Sarah Rich and Wendy MacNaughton presented Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: the Life, Art and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles last night at Books are Magic. I ended up there unexpectedly after another event was rescheduled and was so glad I did, and it’s not even the Russ & Daughters snacks speaking.
The story of this book is really incredible and unusual in our fast-paced world – how many other books are coming out this year that were likely begun at a kitchen table in the 1940’s? The original author, Cipe Pineles, made two sketchbooks full of gouache painted illustrations and hand-lettered recipes, which were lost to time and busy lives. They turned up again a few years ago at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair, having been sold in her estate sale.
The current book’s editors, Rich and MacNaughton, found the books at the fair and were blown away on sight. MacNaughton is an illustrator and was particularly surprised, upon a quick Wiki search, that she hadn’t heard of Pineles before.
The first female art director at Conde Nast, Pineles worked on titles including Vogue, Glamour, Seventeen, and Charm starting in the 1930’s, eventually landing on the faculty of Parsons. She was the first female member of the Art Director’s Club, and the first woman in its Hall of Fame.
Pineles also loved to cook and entertain, and tried for years to start a new magazine called Food & Drink that would have been edited by James Beard. While she often cooked the popular French modern cuisine, it was the food of her mother – “old world Jewish food,” that she thought of when painting. Rich especially felt a kinship with this, like “those are my people, too.” She especially liked the brightness of the colors and liveliness of the paintings – that type of food “doesn’t always have the most vibrant, celebratory aura around it,” but that’s what Pineles saw in it.
After buying the sketchbooks, the pair put them in a fireproof lockbox for a few years while they looked into Pineles’ story. Through art and book world connections they eventually made their way to Toronto to meet Pineles’ daughter, Carol, who gave them her blessing, sat for interviews and stayed in touch as this new book project came about.
“I’m gonna get woo-woo for a second; we’re from California,” said MacNaughton. “This whole process felt guided.” The editors thought of the book as rectifying a cosmic wrong, that a woman who was so successful at her craft and at her art could be lost to history and not gotten her due, maybe because she was a woman at work in what was very much a man’s world.
The resulting book includes biographical elements, essays and art from people like Mimi Sheraton and Maira Kalman (I’m dying over this, Kalman is my absolute favorite). It also has Pineles’ original drawings, and recipes inspired by the ones she hand-lettered.
Not all of the original food ideas held up. The editors hypothesize that some specifications may have been lost in translation – as Mimi Sheraton’s mother said to her when she was trying to do a similar project, “are we gonna measure or are we gonna cook?” It also wasn’t the food that Pineles cooked every day – this was holiday fare, brought out a few times per year for family gatherings. Rich, an avid home cook, ended up working with a local chef to come up with modern versions of these classics, which include borscht, chicken soup, and more.
One thing that has held up over the years though is the art. Gouache (opaque watercolor, basically) is a notoriously tough medium to work in, and that’s what attracted MacNaughton’s eye in the first place. “Food illustration is coming back,” she said. “We want that sense of personal presence, that someone is making it by hand.”
More CP: Rich and MacNaughton have put up a line of prints, kitchen towels, and notecards here, and and they’ve curated a show of her work, currently at Fordham University’s Ildiko Butler Gallery at their Lincoln Center campus.