In 1935, Vincent Price was 24. He’d recently graduated Yale then moved to England to pursue a degree in fine arts. But Price was drawn to acting. He joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and appeared in a production of Victoria Regina in the role of Prince Albert for which he received critical acclaim. It is doubtful his decision to pursue acting as a career was very difficult after that, a career which took him back to America and kept him there. But not before he developed a lifelong love for all things English—even their food.
In 1938 Price moved to the silver screen as Robert Wade in Service de Luxe. His picture in the movie’s poster shows him so young, you barely recognize him. He still looks like the fresh-faced kid from Victoria Regina. It really isn’t until his remarkable turn in Laura that we see the Vincent Price character we’re familiar with: regal, mannered, ruthless.
England and Vincent Price
Price was of English descent from a family who arrived in America on the Mayflower. He also had the tiniest little drop of Welsh blood in his veins, which may account for his effortless charm. His wife, Mary Price, was British, with plenty of family in the United Kingdom. The connection to Great Britain, for the Prices, was solid and enduring.
Price would return to England for work in radio, theater, and film throughout his career, exploring countless shires and towns, and enjoying countless meals in taverns and inns. He had a great respect for British cuisine and in fact insisted such a remarkable thing existed at a time when French cooking dominated fine dining, even in England.
English food, like English dentistry, has endured decades of cruelty for no good reason. Go to England and take a good long look at everyone’s teeth and you’ll realize that joke no longer holds water. Go to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and you’ll have to shut down your inherited eye-roll at British cuisine because the fact is, the Brits can throw down.
Price knew this and knew that most people assumed the opposite because they’d never been there and never sat at a British tavern digging into some kind of toothsome offal pastry. And yet, even Price could not completely get on board.
The Myth of English Cuisine
If restaurants in America in the 50s suffered under a slowly rotating cirrus cloud of cigarette smoke and low expectations, English cuisine suffered even worse. Even their cultural appropriation of Curry couldn’t elevate their menus much higher than regular meats broiled, boiled, roasted, or baked. The country was spotted with fish and chips shops the way Chicago is with hot dog stands. Often the most exciting England offered was Yorkshire pudding and a decent beer.
Price, as much as he was an eagerly adopted son, couldn’t help but discreetly kick the U.K. under the churning wheels of a double decker bus. Here’s how he ends his introduction to England in the Treasury:
“Maybe English food is not as exciting as some of the more exotic or imaginative cuisines of the world, but then, sensible meals are served at regular hours and one is far less likely to suffer from indigestion there than any other place on earth. That is almost recommendation enough for a country’s way of eating.”
Yet there were great dishes. Many of them arrive in some sort of flaky crust, many of them are pies, many of them involve England’s favorite sharp yellow mustard, none of them contain even a single truffle. They are mostly meat, mostly roasted, and entirely delicious.
Celebrities in the Treasury of Great Recipes
Price’s intro to England is a small treasure chest of name dropping. He mentions first his work on stage in Victoria Regina with Helen Hayes.
Hayes was a four-fer. Over the length of her long career, she won an Emmy, an Oscar, a Tony, and a Grammy. She was called the First Lady of American Theater. She was Meryl Streep in the 30s. When the Treasury was published in 1965, she was enjoying a career in television that kept her in front of the American public.
Boris Karloff was perhaps an even bigger star. Karloff and Price were more than horror movie colleagues, they were friends who shared a passion for refinement. And especially for good food.
Karloff was enjoying a reboot in the early sixties. He’d established himself as a master of monsters, playing Frankenstein, the Mummy, and Professor Morlant in The Ghoul. He was such a legend that theaters would often tag his name on the end of movie titles if he appeared in them. In the 50s, he went through a slow period but Roger Corman brought him back for a couple of movies in 1963 and he hosted the infamous T.V. horror collection, Thriller. When the Treasury hit, his name was gold.
The English section of the Treasury opens with The Ivy, but I believe the most iconic and intrinsically British dish is on page 176, from the Woburn Abbey menu: Melton Mowbray Pie.