How Horror Star Vincent Price Eerily Predicted America's Culinary Future

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[Photograph: Courtesy of the Price Family Trust]

An expedition into the Youtube archives of the legendary horror film actor Vincent Price produces mostly the sort of results you'd expect. There's the famously reedy thespian, all six-foot-four of him, looming over a foyer filled with potential victims in 1959's House on Haunted Hill—he plays the sadistic rich guy who's paying them to stay overnight in the world's scariest mansion. There's the 'Master of Menace' in his element, knotted up in a sick cravat and reciting "The Raven" in his unmistakable voice, each syllable dripping with foreboding. Even the goofy stuff—an appearance on The Tonight Show with Elvira, a deliriously corny cover of "Monster Mash" from 1977—bolsters Price's image as an icon of classic cinematic terror.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find something odd, especially if you're one of those people who knows Price only as House of Wax's evil sculptor or the narrator from "Thriller."

It's a six-minute clip of him cracking jokes and cooking salmon with Wolfgang Puck. Though the chef teases a bit—"Almost like in your movies!" Puck jokes when thick smoke billows from a hot saucepan—it's clear his helper is no noob when it comes to cooking, holding his own with well-timed comments and plating skills.

It turns out that Price, a stately and sonorous idol of stage and screen, was also a bonafide gourmand. It's not an aspect of his personality celebrated by many contemporary movie buffs or food fanatics. That very well might change, though, given the 2015 reintroduction of A Treasury of Great Recipes, a fascinating Price-penned cookbook that's been reprinted in commemoration of its 50th anniversary.

First published in 1965 but long out of circulation, Treasury is a special kind of celebrity cookbook. With a few notable exceptions (shoutout to Stanley Tucci), your average modern famous-person-in-the-kitchen release can't help but come off as a middling money grab. Price was different. He parlayed an innate culinary curiosity into friendships with world-class chefs and a deep knowledge of multiple cooking traditions. And he did it decades before releasing a book on food became just another Hollywood thing to do. In the process, Price anticipated an American food culture far before its time: an obsession with chefs as celebrities, a fascination with global flavors, and the rise of food fanaticism as a hobby and a lifestyle.

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[Photograph: Treasury of Great Recipes]

Some of Price's family recipes are included within the substantial tome, a work of ornate design and sumptuous photography totaling nearly 500 pages. But it's more of a hybrid travelogue than a straight epicurean memoir, an informal and highly personal one-man Michelin Guide with an impressive multicultural perspective, especially for the '60s. Broken down by country—France, Italy, Spain, Holland and through Scandinavia, then back over to Mexico and the States—the book profiles renowned restaurants of the period, alongside time capsule-worthy copies of their actual paper menus, many complete with original handwriting and per-dish prices. Seventy-five cents for a cup of snapper soup at Bookbinder's, a now-defunct seafood house in Philadelphia. Fourteen kroner for sole meunière from Belle Terrasse in Copenhagen. Two bucks for grilled poulet at the still-standing Antoine's in New Orleans, where there was a mandatory three dollar order minimum per patron.

While it's true that Price's notoriety, wealth, and status afforded him the luxuries of high-class travel and fine dining, the native Missourian was basically born into a fixation on food. His father, Vincent Leonard Price, was the president of both the National Candy Company, known for its jawbreakers and jelly beans, and the National Candymakers' Association. Price's grandfather, Vincent Clarence Price, was a food scientist, writer, and entrepreneur whose invention of cream of tartar baking powder, among other cooking innovations, made him a millionaire.

This privileged background, however, initially led a young Price not to food but to art. Before becoming an actor, he was a serious student of art history, matriculating at both Yale and the University of London. (It was in the latter city that his theater career began in earnest.) He remained involved in the art sphere for the duration of his life, founding galleries and museums and even curating a high-end painting collection for Sears Roebuck, where the average Joe could purchase an original Picasso, Vuillard, Whistler, or Dali on layaway.

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[Photograph: Courtesy of the Price Family Trust]

While his art reputation developed in lockstep with his performing career, Price never lost sight of his love for food, drawing regular parallels between the two. "Art and cuisine! Sisters at least, perhaps even closer," wrote Price, who died in 1993. "The fine arts and the art of cooking go hand in hand down the march of civilization." (He also got cheeky about this relationship: "I have been known to drool before a Chardin and get indigestion when confronted with a Dutch still life.")

