Published in 1965, the Treasury contains recipes from the greatest Michelin starred restaurants of the world at the beginning of the 60s, all collected by American horror icon, Vincent Price.
Eating Vincent Price, this blog, the podcast, the videos, the dinner series, and the book are all part of my exploration of this incredible book, how it formed the foundation of my life as a writer and a cook, and how it introduced me to the world of flavor and culture beyond the good booth at Red Lobster.
It Starts With a Baby
The Treasury of Great Recipes
This project started in 1965. I was one year old. My parents lived in Little Five Points, the soho of Birmingham, AL. My dad, Bull, was a master plumber. My mom, Libby, was a hospital receptionist. They would go out to eat then visit bookstores and one day Bull saw this gorgeous cookbook: A Treasury of Great Recipes.
It was red, bound in padded silk, with gilt pages. When Bull Sr. picked the book up he saw the clincher: it was written by Vincent Price.
As I grew older, I became aware of this book and would sit at the counter and thumb through it, grooving on the pictures, digging the recipes, and wondering what it must be like to have the money to eat like that. Only once did Bull cook anything from the book: Venitian peas and rice. Otherwise the book sat in a cabinet and then through the convolutions of life, through divorce and resettlement, through me growing up and out, I never saw it again.
Years later, after my father passed away, I inherited this book and kept it with my other cookbooks. But I never took it down. I never cooked from it. Probably for the same reason Bull never cooked rom it: kids, job, career, etc., etc.
Then Julia and Julia came out and my wife wanted to go see it because we maintain a strict 1:100 chick flick-to-actual movie ratio in our house. For every single actual good movie I take us to, we have to see 100 sappy films about relationships where there is not a solitary explosion.
Frequently, when a character in a film is doing something heinous, or wonderful, or hilarious, my wife will smack me in the shoulder. In J&J she did it, bruising me, and whisper-screaming:
You should do that!
But we’re watching the movie they made about the person who actually did that.
Oh so what.
So it’s been done.
Your’s would be funny.
Yeah, because it would involve plagiarism.
Go get me more popcorn.
I let that idea drop. But later on I was going through my books looking for a recipe when I pulled down the Vincent Price. I got lost in it again, lost in the luxury of it, in the richness of the food, in the arch celebrity of name dropping. And I realized maybe my wife was on to something.
So here we are. A book, a cook, and a hook.
The Treasury of Great Recipes is not a cook book. It is a recipe book. There are hardly any instructions in it. And those that do exist are insane (freeze your bechamel sauce for later, how to use powdered peas). Any cook goes into it blind because you are expected to understand how to cook the dishes presented, how to follow the barest instructions.
And I need more than barest instructions. I can cook all of two things well: gumbo and guacamole. I would say I can grill alright but I’m still not
Menu from La Pyramide
convinced grilling counts as cooking since most people will eat anything that comes off a grill as long as it’s coated in enough barbeque sauce or it’s on a stick. I cannot, for instance, properly poach an egg. I’ve been working on this every morning for a week and I got one good poach. All the others looked like discarded alien babies. Even the dogs wouldn’t eat them. I made gazpacho twice yesterday—TWICE—and it tasted like wet carpet both times.
Great People Rush to My Aid
When I went into this project my usual way, with no planning and feet first, like a guy jumping off a cliff because he heard there was a lake at the bottom, well, I didn’t think about this whole can’t-make-gazpacho thing. I just decided to try and cook some world class menus from some of the world’s most revered restaurants for my friends. What could possibly go wrong?
Fortunately, I also feet-firsted a bunch of letters to local chefs and one of
Chef Efrain Cuevas with bloody jazz hands.
them, Chef Efrain Cuevas, of Clandestino fame, responded with the clarity and elequence of a man who knows what he’s capable of: he wrote back “I’m in.”
Cuevas and I met at the Hopleaf and he looked through the book with an eye for foody detail I don’t have, came up with some fantastic ideas, and we agreed to do some dinners. Then we met with his partner, Chef Lauren Parton, who very eloquently and very diplomatically and very carefully agreed with me that people who would be paying for dinner would not want it cooked by a guy who can’t poach an egg.
“Maybe a little training is in order,” she said. Actually, I think she said Are you ^^%$! crazy!? But I’m paraphrasing.
Originally, I was going to wing it and cook a meal. Oncein the company of actual chefs, however, I realized this was a terrible idea for a couple of reasons. First, and I have to be clear here, chef’s are cool. I don’t mean that in the rock star sense (not entirely, though having spent a lot of time with musicians, I can tell you they’re eerily similar) but in that they exude the
Chef Lauren Parton
kind of confidence in their skills we all wish we had. They don’t have to sell it. They radiate it. Where I look at a recipe for lobster bisque and blanche in fear, they start adding things. More, they were cool in these sense that they are not yellers. They are not sellers. They are not agitates. We see Gordon Ramsey screaming at people and we buy it, we believe chefs are like that, and that it’s ok to toat such titanic arrogance in the kitchen. But Cuevas and Parton are the opposite of Ramsey. They’re calm. They’re quiet. They’re polite and I sense they wouldn’t yell at you if you were on fire. And within that centered zen quiet, is a total lack of arrogance.
Secondly, they speak in code. And by code, I mean they speak French. They speak the language of culinaria. They don’t just cook, they live through food. They think through food. They exist through food.
They both said it there in the quiet heat under the brickwork of an abandoned convent where we will be serving dinner: it’s about the food.
I suspect all great chefs are like this and I suddenly realized that for me to cook these cherished recipes, to wing it, was arrogance of the highest order. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just step in and give it a whirl. That would be about me. This is not about me.
It’s about the food.
Instead, I will be starting like any decent cook: at the bottom. I’ll begin my journey at the beginning of every chef’s journey: as kitchen boy. Peeling, turning, mashing, scraping and washing the ingredients they will turn into the magnificent dishes from this magnificent book. From there, I will move up the ladder as my skills improve until I finally make my way to the stove. Chef Cuevas told me, when I’m doen with this, I’ll be fearless.
I hope he’s right.