Cleaning Out the Basement–The Merrie Christmas Cookbook

book cover

The Merrie Christmas Cookbook, decorated by Ruth McCrea, Peter Pauper Press, revised edition 1982

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper which smells like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered–flushed, but smiling proudly–with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Unlike Thanksgiving, Christmas offers some menu leeway, but even this charming book, with its chapter on “Glamor Desserts” doesn’t attempt Christmas pudding, opting instead for Pineapple Torte, Mousse Au Chocolat, and the undeniably festive (!) Prune Pie. Small slice for me please.

The book is one of the series of little cookbooks published by Peter Pauper Press. The Press was started in 1928 by Peter Beilenson, after studying with Frederick Goudy. It specialized in literary works, elegantly produced.

In the 1950s, Peter’s wife Edna Beilenson began the cookbook series, with small books, about 65 pages long, and measuring 7 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches, covering everything “from abalone to zabaglione,” as Edna said. And given their size, the books maintain their focus and keep it easy: Simple Italian Cookery, The ABC of Cocktails. Naturally their approach is dated–Chafing Dish Cookery, Canapes, and Jiffy Cookery–but that’s part of their charm.

Cooks looking for authenticity will be disappointed and admit, that I’ve never made anything from these books. I just like looking at them and imagining the parties that ensued. In fact, I wonder if anyone ever cooked from them. My vintage copies are unspattered–perhaps they were the perfect hostess gift of the time.

What are really love are the decorative bindings that Edna initiated with the series. Many of the books, including this one, were designed by Ruth McCrea, a prolific illustrator who also worked on children’s books.

original cover

This original cover serves as an intro page on my 1982 edition

Many of the illustrations have a cheery folk style–

Who doesn't love a holiday cheese ball!

Some doggerel with your  cheese ball?


But I love how the line energetically unravels into the abstraction of Christmas trees–

Can I freshen up that drink for you?

Can I freshen up that drink for you?

As scholars, Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder (University of Exeter) write, these little books are “culturally notable artifacts” that served as “guidebooks to a mobile, articulate, cultured life.” “These little books made belles-lettres authors, exotic ingredients, and foreign figures available to mainstream U.S. consumers. . . . the Press’s attractive books contributed small signals of success in the quest for adventurous dining, broader horizons, and cultural capital.”

You can snuggle up next to fire and peruse more vintage holiday cookbooks here–inspiration for coming celebrations!

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
This entry was posted in cleaning out the basement, entertaining, holidays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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