Cleaning Out the Basement–A Book of Appetizers

A Book of Appetizers by Helen Evans Brown, The Ward Ritchie Press 1958, hardback

A Book of Appetizers by Helen Evans Brown, The Ward Ritchie Press 1958, hardback

This book speaks to easy entertaining–pick-up cocktail parties or drinks on the patio. But whether it’s a mid-century highball or a turn of the century artisan brew, something to nibble on is always welcome.

As author, Helen Evans Brown writes, that something should be “dainty, delicious, and diverting.” And she goes on to explore the very notion of appetizers. They are not, like Italian antipasti or Russian zakousky, a first course served at the table. And they are not American snacks, which can be anything from an ice cream cone to a ballpark bag of peanuts. Maybe, she speculates, they should be called tidbits, kickshaws, or bonne bouche.

Brown goes on in her introduction to advise on how to measure for your number of guests, how to mix and serve drinks, and to avoid anything drippy or messy. So you can go on to enjoy Codfish Balls, 1927 dating from the very advent of cocktails and served, daringly, with Bathtub Gin. More sensible partygoers and givers can opt for Cheese Balls and Screwdrivers.

While I like this laid back approach to entertaining, what caught my eye was the book’s design—the square trim size, the vaguely Indian blanket cover graphic, and the numbered, page-by-page presentation of the recipes and accompanying drinks.

I love a tidy page!

I love a tidy page!

(Thank you internet), it turns out this book is a product of The Ward Ritchie Press, which specialized in books on cooking and Western Americana. Ritchie himself designed about 750 books, including this one. Ritchie also worked with noted designers, including Alvin Lustig—a giant of mid-century design.

Ritchie started his press when Southern California was experiencing a boom in small private presses with printers collaborating with artists, publishers, booksellers, and authors. He began with literary projects and stepped away from fine printing only during World War II, when he printed aircraft training manuals for Douglas.

Part of the charm of small press works is the visible hand of the designer. Ritchie designed each book to fit its subject matter. “The main object of a trade book is to make the reader want to read it,” he once said. “You try to put warmth into the design so the reader will pick it up, get into the subject and keep going.”

And talk about being in the right place at the right time, Helen Evans Brown and Philip Brown were Ritchie’s neighbors in Pasadena. She was already writing food articles and cookbooks, and Ritchie describes their house as “mostly kitchen and library,” that library comprising some 10,000 cookbooks. It was a natural partnership and they began with Brown’s Chafing Dish Cookbook, which was one of their bestsellers. The Patio Cookbook followed along with A Book of Appetizers. This 1958 edition is a later printing, and includes the accompanying cocktails developed by Helen’s husband Philip. Recipe testing anyone!?

annette joseph

Picture Perfect Parties by Annette Joseph, Rizzoli 2013, $39.95 hardback, 223 pages

If you’re ready for a bit more elaboration, try Annette Jospeh’s Picture Perfect Parties. Heads-up, you’ll need a glue gun.

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About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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