Food for the Imagination
by Michelle Friel

When I was growing up (long ago in the 1960's and 1970's), I spent many hours in the kitchens of my mother, grandmother, and aunts. While I rarely saw my grandmother or aunts use cookbooks or written recipes - other than their own - my mother turned to one cookbook over and over again: the 1955 edition of The Good Housekeeping Cook Book. I remember being fascinated by this book, in large part due to the tiny black-and-white line drawings which embellished its pages in great numbers.

The enchantment actually began with the front and back covers, solid chalkboard-black cloth bindings, sprinkled with whimsical red and white illustrations of food and food-related items. Some of these I instantly recalled upon seeing photos of them online: a rolling pin lazing beside some temptingly decorated cookies, a sprig of cherries dangling over a bowl of fruit, and best of all, an ice cream sundae piled high in a fancy parfait glass. However, I had nearly forgotten the feral looking beast situated between the ice cream sundae and a comparatively humdrum cheese board. Replete with horns and a ring through its nose, and standing beside a prize red ribbon, this peculiar interpretation of a cow now suggests to me a bull about to charge the red cape of a matador more than it does tonight's dinner.

The interior pages of this singular cookbook are liberally strewn with more of these small drawings - some fixed in my memory, others that had been lost - that are just as amusing, perplexing, or disconcerting as their brethren on the covers. Two diagrams in particular, I clearly recollect. The first illustrates how to set a table properly, the intricacies of which I found quite absorbing as a young girl. The other, depicting various cuts of beef, was strangely compelling. And although I don’t remember the little wooden boat inscribed with the name “Sarah”, draped with nets and floating carelessly at the top of the “Shellfish” section, I am positive it must have provided inspiration for several minutes of delightful daydreaming. Even now, though, I’m not quite sure what I would make of the fish-spearing Eskimo and nearby frolicking penguins who grace the “Home Freezing and Canning” section, which my mother described to me when I telephoned her about this post; they would certainly have been intriguing, however, to a six or seven-year old.

The 1955 edition of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook also contains numerous full-page, color photographs of the end result of many its recipes, in settings that emphasize the inherent character of the food being presented. In one photo, a casserole rests atop a simple country cabinet, next to a bright red lobster; nearby, a copper pitcher is nestled beside a red-checked towel. A bowl of artfully arranged tomatoes, onions and green peppers, and a few strategically placed lemons add the finishing touches to this rustic meal.

As an adult, I appreciate the aesthetic value of such photographs, and the appeal they add to a cookbook. As a child, though, it was those miniature black-and-white drawings that mesmerized me time after time. Perhaps it was their petite nature that I found so attractive, in a way that many people find doll houses and model trains, planes, and ships quite charming. Or, perhaps the photographs of real food and objects were just, well, too real. Even the picture of rows of brightly iced sugar cookies, in fun holiday shapes such as a hearts and bunnies and leprechaun hats, couldn’t compete with the dullest make-believe cheese board or most mundane cuts of pretend beef.