kewpie Dolls from the early 1900s — which can sell fo up to $100 each.
Those kinds of prices have led to cookbook specuation. Some Collectors also buy first editions of new cookbooks, much as some bibliophiles buy novels. They hope that the authors' works will become sought-after in time.
Mr. Pincus is betting on his first edition of Lynne Rosetto Kasper's "The Italian Country Table," published this year, because of the author's first book, "The Splendid Table," is now regarde as a modern classic. Mr. Pincus also bought first ediitons of Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook" and the new "Oxford Companion to Food," among others which he feels will appreciate in value since the authors are well regarded in food circles.