The online auction on EBay had started quietly, about what you’d expect for an out-of-print cookbook: $39.99, nothing unusual. But as more shoppers cruised the site and saw what was at stake, the price began to escalate--slowly at first and then in a great rush. By the last hour, the book was at $130 and bidding was fierce. Suddenly, in a dramatic EBay snipe with only five seconds left, a new contestant entered the fray and quickly bid $155, snatching the book from the hands of the previous bidder.
The book was not some glorious tome by a famous chef, nor was it a rare first-edition from some food-writing ancient. The book was “Cooking for You Alone” by the singer Johnny Mathis, a spiral-bound cookbook published by TEC Publishers in Fullerton in 1982.
Long before the Food Network made superstars out of chefs, celebrity cookbooks were written by people who were famous for reasons that had nothing to do with their cooking. Now, decades after publication, a short A-list of these books still commands an audience--and a price.
“People have always wanted to know what the famous are eating,” says Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan. Longone has traced the cult of celebrity cuisine back to 19th century magazine revelations of socialites’ dining habits.
Hollywood stars and their cooking made early public appearances in recipe collections, including “Fashions in Food in Beverly Hills” (Beverly Hills Citizen, 1929) and “What Actors Eat--When They Eat” (Lyman House, 1939). Joan Crawford’s hot buttered bread, Gloria Stuart’s ham mousse and other personal recipes gave fans a taste of their idols’ culinary secrets. But, Longone says, it’s questionable how many of the actors ever touched a pan.
“I marvel at which books become famous and last,” she says, surveying the celebrity cookbooks of the past 50 years.
It’s not just the magnitude of the author’s fame or the quality of cooking that makes some books collectible and others forgettable. Only a handful keep selling. And there are as many reasons for their enduring appeal as there are collectors.
New York City cookbook dealer Bonnie Slotnick has been looking for the Mathis cookbook for more than 15 years. “It’s the Holy Grail,” she says. Spiral bound with a plastic cover, copies have sold for $300.
The competition for this extraordinarily rare book is fierce among Mathis collectors. They’re certainly not looking to cook out of it. The recipes are things like Peach Grenadine Ice Cream (canned peaches and grenadine poured over vanilla ice cream) and Chili Chicken in Foil (chicken baked with dry chili seasoning). The allure is pure memorabilia.
“It’s like finding a rare baseball card,” says Steve Luth of Sacramento, the EBay buyer clever enough to capture the Mathis book.
When it comes to all-time best-selling celebrity cookbooks, Mary and Vincent Price’s “A Treasury of Great Recipes” (Ampersand Press, 1965) is the one book dealers unanimously place at the top of the list. Janet Jarvits, a Pasadena bookseller with a full stock of celebrity cookbooks, sells 20 to 30 copies a year. “That’s a lot for an out-of-print cookbook,” she says.
Serious cookbook collectors want it as much as cult followers of the King of Horror. For book lovers, the object itself is a treasure: A padded, bronze-gilded leatherette cover encloses pages printed in sepia with satin marking ribbons.
But it is coveted for more than its cover. Inside, Price, a well-known gourmet of his day, plays it straight, sharing dining experiences and recipes from famous restaurants around the world. The chocolate mousse and duck a l’orange are classics. “It would be an excellent cookbook even if it wasn’t by a celebrity,” Jarvits says.
Of the many editions in circulation, the most collectible is a first edition by Ampersand Press which sells for $100 or more. A signed edition can fetch several hundred dollars, but Jarvits says a true Vincent Price signature is extremely rare.
“Zasu Pitts’ Candy Hits” (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1963) is also on every cookbook collector’s “must have” list. This film comedienne of the ‘20s and ‘30s is best remembered for the cartoon character inspired by her heart-shaped face, wide eyes and pipsqueak voice, Olive Oyl. Pitts isn’t a household name anymore, but her cookbook immortalizes her as the doyenne of candy making.
“Candy Hits” is diminutive and pink, “like a little girl’s diary,” says Greenwich Village book dealer Slotnick, who considers it a camp classic. But its cuteness doesn’t undermine its authority. Nearly 40 years later, it is a definitive source on candy making, a subject on which there’s little printed. Pitts’ recipes for divinity, panocha and caramels, which she whipped up for the whole studio crew through the ups and downs of her career, stand the test of time.
“Candy Hits,” which was published the year the star died, is hard to find. Good quality first edition copies--all 93 pages--sell for up to $75.
The books that become most collectible, such as “Candy Hits” and Price’s “Treasury of Great Recipes,” have as much substance as style. Dan Strehl, manager of the Hollywood Regional Library, isn’t impressed by the sheer star quality of most show business cookbooks. “There is a difference between those who are cooked for and those who cook,” he says.
