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Vintage Cookbooks: Properly dressed, a salad is a gem

Thursday, March 07, 2002

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Colman Andrews, Los Angeles Times food columnist of the 1980s, once wrote: "Restaurants aren't just places to go for dinner or to spend the night. They're microcosms of the society in which they function, reflecting social values, echoing fashion, helping to define celebrity. They're fascinating institutions; thus their owners have fascinating tales to tell."

George Rector was one of those storytellers. He was the son of turn-of-the-century New York restaurateur Charles Rector and later ran their famous restaurant before it became defunct about 1934.

George Rector wrote food articles for the Saturday Evening Post and authored several cookbooks, one of which, "A la Rector: Unveiling the Culinary Mysteries of the World-Famous George Rector," published by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A&P), was kindly lent to me recently by a reader, Marguerite Hannon of Fox Chapel.

In the introduction to his chapter on salad dressings, Rector wrote in 1933, "I find it increasingly difficult to believe that a new and different dressing would attract as large a group of admirers, and inspire as much small talk in the old days as a radically modern automobile does today. Let there appear a new dressing in Rector's and you'd see Delmonico's and Sherry's best customers come drifting in."

Some of those customers included Diamond Jim Brady, O. Henry, Stephen Crane, George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, Lillian Russell, Oscar Hammerstein and Sarah Bernhardt. Stanford White ate his last meal at Rector's a few hours before he was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw, whom he'd shamed by stealing his wife.

When he didn't have a true story to tell, George Rector apparently was not averse to placing tongue in cheek and inventing one.

For "Salad Daze," an article he wrote for the Sept. 5, 1936, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, Rector came up with the legend of the unvarnished wooden salad bowl that should never be washed. The wood "cured" over the years, he insisted, creating ever more delicious salads.

"Wood, you see," he wrote, "is absorbent, and after you've been rubbing your bowl with garlic and anointing it with oil for some years, it will have acquired the patina of a Corinthian bronze and the personality of a 100-year-old brandy."

In reality, the salad oil, seeping into the wood of the bowl, eventually turned rancid and smelly. Rector's hoax lasted into the 1960s until food writers such as Michael Field and food historians such as Charles Perry finally exposed his theory as false.

On the other hand, Rector's infamous salad article got Americans eating more greens and, since he insisted only freshly ground pepper be used on any salad, it also revived the use of the pepper mill. To this day, American restaurants will offer freshly ground pepper for salads but rarely for anything else.

There is nothing phony about the recipes Rector chose for his books.

I found his Russian salad dressing, for instance, just as useful as a sandwich spread as it is tasty on mixed greens or simple tomato slices: Stir 1/2 cup chili sauce into 1 cup mayonnaise. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons minced green pepper and 4 large OR 8 small stuffed olives, minced.

In another book, Rector suggests using his French dressing as a base for cold potato salad: Add 1/3 cup French dressing to six medium potatoes, cooked, peeled and pulled apart with two forks while warm. Marinate until potato pieces fully absorb the dressing. Add 1/2 cup blanched almonds thinly sliced, 2 to 3 tablespoons each finely chopped onion and finely chopped green pepper. Mix thoroughly and chill. Just before serving, blend in 1 cup chilled mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley. Serve on lettuce with paprika as a garnish.

French Dressing

Warning: Once you've tasted home-made dressing, you may never go back to commercial dressings again.

1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon paprika (we used sweet Hungarian-type)
1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Scant 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup vinegar
1 cup olive oil (we used imported light olive oil)

Mix dry ingredients with vinegar, then add the oil.

Shake or beat well before using. Makes 1 1/4 cups.

"A la Rector: Unveiling the Culinary Mysteries of the World-Famous George Rector," 1933

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