It all began with a painting of borscht so beautifully rendered that it stopped time for editors Sarah Rich and Wendy MacNaughton. A pair of beets, their leaves curving around a bowl of soup, invited a closer look inside a display case at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair one Saturday morning four-and-a-half years ago.
The hand-lettered, illustrated recipe was one of many within the pages of a cookbook of traditional Eastern European Jewish cuisine whose author was identified as the late Cipe Pineles by the bookseller. The illustrations pulsated with life — Pineles, who died in 1991, was the first female art director at Condé Nast who worked with top names such as Andy Warhol — but the cookbook had gone unpublished, remaining in an estate for 65 years.
Thanks to a collaborative effort, Pineles’s cookbook is finally seeing the light of day as “Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles,” published by Bloomsbury last fall. Edited by Rich and MacNaughton, along with Maria Popova and Debbie Millman, the book is an effort to reintroduce not only Jewish immigrant home cooking, but also Pineles herself.
“The book is a cross-section of a number of areas of interest,” Rich said. “It’s about a designer and artist, contemporary art, food, Jewish history, the history of publishing in New York in the mid-20th century — they kind of come together.”
Rich and MacNaughton made the chance discovery of the borscht recipe in San Francisco in 2013. Neither had ever heard of the author or her groundbreaking career.
“I’ve been in magazines a long time, Wendy has been in art and illustration a long time,” Rich reflected. Rich is the author of the book “Urban Farms” and MacNaughton is a New York Times bestselling graphic journalist.
“Neither of us had learned of her in school or in our careers in any way. Her cookbook had not been published or seen before. We wanted to bring her into the light,” Rich said.
That included the illustrations — “dozens of original gouache paintings,” Rich said, “all beautifully presented. The color was incredibly vibrant.”
Rich said that like herself and MacNaughton, many have been struck with one entry in particular — the borscht recipe.
“I so love the borscht,” said Rich (who has similar feelings about another recipe — the roast chicken), in part for its “incredible amount of text. The handwriting is so amazing… the letters are squeezed into almost every possible space, it’s hard to do it.”
The illustrations are the center piece of the work, Rich said. “They’re the main reason it came to be… I don’t have a fine arts background, but Wendy does, and she could tell right away [Pineles] was incredibly refined, well-trained.”
To purchase the cookbook, Rich and MacNaughton teamed up with Popova, the creator of the acclaimed blog Brain Pickings, and Millman, the president emeritus of the professional design organization AIGA.
Rich and MacNaughton also sought out people with connections to Pineles — such as her adopted daughter Carol Burtin Fripp and her family, as well as renowned experts who contributed essays for the book. These include graphic designer Paula Scher, art director Steven Heller and food critic Mimi Sheraton.
“Each had something to add — often, a new angle,” Rich said.
Not woman’s world
Pineles was born Ciporah Pineles to Orthodox Jewish parents in Vienna in 1908. She traveled with her parents and siblings across Europe as they sought a cure for her father’s diabetes, before World War I brought them back to Vienna in 1920. They emigrated to the US in 1923.
Pineles excelled in art and design, studying at the Pratt Institute and going on to make history at Condé Nast as art director for magazines such as Seventeen.
“In her time, she was recognized as a very talented art director,” Rich said. “People in publishing in New York knew her.”
But she also faced a lack of respect.
“She was inducted into the Art Directors’ Hall of Fame sometime mid-career,” Rich said. “Her first husband, Bill Golden, [who designed the] CBS TV eye that they still use, [was selected for the] Hall of Fame and said, ‘I will not accept this unless you bring my wife in. She’s so talented.’ They did.”
But, Rich said, “if you go to design school, on the curriculum for design students, she does not appear too frequently in the canon of 20th-century designers.”
Rich called Pineles “an important figure” who made “great contributions” and “lives on [in what we do] today.”
Pineles worked with artists such as Ben Shahn and Warhol, Rich explained — and while the traditional procedure had been to simply ask an artist to illustrate a story, Pineles took it further, asking them to read the story and create a visual response. Rich called this “really different, revolutionary” — and “still how it’s done at most major magazines.”
Pineles also contributed magazine illustrations of her own — some of which are displayed in the book. All the while she was also working on the cookbook project.
“She kept the book as a kind of personal project,” Rich explained. She worked on it in her “spare time, in her house, where it remained. In part, that’s why it’s preserved so well.”
Preserves and preserving tradition
The cookbook preserves the traditional recipes of Pineles’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. In addition to the borscht, there were many other soups — including a split pea or lentil soup that also featured frankfurters. There was kasha, involving the Eastern European staple buckwheat groats, as well as a recipe for fishkalacha, “[meatballs] cooked like fish,” according to the book.
“She definitely knew the traditions, the food,” Rich said. “She had a lot of respect and love for her mother and her mother’s cooking.”
Rich added that “the clippings in [Pineles’s] archives [showed she] clearly loved food. Not overwhelmingly Jewish food on a daily basis; she entertained with food that was popular at the time. She would make [Jewish food] for her family, on holidays. She had a deep connection, clearly. She painted every recipe. In some degree, she felt a lot of connection to it.”
Yet that connection was jeopardized.
“The date on the original is 1945 — long before she died, almost 50 years,” Rich said, speculating that Pineles “thought she would finish it, put it away, forgot about it.”
In introducing Pineles’s recipes to the public, the collaborators have added a section with updated versions of some of them for a 21st-century audience.
“I was interested in connecting with current culinary preferences and trends,” Rich said, “not departing from the original recipes used.”
For example, she added quinoa to the stuffed peppers and dried porcini mushrooms to the vegetable soups — “seasonings she might not have used,” Rich said. “Some of the time, it was an effort to bring in more modern flavors.”
She also said that there were “things she used that are not common now,” including buckwheat groats for kasha.
“Whole-wheat grains are trendy, but buckwheat groats are not popular,” Rich said. While the updated recipe includes buckwheat groats, it notes that “they are far less popular than farro, barley, quinoa, and steel-cut oats or oat groats,” and adds, “one can’t help imagining applying her technique to some of our more trendy grains.”
In today’s world of geocooking and The Food Network, readers might not be prepared to time-travel back to what Rich described as the repetitive nature of many of the original recipes.
“There is a ton of repetition of ingredients from one to the next,” Rich said, contrasting this with what we tend to expect now, with different seasonings and techniques.
“A big portion of all the soups is that they’re essentially a broth — a pot of water, and into the water, the soup greens, onions and carrots, the sauce, a lot of parsley root, a ton of herbs. I think most cooks take for granted that we start with rich flavors. There’s definitely a different way we begin now,” she said.
Yet while immigrant Jewish home cooking may not be as trendy as, say, the resurgence of Jewish deli food such as Russ & Daughters, and West Coast landmarks Wexler’s and Wise Sons, Rich is hopeful that Pineles’s recipes can reclaim the respect they deserve.
“It’s an incredible reflection of an earlier way of cooking,” Rich said.
And as for Pineles herself? “Her name is not exactly well-known,” Rich said. “I’m hopeful the book can change that.”