Art and Food

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Vincent Price, with his arch, menacing voice, played the villain in dozens of movies: the 3-D House of Wax in 1953, House of Usher in 1960. He was such a memorable character actor that Tim Burton cast him late in his life in the film Edward Scissorhands. Less known is the fact that Price was a knowledgeable and ardent art collector who studied art history at Yale. His passion for collecting and his celebrity status led to a stint selling fine art at Sears Roebuck stores where he offered prints by artists as well known as Rembrandt, Picasso and Dali to be paid on the store's credit card. His recommendation of Richard Diebenkorn led other collectors to buy the work. The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College houses his donations of pre-Columbian, tribal and European modern art.

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© William Claxton

Fine art was an interest that he combined with a love of fine food and a 1965 book of recipes that he and his wife Mary, a costume designer, has just been reprinted as a faithful recreation by Dover: A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price. Looking through this 50th anniversary edition is like stepping back into old L.A. style while enjoying the improbable life story of Price and his obsessive enjoyments. Did you know that Vincent Price's grandfather invented backing powder? And vanilla extract? And that he wrote cookbooks? His father owned the National Candy Company. Price himself bought his first Rembrandt etching at age 12 with a three-year payment plan.

It was the Sears deal that allowed the Prices to travel the world, buying art for the collection that was exhibited at all the Sears stores, meanwhile eating in the best or well-recommended restaurants, then soliciting their favorite recipes. Price saw food as an art form.

The book, lovingly reproduced from its embossed leather and gold original, reproduces the menus from the Price's dining adventures at the Tour d'Argent in Paris, the Rivoli in Mexico City and the Santa Fe Super Chief, where the Prices felt the French toast in the dining car that was so good, the experience and recipe were worth recounting. Even if the recipes seem too challenging for the average cook, they provide mouth-watering reading. For others, there are new ideas for the holidays.

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The food presentations, elaborate as they are, can't compare to what European cooks between the 17th and 19th centuries were up to and that can be seen at the Getty in an exhibition by curator Marcia Reed, The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals on view through March 13, 2016. Literally hundreds and sometimes thousands of people were invited to coronations and religious pageants. This small exhibition documents such events, factual and fictional, in illustrated books and prints showing the feasts but also the methods of folding napkins, the seating charts, the silver serving dishes. Versailles, of course, operated at the apex, developing the surtout, a dramatic centerpiece that remained on the table throughout the meal. To give an idea of it, the show features an architectural model of an ancient palace with sculptures all made of cast sugar by contemporary artist and culinary historian Ivan Day.

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The show affords detailed account of the coronation of the English King James II where the menu included 1,445 different dishes including pistachio cream, anchovies and hogs' tongues.

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Jean Le Pautre, "Feast Given in the Small Park at Versailles," 1678
Etching and engraving

And this brings us back to Price's cookbook and his account of dining in London, recalling King James II whacking a slice of beef off of a roast and dubbing it, "Sir Loin."

Whatever your pleasure, I hope you are eating well, and frankly grateful that you can pick up your turkey at the market rather than chasing it down, killing it, plucking it, and hoping there would be enough to feed your ten children. Bon appetite!