I owe a HUGE THANKS to Jessica Thomas for this special post about her cookbook collection. All photos, propping, and styling are by the talented Jessica, who I work with frequently in my day job as a magazine editor. Jessica is a freelance art director and story producer. (Be sure to check out her Web site for a peek at some of her work.)
Following is a Q&A with Jessica.
Q: HOW DID YOU START YOUR COLLECTION?
I started really getting into vintage cookbooks when I was doing research for food stories I was working on I was inspired by the simplicity of the recipes and, of course, the art direction combined with photography and illustrations. My first vintage cookbook obsession was The Basic Cookbook that my mother had from her mother. Every Christmas morning she would pull it out and make Superior Waffles with real whipped cream and strawberries. The trick was to beat egg whites then fold them into the batter to make a crisp outside with a fluffy airy interior. We made them on my great grandfather’s waffle iron, which by the time I inherited it, the cloth cord was so frayed that it became a fire hazard. We continued to use it because the iron was perfectly cured and nothing ever stuck. When I moved out on my own, I begged my mother for this cookbook but she refused until about five years later, she gave it to me for a Christmas present. Of course we made Superior Waffles.
Q: WHAT BOOKS DO YOU RETURN TO OFTEN FOR RECIPES OR INSPIRATION?
It’s embarrassing to say that I have made a only handful of recipes from my collection but I do have my favorites. I have current cookbooks that I refer to and make Marcus Samuelsson’s Sweedish meatballs from the Aquavit cookbook, and I own a Better Homes and Gardens red plaid circa late 1990s that my mother gave me when I moved out. I use it for basic foundation recipes and then I modify them.
For inspiration, I constantly refer to the the cook books published by Time in the 60s and 70s, especially the Time Picture Cookbook and the Foods of the World series. They are beautifully written and photographed. The Four Seasons cookbook is the perfect example of an art director gone wild, with conceptual photos of asparagus floating over Manhattan and plates of food propped on rocks or in a stream with live salmon, but that’s what makes it brilliant. I love that it’s so out of the box and also indicative of the 1970s aesthetic.
Q: How did your collection of cookware develop?
I think all the collections started around the same time. I was concepting and art directing so many food shoots and I was always looking for inspiration. When going to used or vintage bookstores, I always beeline it to the cookbook section to see what treasures I can find. When you see Dansk and Vera featured in 1960s cookbook photography, and then you see it sitting on a shelf in a antique mall, well it has to be acquired. I was also very much influenced by some friends I had at the time who introduced me to mid-century design, and so my collections took off from there.
I love a good Vera tea towel, and while a purist would store them away in a drawer, I believe they need to be used. A stylist friend, Joe Maer, has a huge collection of Dansk that he uses for props in photo shoots. Once while visiting, I made Joe dinner and used my Dansk, and I remember him saying, “Oh I love that you actually use your Dansk. “It made me realize that maybe not everyone would.”
Q: I LOVE YOUR FAMILY RECIPE CARDS.
The recipe box is more of a keepsake than something I actually use for recipes, but I love the scrawling handwritten cards and how they have frayed and turned brown with age. It makes me smile and while I have tried to decipher the recipes, it would take a handwriting expert to make sense of some of them. I always thought it would be a great food story to take old handwritten recipes and bring them up to date and “decode” them. I love the names like “Park Cake” or “Ranger cookies.” I have made my grandmother’s zucchini bread, which brings her image baking in her kitchen for all the kids back to me every time.
Do you have a favorite vintage cookbook or a place to shop for them? For further inspiration, check out the following cookbook shops.