Baked Alaska, Oysters Rockefeller, Steak Diane--all are often thought of as dishes of a bygone era. Recently, though, a renewed interest in vintage recipes has brought them back into the limelight...and onto the pages of a host of new cookbooks. Titles hitting shelves in the coming months are both updating heirloom recipes for a modern age, and modern kitchens, and bringing untouched dishes back into the spotlight.
Sarah Billingsley, executive editor at Chronicle Books, believes this nostalgia for the past has everything to do with the present. “In fraught or trying times, people return to familiar flavors and experiences, looking to the past for comfort,” said Billingsley. “We’re seeing a strong nostalgic trend in many parts of our culture. Film, music, clothing, and food, of course. And baking is the ultimate comfort food and activity.” In May, Chronicle will publish The Vintage Baker: More Than 50 Recipes from Butterscotch Pecan Curls to Sour Cream Jumbles by Jessie Sheehan.
In the book, Sheehan tweaks recipes found in baking pamphlets published from the 1920s to the 1960s, detailing the dish’s origin in the headnotes, substituting ingredients or methods, and sometimes adding once-absent measurements, as she did for Latticed Blackberry-Lime Pie inspired by a recipe from 1909’s What a Cook Ought to Know About Corn Starch. Recipes for caramel popcorn were ubiquitous in many of Sheehan’s vintage recipe booklets, and in her iteration, Cinnamon Red Hots Popcorn, the author said she “gave the candied popcorn a bit of a spicy, cinnamon 21st century twist here, making the caramel from Cinnamon Red Hots candy.”
In May, Rizzoli will release The Graham Kerr Cookbook, a reissue of a 1966 cookbook by the host of the popular cooking show, The Galloping Gourmet, which aired from 1969 to 1971. The book is part of a larger project, The Lee Bros. Classic Library, a curation of vintage cookbook reissues by Matt and Ted Lee. (The first book in the series, Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook, was released in February 2017.)
“In the last few years American society seems to have aged through a generational divide, such that a majority of book buyers are now becoming acquainted with quintessential books of the 60s, 70s, and 80s for the very first time,” said Ted Lee. “The audience has refreshed and the manuscripts feel original again.”
The Graham Kerr Cookbook includes handwritten commentary from Kerr, who is now in his 80s and living north of Seattle, Wash. His recipes, which struck the Lee brothers as ahead of their time, range from what Lee calls “hero dishes” made for special occasions, like Pork Curry (which Graham himself made for the Queen Mother, according to Lee), to simple dishes, such as Roasted Cauliflower with Brown Butter and Breadcrumbs.
In Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised, out from Scribner in April, Tamar Adler “contradicts the somewhat clichéd notion of a simpler past,” said Scribner editor Kara Watson. “Its premise is that classic recipes have fallen out of favor because they were too complicated.” Adler, instead, eschews “fussy sauces and garnishes,” uses fewer ingredients, and speeds up processes, according to Watson. Adler tackles throwback recipes, but simplifies them (taking the flambé out of crepes Suzette), or makes them more pragmatic (Chicken in Leftover Wine, instead of Coq a Vin).
Interest in retro culture has, in recent years, reached into libations. “Besides the enduring love of the midcentury aesthetic ushered in by Mad Men, people love a good origin story,” said Michael Tizzano at Countryman Press. “So many of our staple cocktails have their origin in the post-prohibition to post-war years, and learning the story behind the first ever Moscow Mule or Tequila Sunrise makes one’s cocktail party conversation even more lively.”
In May, Countryman will be publishing Cocktails Across America: A Postcard View of Cocktail Culture in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s by Diane Lapis and Anne Peck-Davis. The book features cocktail recipes from a post-Prohibition era America, with an added bit of vintage ephemera in the design—tear-out postcards in the back of the book, reproductions of postcards of the age. “I’m excited for readers to use mail these and feel like they’re a part of a different, perhaps more glamorous, era,” said Tizzano.
Design is certainly a meaningful aspect of publishing a cookbook of vintage recipes, and publishers tapped different inspirations and techniques to strike the right tone. Chronicle designer Lizzie Vaughan “referenced and remixed” ephemera she had collected from flea markets to find the spirit of The Vintage Baker. “Often things designed pre-computer have lovely little quirks. The type won’t be perfectly aligned, hand-drawings will be added to fill every inch of negative space, and the patina of old paper is so rich. I tried to bring in a little of this charm to the design of the book.”
For The Graham Kerr Cookbook, Ted Lee said because original art and plates for a vintage book almost never survive, “there is always an element of overt design that has to be engaged.” For their part, the Lee brothers kept the design crisp, minimalist, and in keeping with the period, but borrowed elements from the first Australian edition of the book.
“We’d never attempt a facsimile edition, in any case,” said Lee. “We aim to tell a new story with our reissues, and here we hew close to the original design.” The entire package intends to expose classic recipes to a new generation of cooks. “Whether you are discovering or re-discovering these vintage cookbooks,” said Lee, “It’s natural, given the proliferation of new titles every year, for people to want to look back to the classics to know: how did we get here?”