SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION – WHAT I KNOW ABOUT HELEN EVANS BROWN

Some years ago, a little used bookstore specializing in cookbooks opened up in Burbank, not far from the mall on San Fernando blvd, in a section of town that boasted of perhaps half a dozen used bookstores. It was one of my favorite places to shop—and eat There are many great restaurants in the area, as well.

I became a frequent customer when the cookbook shop, owned by Janet Jarvits, opened its doors. Janet was a young woman who managed to acquire thousands of cookbooks from the personal library of Helen Evans Brown. (In 2001, Janet Jarvits moved her bookstore to Pasadena, while in 2008 I moved to the Antelope Valley, where I find most of my cookbooks these days at the Lancaster Friends of the Library annual book sale).

So, how did a young woman who was not even a cookbook collector—manage to buy the personal cookbook collection of California cook book author Helen Evans Brown? According to a story that ran in the L.A. Times in 1994, Janet graduated from college in 1988, then worked at a publishing house, but when the company moved out of the area, she found a job at Bond Street Books. Here, she discovered her passion and also realized she enjoyed talking with customers about older books. The turning point came to her when a colleague made her an offer she couldn’t refuse – 40 boxes of books from a recent auction, for only $200. In the collection there were enough cookbooks for her to start a library in her bedroom. That was in 1990 and thousands of books ago.

In 1993, a colleague in the book world referred Janet to Philip S. Brown, husband of the now deceased cookbook author/food writer Helen Evans Brown. Janet visited Philip in his Pasadena home where he had lived with Helen, and where the books were housed. Janet obtained the collection which was in a state of disrepair. Philip had abandoned the house, remarried and gone on to live a life without Helen. During the time the books sat in the house, some of them were damaged by a fire, smoke & the water used to put out the fire. All of this left a portion of the library unusable. The practical solution was to catalogue the books and offer them for sale. Janet Jarvits offered a catalog of the best of the non-charitable cookbooks for sale in 1994.

I obtained my first Helen Evans Brown cookbook in the 1960s when I had not been collecting very long—and the “West Coast Cook Book” that I found was a reprint published by the Cookbook Collectors Library. Another early find was “Helen Brown’s Holiday Cookbook” published in 1952 – a first edition – boasting of an introduction by M.F.K. Fisher. My copy has a little water damage—but in my early days of collecting I wasn’t particular. And, back then, I didn’t know who M.F.K. Fisher was—what I did know and recognize is that I liked Helen’s style of cookbook writing.

Helen and Philip S Brown lived in Pasadena from 1937 until her death in 1964.

Before Helen met Philip, she had a career running a successful catering business called The Epiurean, with a friend, and was running a restaurant in New England. Philip courted her and talked her into moving to the west coast with him.

There Helen started work as a consultant to a Hollywood Bakery and Philip began working on an antiquarian bookstore. After working as a consultant to the Hollywood bakery, Helen began writing articles for popular magazines such as Sunset and McCalls.

In 1940, Helen began writing a monthly mailing piece “Baltzer’s Bulletin” for an upscale grocery store, and the following year, a food column for a new fashion magazine “The Californian”. She published a small cookbook “Some Shrimp Recipes” in 1946 and a full length cookbook, “Chafing Dish Book” in 1950. She was well known enough to be approached by a major publisher, Little, Brown for her next book “West Coast Cook Book” published in 1952.

Also, in 1952, “Helen Brown’s Holiday Cook Book”, was published by Little, Brown & Company in Boston; it was published simultaneously in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, Limited.

In 1953, Helen & Philip co-Authored “Virginia City Cook Book”, which I do not have, and in 1955, she co-authored The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery with James Beard.

Then, in 1958, Helen co-authored two cookbooks with Philip, “Book of Appetizers” and “Cocktail Hour”. A year later, Helen and Philip produced “The Boys Cook Book”.

Then, in 1961 Helen and Philip co-authored “Breakfasts and Brunches for Every Occasion” and “The Cookout Book”, which features prize winning recipes from cookout championships. The Ward Ritchie Press published a soft cover edition of “The Cookout Book” – which I happened to find somewhere and only paid a dollar for it.

