From the Treasure Box

Vintage cookbooks are a window on another time, and a record of how we lived and fed each other

My late mother-in-law Pat was the second wife of my husband’s father and an amazing addition to the family she was. Cooking was the biggest part of Pat’s life; she was an accomplished chef and restauranteur who lived in California much of her youth, and spent the rest of her time in Vermont.

She collected cookbooks her whole life, from World War II well into the new millennium. When she passed away, she had an entire room filled with her cherished cookbooks, and she left them all to me.

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Just a few of the hundreds of cookbooks left to me by my mother-in-law Patricia Read. Her collection spans six decades and reflects much of how we lived and took care of each other.

I learned so much about cooking from her, that is once she actually let me help her, and it took a while. Her techniques ranged from bare-bones simple delicious to as complicated as they get. She cooked California. She cooked France, Sweden, Italy, China, and Mexico. She cooked ballpark casual. Her incredibly popular restaurant The Three Clock Inn was as French as they get right down to the maître d’, and The Buttery, while no longer open, was a staple for the tourists who came to the Manchester, VT, area to enjoy the skiing and summer activities.

Always something new in her kitchen

She served me many dishes I had never had before: frogs legs sautéed in butter and garlic, Cornish game hens cooked in salt clay, artichokes stuffed with an exquisite seafood stuffing, and one of her favorites Spirali Di Pasta, a luscious stuffed rolled pasta dish that takes all day to make. She also taught me the art of creating a memorable Salad Niçoise, and a show-stopping pot of bouillabaisse starting the day before with a fish carcass as tall as the chef. Both these dishes remain my personal favorites, possibly because they come with so many memories attached.

For holidays, we all received gifts of gravlax, preserved lemons, and little savory cheesecakes topped with caviar. You never knew what to expect! I’ve carried on a few of these traditions and it feels like an honor.

I have finally started to go through the dozens of large boxes of cookbooks (six done so far!), and a task it is daunting indeed. I’ve already found a few treasures, including a first edition of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking II,” and several cookbooks signed by authors I have never heard of before, most likely someone she knew.

A friendship that spanned decades

She became good friends with Victor Jules Bergeron “Trader Vic” of the famous tiki bar restaurant chain featuring drinks such as “mai tai” (he claimed ownership of that recipe) and tonga punch, a drink that became her signature party pleaser.

She often talked about her friendship with Bergeron through the years and she collected may of his books including “Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink,” his first book of many. When Trader Vic inscribed this book to her, she was just 20-years-old. Through the years she often spoke of him wistfully, and I kind of thought she must have had some special feelings for him. This inscription did not alter that impression.

The cookbooks always reflect the times in which they were published. The 1960s books I’ve found so far focused on some time-saving techniques using crockpots and casseroles, but also the expansion into the international with French cookbooks such as MTHOFC, Asian techniques, and many books about cooking with wine.

A busy decade

Her most extensive collection was from the 1970s: dozens of cookbooks on making fondu, vegetarian cuisine, crêpes, crêpes, and more crêpes, books on the perfect brunch, a dozen books on sausage-making, and entire books on just about every possible vegetable or meat.

Apparently, she loved her food processor when they became an important part of the restaurant kitchen. Her 1980s collection included a couple of dozen books on this appliance – so far, I haven’t gone through all the boxes yet, but I’m sure there are books on pressure cookers and blenders as well.

Tucked in her cookbooks, you might find recipes cut from a newspaper, or even the remnants of a dust jacket that had most likely fallen into tatters.

Through the years she followed chefs and food writers alike: M.F.K Fisher, Emeril Lagasse, Alice Waters, James Beard, Martha Rose Shulman, Jacques Pépin, Mary Barry, Nancy Silverton, Susan Feniger, Joël Robuchon, Dione Lucas, Wolfgang Puck, and Sarah Moulton, and so many more. They gave her ideas, and her imagination filled in the rest. She loved street food as much as gourmet, and kept notes on dishes she had at other restaurants or at friends’ homes.

She often gave away copies of her favorite cookbooks

Over the years she gave me copies of some of her favorite books, including the last cookbook she gave me the Christmas before she died was the current edition of “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman. She told me it wouldn’t teach anyone to cook absolutely everything, but it was a good start.

One of the things I love the most about the cookbooks is finding her little notes, a recipe card, or a bookmark, an article she cut out of a newspaper, or a few words scribbled in the margins by a recipe. Finding the Tonga Punch recipe in the Trader Vic cookbook remind me this became one of her signature drinks!

Pat often made the Tonga Punch recipe for her Christmas party. Here is the version that is one-fourth the original recipe from Trader Vic and still serves 50. Although you can find many versions of this on the web, this is his original recipe. Pat’s note on her recipe card “Nite-nite!”

Trader Vic’s Tonga Punch for 50

The original recipe for this served 200. I almost think this pared down version could as well!

4 bottles of light rum

Pat Read, sketched by Alexander “Sandy” Read.

24 ounces of brandy

24 ounces of Curacao

24 ounces of apricot nectar

2 quarts of lemon juice

3 pints of orange juice

12 ounces grenadine

Mix it all together! Pat’s daughter commented how strong this is and suggested that you might want to add some extra orange juice…

© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. That is an amazing collection of cookbooks she had! I agree that finding little newspaper cutouts and handwritten notes are the best parts of collecting old cookbooks.

    1. Thank you! They are like little surprises to discover.

  2. Alicia says:

    I would have loved to know your mother-in-law, she sounds like she had a long and wonderful life filled with happy people around her table.

    1. That she did Alicia, and I was lucky enough to have spent a lot of time around that table.

  3. You are one lucky lady! What a treasure!

    1. I do feel lucky. My only dilemma is a happy one – I don’t have an entire room to devote to her books, and I know I will have to do some extreme weeding!

  4. Sherry says:

    How lovely to have such a strong relationship with your mother-in-law. That is a wonderful thing. She sounds like an amazing woman. I too love to collect cookbooks, and I really love historical cookbooks. It is so fascinating to see how people ate and lived in the past. Happy cooking! Cheers Sherry

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sherry! I do indeed feel fortunate that I had a lovely relationship with Pat, and a whole recipe box full of memories of her and her talents.

  5. trkingmomoe says:

    What a wonderful gift she left you. Thanks for sharing.

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