Vintage cookbooks are a curious subdivision of the thriving antiquarian trade. They are, of course, more likely than most old books to be splattered with disgusting substances — maybe even to contain evidence of kitchen pests. They are as vulnerable as college texts to previous owners’ margin notes (“Delicious!”) and suggested modifications, sometimes helpful.
With his No. 1 best seller “Baking Yesteryear,” the TikTok star B. Dylan Hollis has reawakened America to the food from community cookbooks of the past. But let’s not neglect their more glamorous cousins: vintage entertaining guides.
In our gastronomically obsessed age, these are pleasurable not because of the recipes — though many contain a few perfunctory ones — but for their often humorous explication of how to be a good host, or as was far more common back in the day, hostess. They are replete with chafing dishes and towering candelabras, billowing chiffon sleeves and conversational pointers. And culinary shortcuts, a la Eleanor Roosevelt serving hot dogs to the king and queen of England: The Joy of Not Cooking.
They are a reminder that even in the worst of times, and without much expenditure, the home can be a respite of civility, friendship and grace.
Part of these books’ charm is that — unlike classic recipes that are replicated ad nauseam online, lacking much copyright protection — they tend to be out of circulation and therefore feel like special finds. “DISCARD” reads the cruel library stamp on a copy of “How to Do It: Or the Lively Art of Entertaining,” by Elsa Maxwell, from Rizzoli’s 2005 reprint that someone painstakingly uploaded to the Internet Archive.
I can’t remember how I came into possession of a 1957 first edition, marked in pencil at a bargain $10, but “How to Do It” now roosts near my precious microwave with “Hostess” (1961), by the English florist Constance Spry, with an assist from Rosemary Hume (and some adorable cartoon illustrations); “All About Parties” (1968), by Edith Gilbert, a syndicated columnist; “The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining” (1997), by the Washington, D.C., fixture Sally Quinn; and more corporate but no less compelling volumes from Betty Crocker and Bloomingdale’s.
The taxonomy of such books can be murkier than mock turtle soup. Dealers often marginalize them. Bonnie Slotnick, whose warren-like store in New York’s East Village is filled with unexpected treasures like “The Pyromaniac’s Cookbook: The Best in Flaming Food and Drink,” warned that news media mentions of out-of-print books, like a Veranda magazine feature about “These Entertaining People: A Guide for the Elegant Hostess” (1966), by the fashion editor and television personality Florence Pritchett Smith, can artificially inflate the price.
Best to keep a cool head and, perhaps, plumb the shelves of your older relatives.
That’s where I first discovered the fascinating career of Annemarie Huste, who worked for Jackie Kennedy (briefly, since she blabbed about it) as well as the diminutive impresario Billy Rose. Huste was a bona fide chef who ran a cooking school for a time, but her books, which include “To the Good Life! Entertaining With Annemarie” (1990), nonetheless throw off strong hostessy sparks, as do those of Vincent Price, the actor best known for his Gothic roles, and his second wife, Mary.
Elsa Maxwell was right up there with those authors in the department of celebrity proximity: one of the most famous hostesses of the 20th century, as well as an occasional gossip columnist and actress — though her style of party-giving suggests she would have thrived as a director, possibly of musicals. She is acknowledged for popularizing the scavenger hunt and often introduced elements of surprise, like live animals, at her affairs.
“The fish course consisted of live seals she set free around the ballroom,” her obituary in The New York Times dryly recorded of one.
She was not a fan of cocktail parties, “whose unlovely symbol is the ring on the best mahogany,” she writes in “How to Do It,” adding that “in nine cases out of 10 the people who are invited to cocktail parties are the people your host has not thought worth inviting to either luncheon or to dinner — so why, I ask, should I bother with them?”
A closeted lesbian, Maxwell rose from humble circumstances. The Times rather cruelly called her “roly-poly” and noted her multiple chins; let’s just say no one was asking her, unlike today’s empress of entertaining, to pose on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She dished freely about her well-known friends, dissing one rager thrown jointly by Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau and castigating Noël Coward and W. Somerset Maugham as indifferent hosts who preferred “cronies” and “nonentities” at their own poorly organized “get-togethers.”
As both of these writers knew well, party scenes are narrative staples, brimming with potential for confrontation and intrigue. They are improv played out on elaborate stage sets.
There’s the dregs of a New Year’s Eve party in Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”;Mrs. Dalloway’s careful planning, Tolstoy’s balls and Gatsby’s extravagant wingdings, so indelible they have been franchised; the young married who catches her husband’s hallway intimacy with another woman in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss”; the masquerade misunderstanding orchestrated by Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”; the turkey curry buffet in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
Novelists know how much can go deliciously wrong when entertaining. These experts — rarely dictatorial, generous with attribution, nosing right into interesting people’s homes — try endearingly to ensure everything will go right.
Gilbert, a proponent of morning coffees and bon voyage luncheons, suggests a “party log or diary similar to the call board used in” — yes — “the theater”; also progressive dinners spread over friends’ houses like “two, three or more acts.” Quinn won’t serve red wine to large groups. Spry has plenty to say about poorly arranged breakfast trays, pretentious “sugar-tong manners” and meeting her Waterloo in the form of an unfamiliar artichoke.
Again, don’t come to these guides for the food, more amusing than appetizing, and sometimes downright grotesque. (All that weird, off-putting glaze over hams, salads, cakes.) Rather, it’s a kind of coaxing, feminine spirit that draws you in: the social butterfly alighting next to the bookworm, an eternal flame of hospitality a-flicker, under the dubious fondue.