In 1963, Helen co-authored The Book of Curries and Chutneys with William Veach, while in 1964, she wrote “Adventures in Food” with the staff of Sunset Magazine.

During her marriage to Philip, he built Helen’s cookbook collection and also served as taster, research assistant and typist for their book projects. They coauthored “The Boys Cook Book”, published in 1959 and then several others after that.

Helen and James Beard co-authored “The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery” first published in 1955 by Doubleday. This cookbook would be reprinted in a lovely softcover edition when the copyright was renewed in 1983. I know this because I bought a copy of the softcover edition, before I had any idea a) how many of Helen Evans Brown’s books I owned, or b) how many James Beard cookbooks I had. (the problem with a large cookbook collection, I’ve learned, is that unless you have them in some kind of pristine library-ish order, you won’t know what all you actually have in your home library.

Now James Beard has been written about extensively – Helen Evans Brown not so much. This might be because she passed away much too soon—and I’ll bet that neither Helen nor James ever envisioned how much cookbook collecting would take off—and that’s a whole other topic to explore some other time. I think I managed to just squeeze in on the ground floor, starting a collection, specializing in church & club cookbooks in 1965.

Helen Evans Brown & James Beard were good friends—in 1994, “Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles”, containing more than 300 of Beard’s letters to Helen over a period of 12 years was edited and published by his friend & editor John Ferrone. “In the 1950s and ‘60s” we learn from the inside just jacket of “Love and Kisses…” “Helen Brown was the culinary authority of the West Coast—Beard revered her, placing her on a par with M.F.K. Fisher. Brown and Beard wrote to each other at least twice a week until Helen Brown’s untimely death in 1964, sharing their gastronomic musings and the results of their daily inspirations—many of which would later appear in their books. Both traveled extensively, and in their warm epistolary dialogues they expounded on their philosophy of eating, the art of cooking, and their often exotic forays into foreign cuisines.

Beard loved food—good food—and his exuberance and enthusiasm are both overwhelming and infectious. He was also demanding and exacting, and never minced words when served a meal he considered less than perfect. Thus his correspondence is spiced with his utterly charming yet often caustic views on food, wine, and the art of eating. This lively correspondence between two food giants, thoughtfully culled and put into context by Beard’s close friend and editor John Ferrone, is also a testament to a beautiful and moving friendship…”

In Ferrone’s introduction we learn how the two food giants met – and how the correspondence between them began with fan letters – his to her and hers back to him…but I am bowled over by Ferrone’s explanation of how he acquired the correspondence, left in bulging filing cabinets destined for the dumpster after James Beard had passed away! You will really want to read “Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles” – the book that almost didn’t happen.

Helen and her husband Philip lived in Pasadena, California; James Beard was based in New York. He paid the Browns a first visit in the spring of 1953, escalating friendship into love. Thereafter he could always be sure of an affectionate welcome and an extra-long extra-wide mattress. The Browns were as close to family as anything Beard would have in the years ahead. He was crazy about both of them—a number of these letters are addressed to Philip or to “Dear Browns” – but it was Helen he adored. I hope I have whetted your appetite and that you will go buy a copy of “Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles”. I didn’t mean to digress this much—but Helen Evans Brown & James Beard managed to co-author “The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery” despite living on opposite sides of the USA. Helen co-authored a number of books with her husband, and a couple of others with William Templeton Veach.

I wish I could have known Helen Evans Brown and her husband Philip. I wish I could have seen their house in Pasadena. I wish I could have met James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher. I wish I could have met the other Browns – Cora, Rose and Bob Brown, co-authors of about a dozen cookbooks that I treasure. The next best thing is to collect as many of their books as I can find. And read them. And then re-read them. Then go wander into the kitchen, my finger holding my place in a book…and see if I have the right ingredients to make something that has whet my appetite.

And when I am finished reading the cookbooks of my favorite cookbook authors–then, I will write about them and encourage as many people as possible to discover these books for themselves—if you haven’t already.

