Hostess bibliophila

I’ve always loved reading old cookbooks and books on entertaining. I remember leafing through my mother’s old Betty Crocker books as a kid and salivating over the pretty layer cakes frosted with fluffy white seven-minute icing and wondering if anyone actually ate chipped beef and cream sauce on top of waffles. The edition I was looking at was probably about 15 years old at the time, but it already seemed old-fashioned to me, with its red-and-white gingham cover and it’s ring binding, with little red tabs separating each of the chapters.

A few years ago, I wrote the text for The Hostess Diary, which has a sort of retro, nostalgic tone.

In the process of writing it, I dug up a lot of old entertaining books for inspiration.

I was fascinated to read accounts of 1950s bridge parties and look at the nausea-inducing pictures of ham and tomatoes quivering in aspic. Of course it was fun to see how they were comically dated (e.g., “A happy woman is one who is the center of well-being of a dependent, loving family. In times of crisis women always ‘rise and shine,’ thus astonishing that well-known stronger sex,” from 1943’s More Thoughts for Food). But if you can get past the recipes that suggest you bastardize traditional French cuisine by using canned vegetables and strawberry Jello, you’ll see that the basic ideas behind entertaining have remained the same: Greet your guests immediately with a aperitif or a cup of tea. Get your prep work done early so you can enjoy your own party. Know your guests, and plan the menu and activities accordingly.

This week I logged onto one of the online book swapping sites that I often use to see if they had any great entertaining books I wanted. Well, I couldn’t find any particularly good books on entertaining on the site, but I did find several that look spectacularly bad. A few of my favorites:

Why does this book exist? Do Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford sound like someone you want to get down with?

What way would that be, exactly? Put out a 5-gallon tub of onion dip and a 10-pound bag of potato chips and stand back? Hire little old ladies in hairnets to stand at various places in your house and hand out samples of miniature sausages?

This one just boggles the mind. The product description: “Share your faith through hosting barbeques, sporting events, coffees, youth and children’s gatherings, holiday parties, and other events in your home–and have fun at the same time.” I imagine a poor guest who thinks she has been invited to a cocktail party, only to discover a room full of ladies drinking tea and reciting Psalms.

I order all these and a several others, though the members of this book-swapping site have proven to be pretty flaky so far, so I only expect to receive a fraction of them. More details if and when they show up. And maybe I’ll even try some of those recipes (I’m looking at you, Meringued Prunes in More Thoughts for Food). They should be good for a laugh, at least, and maybe I’ll learn something in the process.