Clem Stein, a marketing executive from Sears, was integral to getting Price's cookbook kick-started, networking with the company's reps from around the world and gleaning their restaurant recommendations for potential consideration. But Price, along with his second wife Mary, a costume designer who co-authored the book and curated its look, already had quite the globe-trotting repertoire from which to pull.

While time has done wonders for the globalization of the American palate, there was a limited frame of reference for such explorations in Price's heyday. In this sense, the actor was something of a proto-Bourdain, vetting the exotic and unfamiliar for his curious but perhaps less intrepid countrymen. "Now, when we can turn on the television or the computer and be transported around the world without leaving home, we forget what it was like for a book to capture the imagination of a generation of Americans who had not yet experienced the glamour of world travel," writes Vincent and Mary's daughter, Victoria, in a lengthy introduction to the new edition.

In 1958, half a million Americans visited Europe. Ten years later, deep into the so-called Golden Age of air travel that saw carriers adding flights, dropping fares, and introducing bigger, faster birds in the sky, that number quadrupled, according to William Stadiem's book Jet Set. The Prices were early frequent fliers and hungry travel ambassadors with the aim of "elevating the American appreciation of fine dining to be on a par with that of France."

But that didn't mean they were snotty about it. Though Vincent and Mary were prolific travelers, lived in a crazy-beautiful mansion, and threw glamorous dinner parties, "the last thing they were was pretentious," according to their daughter. Price enjoyed McDonald's and Sizzler as much as the temples of haute gastronomy he frequented; he was also an obsessive home cook who would fuss over perfecting simple dishes like ratatouille. Proof of such down-to-earthiness can be found in the Treasury's pages, via both Price's lively, enthusiastic prose and his family recipes for frankfurters, hamburgers, and sauces made in a blender. These sections help democratize the book; without them, Price's discussions of his favorite chefs, "alchemists in tall white hats who have initiated us into their mysteries," might come off awfully haughty.

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Each chapter covers a different country that the Prices made a habit of visiting. He provides Fernand Point-approved instruction from Restaurant de La Pyramide, in Vienne, and tips on pressed duck from Tour d'Argent, in Paris. He rhapsodizes over the 'Spaghetti alla Bolognese' from Tre Scalini in Rome. He coaxes a recipe for snert, the Dutch pea soup, from the Amstel Hotel in the Netherlands, and examines the particulars of Chicken Chichén Itzá, a specialty of Restaurant Rivoli in Mexico City.

Price also provides an enlightening peek at American dining in the 1960s. The New York scene is represented by restaurants like stalwart German landmark Luchow's (schnitzel; calf's liver cooked in Chablis) and show-business hang Sardi's (London broil; frog's leg Polonaise). In Los Angeles, he visits chef Kenneth Hansen at Scandia, another celebrity haunt (kaaldolmer, or Danish stuffed cabbage). Price heads downmarket here, too, penning paeans to the French toast served on the Santa Fe SuperChief passenger train; and the orange pancakes offered at the Harvey House railroad restaurant chain.

Such sincerity and breadth, coupled with Price's fame, turned Treasury into a hit. In its first year, the book sold 50,000 copies at $20 a pop—that was real volume, especially considering the lofty-for-the-time price tag. As a result of its success, Price began hosting foreign dignitaries and appearing as a guest on cooking shows, even becoming a founding member of the American Food and Wine Institute. Prior to this reprinting, Treasury regularly appeared on BookFinder.com's annual list of the most sought-after out-of-print books.

With a half-century of culinary hindsight in the hopper, it seems that Price's spookiest characteristic may have been his ability to foresee America's culinary future with eerie accuracy. His book is a historical document that preserves an era in amber, but it also predicts America's current obsessions—that we would start peering beyond our borders with wide eyes and growling stomachs. For a reader who'd never sampled the cuisines of the world, let alone visited their most noted cities of origin, the original Treasury might as well have been a passport. Now accessible to a new audience, the times have changed but the spirit's the same. "A Treasury of Great Recipes contains more than recipes to eat," wrote Victoria Price. "It is, as I have come to understand it, a recipe for living."