Collections: Vintage Cookbooks
Chef Dean Fearing has an insatiable appetite for vintage cookbooks
Dean Fearing’s elegant namesake restaurant, housed in Dallas’s palatial Ritz-Carlton, hardly has to contend with fleas and rotting meat. But when he seeks culinary inspiration, the famously cowboy-booted chef often turns to cookbooks written for settlers on the woolly edge of the nineteenth-century Western frontier.
“It’s techniques and methods I’m looking for,” says Fearing, who has been collecting vintage cookbooks since 1975. One of his favorite volumes, a pioneer manual from Kentucky, his home state, brims with instructions for slaughtering and butchering hogs, an activity, it advises, that is best attempted after the first frost. “It killed the fleas off the hog before you killed it,” Fearing explains with the delighted satisfaction of someone who’s cracked a whodunit. Another pre-refrigeration cookbook suggests submerging skinned game in a vat of molasses seasoned with black pepper. “That got me started marinating whole filets of buffalo, or backstraps of venison, in maple syrup with garlic, shallots, red pepper, thyme, and sage,” he says. In fact, when he opened Fearing’s, in 2007, he put a frontier-inspired maple and black peppercorn–soaked buffalo tenderloin with Anson Mills jalapeño grits on the menu. It’s still there. “That buffalo is our number one seller, and has been for five years,” he says. “People go crazy for it.”
His cookbook fascination started with a copy of Marion Flexner’s authoritative Out of Kentucky Kitchens, bestowed by his father. A Duncan Hines–approved compendium of chatty recipes, it includes such gems as green tomato ketchup, okra soup, Benedictine spread, and buttermilk bourbon pie. The shelves at Fearing’s house now hold about six hundred cookbooks, most of them from the South, spanning centuries of culinary traditions. Antique stores, rather than bookstores, are his preferred hunting grounds, and he stalks new additions whenever he travels. “When I’m running through a small town, I’ll always poke my head in and say, ‘Do you have any cookbooks?’” Which is how he ended up with an 1896 edition of The Cook Book by Oscar Tschirky, the Waldorf Astoria mâitre d’ credited with inventing veal Oscar and eggs Benedict.
But not every cookbook in Fearing’s collection predates Cheerwine and moon pies. Regular customers have contributed copies of Old Salem Cookery, the North Carolina classic first published in 1955, as well as a largely forgotten spiral-bound compilation from a Vicksburg, Mississippi, tearoom, flush with recipes for anchovy puffs, bacon fingers, and spoon bread. Fearing also makes a point of buying books he thinks will acquire classic status, such as Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, which he picked up after a meal at Neal’s famous Chapel Hill restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in 1986.
Lately, Fearing’s collection has veered toward homespun volumes from the Depression era, which he considers the apex of documented country cooking. “We all like French cuisine,” says the chef, who was trained in classical technique. “But it’s not like we grew up on sweetbreads with Madeira sauce.” Instead, he scours his growing number of Junior League and church cookbooks for gelatin salads, fried fatback, and other examples of “grandma cooking,” typically transcribed in a breezy narrative style that Fearing says he has tried to emulate in his own two published cookbooks.
And while these recipes might not be paragons of refinement, to Fearing, that’s not the right standard for preservation. “They’re from before the era of industrial food, when mothers and grandmothers wrote real recipes by hand,” he says, scanning his chronicles of Southern cookery and history. “They have a deeper soul, and I love the tricks of the trade.”