At a time when cookbooks have become so elaborate, filled with lush, carefully styled photographs of perfectly prepared food no home cook could actually turn out, it’s a pleasure to discover one that feels so real. Actually, Leave Me Alone with the Recipes, notwithstanding its title, is less about the actual recipes than it is about the woman who recorded and illustrated them, and the story of how this personal notebook from 1945 came to be discovered, re-created, and published.
The notebook was discovered at an antiquarian book fair in San Francisco by illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and her friend, writer and editor Sarah Rich. Wendy was excited about the art, Sarah by her affinity with the European Jewish recipes. The handwritten recipes, illustrated with gorgeously bright paintings in deep greens, reds, and oranges that almost seem to contradict the grayness and heaviness associated with so many of the dishes, intrigued them. Perusing the book’s pages, a reader understands why. The paintings, which express a kind of freedom not found in more formal cookbooks, decorate the pages as if illustrating the flavors themselves.
With two other friends, writer Maria Popova and designer and author Debbie Millman, MacNaughton and Rich — with an eye to its publication — began to look into the woman who created the book. Their success is a gift to readers — with or without an interest in cooking — as it introduces a woman likely unfamiliar to many, known in her time but for some reason largely forgotten today, who left a piece of her Jewish self on its pages.
Cipe Pineles, it turns out, was not an amateur, sketching and painting for her own amusement. She was an artist and designer, the first woman art director at Conde Nast and the designer for Vogue, Mademoiselle, and other popular magazines.
Born in Vienna to Orthodox Jewish parents, Pineles moved to America as a young girl. She earned a scholarship to Pratt Institute and graduated in 1929, seeking, not too successfully, to work as a commercial artist. Then Conde Nast saw some of her work and hired her. By the 1940s, with her creativity, visual sense, and design expertise, she had shaped the look of numerous glossy magazines. It was during this period that she pursued her interest in the graphic and culinary arts and where they intersected, working on Leave Me Alone with the Recipes. It seems to have remained a private pursuit.
Reproduced here with her frequent misspellings (potatoe and tomatoe, karaway), the book is charming and enjoyable, re-introducing a singular woman and her remarkable achievements, which remain new and fresh.