Food is as much about history as it is about taste, and digging into that history offers often mouth-watering illumination about who we are and where we came from. Angelenos are fortunate to have a renowned culinary treasure available to them right at the Central Library. The library's entire Culinary collection is one of the largest in the country and includes many thousands of cookbooks–over a thousand books on Chinese cooking alone–as well as books on gastronomy, baking, biography, beverages and wine. The collection also includes a rare collection of California cookery books.
One of the collection's gems, the Cookery Ephemera Collection, housed in the Rare Book Department, offers a glimpse of meals prepared in kitchens past, and of the advertising art that's influenced the way we cook and eat.
Cookery Ephemera can be defined loosely as food-related paper items, not originally intended to be lasting. The library's collection, specifically, is composed of advertising brochures promoting particular foods, companies, or food-related tools and objects (refrigerators, for instance) and are filed by subject. The index to the cookery ephemera collection is searchable and available online. And the index, all by itself, is interesting, and offers up things like “75 Glamorous Rice Dishes, Economical too!,” published by he Louisiana State Rice Milling Company. Or “Cooking With Kraut,” published by the National Kraut Packers Association (who knew?).
Make an appointment with the Rare Book Department to look at specific materials from the
collection, and the opportunity for a brief historical journey is irresistable. Search the collection for “summer,” say, and one of the things you'll find is “Summer Dinner Menus,” a 1941 booklet of recipes written by Charlotte Adams, “selected from the pages of New York's most provocative newspaper, PM, Inc.” And though you might expect to find quaint, odd, dated recipes you wouldn't cook in a million years, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find clear, well-written, recipes for “Simple Plum Sauce,” (Plums, sugar and lemon juice), for Minestrone soup that used fresh basil and garlic–remember, this is 1941! Read on, and you'll swear that Martha Stewart took several pages of advice from Adam's book, sharing sensibilities in the venerable tradition of “domestic advisors.”
Adams wasn't only the food editor and writer for PM, she wrote (with James Beard) the classic Four Seasons Cookbook, and was the technical editor for one of the holy books on any serious cook's shelf, “The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery: For Connoisseurs, Chefs, and Epicures, Complete With 2973 Recipes,” and many other cookbooks and guides as well. PM, Inc., was indeed “New York's most provocative newspaper,” whose pages not only included Adams food stories and recipes, but pieces by Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Dr. Seuss, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. PM crusaded against materialism and isolationism, advocated the continuation of New Deal policies, and strove to build anti-fascist alliances. It also gained its reputation by using high-quality color photography (the first newspaper to do so) and graphics. The first issue stated the goals of the paper thus: “PM is against people who push other people around, accepts no advertising, belongs to no political party, is absolutely free and uncensored, sole source of income is its readers — to whom it alone is responsible.” In a story not so new to those of us in LA, PM's readers, as it turned out, couldn't actually support the newspaper, and most of its eight year existence was bankrolled by Marshall Field.
From plum sauce to anti-facism: who knows what direction the Cookery Ephemera collection would take you if you looked up ice cream.
Call the Rare Books Department at (213) 228-7350 for an appointment to view specific items from the Cookery Ephemera Collection.