Continuing a Mail Order Education

Apart from the basics of handwriting, grammar, and arithmetic, my grade school education happened at home, between the pages of books my parents bought to satisfy my voracious curiosity. (And, I have always suspected, to stop me from asking them questions they couldn’t answer.) This supplemental schooling began when I was given a box of How and Why Wonder Books, which I read so many times that I could recite large chunks of them from memory.

After the now-legendary Galileo incident, my father, realizing that my science education would have to come from other sources, bought me a subscription to the Science Service book series, replying to an ad like this one:

This was still in the sixties, there was a space race going on, and our children had to grow up to be scientists and engineers! This explained the series’ emphasis on atomic power, submarines, radio communications, and, or course, rockets.

Unfortunately, the Apollo program was moving so quickly that the books couldn’t keep up. We dropped the subscription and I cast about for a new source of books, which, ironically, I found in my grade school’s library.

The library at St. Catherine’s was divided into two areas, one for the first through sixth grades, and the other for the seventh and eighth grades. I had already read everything of interest in the “lower library,” and had taken to sitting near the entrance of the “upper library” to see what books I could look forward to reading. On the bottom shelf closest to the door I could see what was obviously a collection of similar books, with titles in white letters agains solid-colored spines. It was a set each of the Life Science Library and the Life Nature Library – probably donated by a well-meaning parent – and I could tell after a few weeks of observation that the books had never been checked out.

I had to read those books; I couldn’t wait another year. I made my case to the librarian and then the principal, who was all too happy to keep me distracted. I’m sure she thought that fifty books would keep me busy for at least a year. What she failed to take into account was that I had already been given permission to check out two books every week.

And so my real education began. I read all of the books, returning to sections I didn’t understand when I learned more about the topic from other sources. I confirmed that the books had never been cracked open by anyone else, and realized just before I graduated that I was the only person to have read the books in three years. That shelf was mine, a source of knowledge that I still remember to this day. (An example: While visiting a lab at UMass Amherst, I noticed a reptile skull sitting on my friend’s desk. I asked “Is that a tuatara skull?” “Yes, how did you know?” “It’s pretty distinct, given that it’s the only surviving member of one of the five orders of reptiles.” Where did I learn that? The Reptiles, from the Nature Library.)

Decades later, when Boston’s Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore closed its doors for good (an early victim of online book selling), I was able to buy a complete set of both library series, which, out of tradition, live on the bottom shelf of the bookcases where we keep the science books. It was only then that I realized some of the talent that had been recruited to write the books: Carl Sagan wrote Planets, Roger Tory Peterson wrote The Birds, and Arthur C. Clarke wrote Man and Space (updated in 1969 to include the Apollo 11 moon landing).

This bout of nostalgia was prompted by a chef friend who gave me a partial set of another Time-Life book series, Foods of the World. Publication of this series began in 1968 and continued through the 1970s, about the same time that cooking shows like The French Chef and The Galloping Gourmet were making American audiences aware of cuisines from other countries. The books, which are a combination of travelogues and recipes, were produced with Time-Life’s usual high quality. The photography stands up to any modern food photography, and the writing, by experts including Julia Child, M.F.K.Fisher, Craig Claiborne, Pierre Franey, James Beard, and Jacques Pepin is hardly dated at all.

The books came with smaller, spiral-bound collections of additional recipes. I have some of the supplements to match the main volumes, but not all.

Although more than a third of the books are devoted to American and French cooking, there are a few volumes that are still useful references, devoted to the cooking of Africa, the Caribbean, Spain & Portugal, and the Middle East. The most unusual book in the series, A Quintet of Cuisines, covers Switzerland, the low countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, and North Africa. The North African section covers a cuisine that is still under-represented in the cookbook market apart from Paula Wolfert’s books on Moroccan food.

My friend, knowing my fondness for cooking with odd bits, threw in a volume from The Good Cook, another Time-Life series that was organized by subject instead of cuisine:

Before Fergus Henderson championed nose-to-tail eating, Richard Olney’s Variety Meats was a solitary voice crying out in the culinary wilderness. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when this book showed up as part of  a housewife’s subscription. If she wasn’t immediately put off by the cover photo of braised stuffed tripe basted with veal demiglace, then the recipes for brains and kidneys would have relegated to book to the far end of the shelf, never to be opened again (which probably explains why my copy and copies owned by friends are in such good condition).

So now I get to relive a part of my childhood and absorb another reference library. I hope my family and friends are prepared, because even my first cursory pass has turned up a lot of recipes that look both challenging and tasty. I have already begun prowling eBay to locate copies of the missing volumes. After all, who wants an incomplete education?

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5 Responses to Continuing a Mail Order Education

  1. Andrea says:

    So that’s where my copies of India and Africa ended up.
    Here’s what’s in my library with their spiral-bound companions:
    America: Northwest, Great West, Southern, Melting Pot, Northeast, Creole/Arcadia, Southern.
    Quintet of Cuisines
    British Isles
    Wine and spirits
    Provincial France
    Classic French
    Middle East
    Spain and Portugal

    Plus The Good Cook: Poultry, Cookies and Crackers, Cakes. Chicken and dessert. That’s what I was thinking about at the time.

  2. Melanie Campbell says:

    I think we had a full set of the cookbooks. When I was about twelve, I tried to make peking raviolis from the book on Chinese cookery.

  3. M Domin says:

    New reader, really enjoy your work. Thrilled you mentioned the TimeLife series — the writing, photos, and recipes are still top notch! I have the Classic French and Wine & Spirits books. In spite of being rarely used, they still rank among the favourites of my cookbook collection. Here’s a site I found for the spiral bound recipe books:


    • David says:

      Thanks for reading!

      That old cookbooks site looks both useful and dangerous. I haven’t decided how any of the recipe supplements I need, but I’d probably try eBay first.

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