Kate Smith was another star who could be trusted in the kitchen. Through her radio and television programs and promotional cookbooks for Pillsbury and General Mills, she became as famed for her baking excellence as for singing “God Bless America.” The “Kate Smith Company’s Coming Cookbook” (Prentice-Hall, 1958) is still cherished for the homey recipes from a real cook.
This same level of affection keeps “The Molly Goldberg Cookbook” (Doubleday, 1955) in demand. Renamed “The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook” soon after publication, it is sought-after even by collectors who don’t remember the call “Yoo hoo! Mrs. Goldberg!” that signaled the beginning of actress Gertrude Berg’s celebrated 1950s radio show.
Dinah Shore proved her cooking prowess on television and her three cookbooks still sell. “Nice recipes from a nice singer,” is how a recent Amazon.com buyer described “The Dinah Shore American Kitchen” (Doubleday, 1990). Julia Child once owned “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” (Doubleday, 1971). And Barbara Sinatra, who wrote the still in print “Sinatra Celebrity Cookbook” (Scientific American, $24.95), recently bought a copy of “The Dinah Shore Cookbook” (Doubleday, 1983) at Cookbooks by Janet Jarvits Bookseller.
These three famous women touched the American public and left indelible impressions of their character and cooking skills. Book dealers and collectors of Americana consider them to be the gold standard of celebrity cookbooks, even though they’re not as exotic and scarce as others. http://Abebooks.com, an online book source of 8,400 independent used book sellers, lists first edition copies from $25 to $50, depending on their condition.
While high-quality recipes are critical to a book’s long-term success, it has to have personality, too, cookbook author Rick Rodgers says. Rodgers has ghostwritten several celebrity cookbooks, including the popular “La Belle Cuisine” by Patti La Belle (Broadway Books, $26).
Even if Sophia Loren had never said, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti,” her first collection of classic Italian recipes, “In the Kitchen With Love” (Doubleday, 1972), would still be a strong seller. It is the stuff fans long for: intimate dining details complete with sultry full-page photos of the young Loren.
But it doesn’t thrive 29 years after publication on looks alone. Loren was well-known as an enthusiastic cook. Throughout the book, written and originally published in Italian, she is an attentive and personable teacher, even when talking about bleeding a suckling pig. First edition, good-quality copies sell for up to $95.
“Pearl’s Kitchen: An Extraordinary Cookbook” (Harcourt, 1973) is full of author Pearl Bailey’s heart and soul. Written in a down-to-earth, conversational style, chapters such as “I Don’t Iron Dust Rags” and “Simple Satisfaction” convey her no-nonsense food philosophy and talk the reader through her home-style okra, pigs’ feet and “Hamburger Casserole Pearl.” This collection of 100 anecdote-filled recipes has enjoyed multiple printings and sold as a mass-market paperback.
Kim Hunter’s “Loose in the Kitchen” (Domina Books, 1975) is a gastronomic tell-all. The star of the first Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire"--she won an Oscar for her role as Stella in the film version--presents a candid and witty story of an actor’s career. Everything from stage fright to being forced to take diet pills is accompanied by recipes, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tuna on saltines. The chapter on working with the baby chimpanzee, Milo, in the original 1969 “Planet of the Apes” concludes with a single recipe for stuffed French bread told to her by her makeup artist.
Bailey’s and Hunter’s edible autobiographies sell as good-quality first editions online and in bookstores for $30, $75 if they’re signed.
The best cookbooks share unusual personal details. Where else can readers discover that Price drove up to friends’ homes for impromptu dinner parties in his Clark Cortez motor home, that Shore loved meat and that Liberace lived with his mother?
In fact, “Liberace Cooks!” (Doubleday, 1970) is better than a celebrity house tour. While the recipes might be forgettable, the full-page photos of Mr. Showmanship in a flannel shirt and posing in his seven dining rooms, aren’t.
The only obstacle to owning it is finding one that doesn’t have a torn book jacket. Paradoxically, the entertainer best known for his flamboyant sense of style wrote a cookbook with a notoriously cheap cover, Jarvits says. She lists a good-quality copy for $40.
Amid the multitudes of celebrity cookbooks, beloved and forgotten, there is one famous gourmet who never turned his passions for food into a book. Danny Kaye gained renown for his cooking prowess through fan magazines, and his refined culinary skills were recently recalled in former Times Food Editor Ruth Reichl’s “Comfort Me With Apples.”
“People come into the shop and insist that Danny Kaye wrote a cookbook,” Jarvits says. If only he had, he might have given Mathis a run for his money.