I recently had the pleasure of having tea at the home of Anne Willan, celebrated cookbook author and founder of LaVarenne Cooking School. I'd won the privilege of having tea with Ms. Willan and receiving a personal tour of her collection of antiquarian cookbooks in a silent auction to benefit the Southern California Culinary Historians. It was a treat on many levels.
The day before the event, Anne Willan's fabulous assistant Christine Matsuda called me and asked if I had any particular food interests. I mumbled something about Sunday dinner and my fascination with all things pickled, cured, or preserved. (I was in the middle of The Pickle Project at the time.) That seemed broad enough to cover most of my food obsessions. Christine said she would pull some books that might interest me. She also asked if I knew June Taylor, whom they'd recently seen in San Francisco. She owns a shop called the Still-Room and does lots of pickling. I told her "no" and Christine said, "We have so much to talk about when you get here!" Now I was really excited.
When the big day arrived, I was practically giddy. Ms. Willan ushered me into her dining room where I saw a vast display of impressive looking books on the dining room table and we dug right in. Ms. Willan described the background of each book as she showed it to me and the two other club members who made up our little group. She also graciously filled in the gaps of our historical knowledge as she went along so we'd more fully appreciate the works in front of us.
The following is a paraphrased and excerpted account of the event, heavily influenced by my excitement and poor memory.
Ms. Willan: "This is a 1491 edition of an incunabulum from the 4th century. Do you know what an incunabulum is?" (Three shaking heads.) "Ah, well, this is an early printed book that was based on a 4th century text. It was originally written by a monk to explain the rules for living in the monastery. I don't read Latin, but we had the relevant parts translated. The Seventh Book is about feasting." (Ms. Willan turns the pages, then pauses for a moment.) "Oh... yes... the Fifth Book is about sex." She continues turning the pages and regaling us with fascinating trivia about the incunabulum, but I lose focus for a moment to consider how funny she is. Before I realize it, she's moved on to a second book.
Ms. Willan: "This is Scappi." She says it like she's greeting an old friend. "This is the first book on making pastry. It was written in 1492, and this is a second edition printed in 1653." We all eagerly lean our heads forward to see it, drawn in by her enthusiasm. We pass the book around and Ms. Willan presents a third book.
Next up is a first edition copy of "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple" by Hannah Glasse. Ms. Willan had flashed this book to the crowd at her lecture at the LA Public Library in May and it is one of the jewels of her collection. I'd asked Christine about pulling it for us so I knew it was coming, but I still couldn't help beaming when I saw it. It's the first American cookbook and I knew the content of this book pretty well from my Sunday dinner research. Still, getting to thumb through a first edition was pretty cool. And I learned something new. The first edition was uncredited, having been authored simply by "A Lady". Very intriguing. There's so much more I could say about this. But I will press on.
By this time, Ms. Willan is holding a small book that she says may be the first cookbook ever written. Written in the 16th century (when there was little distinction between food and medicine) this book of recipes contains ingredient lists, exact amounts of ingredients to be used, and detailed instructions for creating everything from love potions to preserves. And the author -- Nostradamus! Nostradamus made preserves? Who knew? I think about how much my husband, who has made numerous documentaries about Nostradamus, would love to see this. I lapsed into reminiscences of my honeymoon in France when my husband and I went on a pilgrimage to Nostradamus' birthplace in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence -- but I snap out of it as soon as the next book appears.
Ms. Willan: "This is a second edition of Le Cuisiner François by François Fierre de la Varenne from 1652. We named our cooking school after it." Gulp. I realize that I've been given the opportunity not only to see an impressive collection of books, but also to get a glimpse into Ms. Willan's life and I feel a little overwhelmed.
The list goes on... Several amazing coronation books, volumes that describe the various events surrounding the coronation of kings. The oldest was from England's James II (1685!) which included a series of intricate engravings that showed who sat where for the feast, what they ate and where each dish was laid out on the table. From this I learned the expression "to sit below the salt", which meant you were a commoner. Hey, salt was expensive and if you were seated "below the salt" at the dinner table you were not very important.
I haven't even mentioned "Nutt's Confectioner". But I suppose I have to stop somewhere. Suffice it to say, I was in heaven. Little did I know that the best part of the day was yet to come. I'll write about it (and show photos!) in my next post.