I first met Vincent Price on the living room floor of a thumbnail cinderblock house on a dirt road in Ocoee, FL. This floor was my university. My library.
Even at nine, I was a hungry reader. I had worked my way through the most interesting parts of our Tree of Knowledge encyclopedias. I’d devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and whomever secretly wrote the Doc Savage novels. My mother didn’t have time to take me to the library one summer day when I was pining for literature. Instead, she handed me a massive tome, silk-bound and gilt-edged with a ribbon in it like it was a fucking bible.
A Treasury of Great Recipes.
I was eight years old. I laid this gigantic heavy book on the green pile carpet and disappeared into its parchment colored pages, its cinnamon subheads, its lush, luxurious, unbelievable images of lavishly appointed tables covered in white linen and silver service trays.
What world was this? In my short life, my hardworking Master Plumber of a father had taken me to Fat Boy’s Barbecue, The Golden Pagoda Chinese Restaurant, and Red Lobster–my favorite. You got plastic flatware at Fat Boys and there were mini jukeboxes on the tables offering Johnny Cash and Patty Duke songs. The Golden Pagoda was alright, but dad always ordered bird’s nest soup which he explained was made from the dried saliva of some fucking Chinese cave bird so I assumed everything there was terrifying.
Red Lobster was the greatest, most lavish restaurant I’d ever been to. There was a tank full of live lobsters when you walked in. I’d order the Captain’s Platter—which I could barely finish eating in its gout inducing entirety. The waitresses called me honey and mom might have a Bloody Mary and Dad ruled the table like a King.
The Mysterious World of Fine Dining
But here in this book, there were restaurants with waiters in full tuxedoes showing disaffected deference. Men wore suits and ties. Women wore hats.
The dishes had strange titles. I was raised to adore the culinary nomenclature of the American south. The Garlingtons ate ribs, hog jowls, mountain oysters, fried chicken, country fried steak, pork chops, dirty rice, collard greens, and peach cobbler. We enjoyed a multitude of dishes conjoined ambpersandedly: grits & eggs, red beans & rice, biscuits & gravy. We consumed gallons of sweet iced tea and would pull over on long road trips for boiled peanuts cooked over a butane stove in a giant cauldron on the side of the road.
Suddenly, my gastronomic geography was global. I read about fish curry, roast suckling pig, Venetian peas and rice, and Cornish rock hens cooked in clay.
Who was Vincent Price?
Every page is with great care and precision, with great warmth and enthusiasm by this man who stood tall and elegant in full bleed photographs scattered throughout the book. Vincent Price.
I knew him first here, as a gourmet. It was years before I realized he was a movie star. Even today, I think of Price as a foodie first. And for America, in 1965, he took on that role.
The Treasury was a huge success. It has gone through many printings. Its effect on American cuisine is difficult to quantify, but at that time, there were few celebrity chefs. It wasn’t like today.
First, there was Alma Kitchell in “The Kelvinator Kitchen,” a weekly 15-minute commercial for Kelvinator products.
James Beard’s I Love to Eat was a live broadcast for almost a year from 1946 to 1947. This was before video broadcasts were saved so no footage exists, though there is a partial audio recording.
Julia Child’s The French Chef blew up the small screen when it debuted in 1963. It turned Child into a bonafide star.
But on the cookbook side, there was the Joy of Cooking, Julia Child’s book, and the Treasury.
Vincent Price Brought Culture, Beauty, and Refinement into the American Home of 1965
Price had already headed an amazing fine art program through Sears & Roebuck in 1962. Now, he brought more culture into American homes, but into the kitchen, not the living room. Where Child covered French cooking and Joy covered general recipes, Price delivered dishes from the entire modern world.
As I run into chefs in the research and work of creating this blog, the dinner, and the books which will obtain, I hear the same reprort. Oh my god, my dad had that book. Oh my God, I used to read that as a kid. Oh my god I’ve always wanted to cook that book!
I think that Price’s book was a popular purchase, but I believe that, like my own father, it quickly overwhelmed and intimidated the home cook with an entirely new lexicon of culinary terms and complex techniques (the steps for making lobster butter are insane). Price’s recipes are formatted in a way that is furiously frustrating. Ingredients are listed alone, but you have to read the text of the recipe to discover the correct amounts. This may seem like a small complaint when read here in this post, but find a copy of this book and try—TRY—to follow a recipe. It’s infuriating.
Still, for me, Vincent Price was the maitre d’ who turned me on to the food of the rest of the world and I owe him mighty thanks.