Various books and internet sources mention only briefly that Helen Evans Brown died an untimely death in 1964. I found the piece of the puzzle I was searching for, in John Ferrone’s introduction in “Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles”. Ferrone writes: “It must have been shattering to Jim when his friend, Helen, died in December, 1964. She was sixty. The rare kidney disease that first surfaced in 1961 had developed into cancer. She was too ill to work through most of her final year and Philip took over her writing assignments. Jim Beard’s last surviving letter to her was written in August, from Provence. He was able to pay her a visit in November, two weeks before she died.

And now you may be wondering – what’s with the “six degrees of separation”—it’s just this: In late 1994, L.A. Times Staff Writer Kathie Jenkins called me up one evening and asked me if I would answer some questions about my cookbook collection. I was too non-plussed to ask Ms. Jenkins where she got my name or how she learned about my collection. The story appeared in the Thursday, December 15, 1994 issue of the L.A. Times –along with a photograph of Janet Jarvits, a background of her cookbooks and a cat. It turned out I was the lead-in to a story about Janet Jarvits’ cookbook store—a cookbook store I was well acquainted with. I knew Janet Jarvits. Janet Jarvits had purchased about 5000 volumes from the personal collection that had belonged to Helen Evans Brown. Six degrees of separation. Or maybe that’s only three degrees.

Happy Cookbook Collecting!
Sandy

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6 responses to “SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION – WHAT I KNOW ABOUT HELEN EVANS BROWN

  1. I loved this post! I have a number of HEB’s cookbooks and absolutely love them, the recipes, and her. What warm and wonderful people the Brown’s must have been. And my love for James Beard? Don’t get me started. Anyway, thanks for the story.

    • Sarah, thanks very much for writing. I know exactly what you mean. I havent attempted to do an article about Beard because his life was so prolific and interesting–and others HAVE written biographies about him…but how many people still know about Helen Evans Brown? I dont have many of her books but my favorite HEB story is how this young woman bought a portion of Helen’s collection after a fire left a lot of smoke damage to the house that Philip was still living in after Helen died. I know this young woman, Janet Jarvis, because she opened a bookstore in Burbank – oh, this had to be in the 1990s – because I retired from a company in Burbank in 2002 and then moved to the high desert in 2008. But when I google her, I find she seems to be doing very well with her cookbook business. she didnt know anything about cookbooks when she had the opportunity to buy those books. Sort of like six degrees of separation. Thanks for writing! sandy

  2. Pingback: Champagne Cheese | My Material Life

    • wonder if those are the same small 3 book set that I have? Her work is mostly now forgotten but if you are interested in learning more, I would recommend some books written about her by James Beard (the titles escape me at the moment and the books are on the other side of the house) – love and truffles, something like that? she and James Beard were great friends and exchanged many, perhaps thousands, of letters. he was a welcome guest any time he was in California (he lived in NY) and the bulk of the letters he wrote to Helen ended up almost being trashed after JB died – someone discovered the treasure trove of correspondence. I have a few of her books, the California one is perhaps the best known. This is a good author to explore!

  3. I had hundreds of amazing vintage cookbooks I collected over the years living in LA but naively sold them all to a prominent Pasadena bookstore for next to nothing when I skipped town.
    I really enjoyed this post. Please let me know if there are any particular cookbooks you are looking for. I scout books for my etsy shop and still have many nice vintage cookbooks.
    Katie
    https://www.etsy.com/shop/almasvintage?ref=si_shop

    • Hi, Katie – I suspect that most of the used bookstores (back in the day – are there any left?) took advantage of unknowing customers. I keep telling my sons “don’t SELL” but I think the only way I can protect my collection is to put post it notes inside everything listing prices – and who has time to do that? I know the Pasadena bookstore you referred to–I think there is one used bookstore (still) in Burbank – owner started out in Burbank by buying up a large portion of Helen Evans Brown’s cookbooks – her husband Philip sold them after she passed away. This young new bookdealer had absolutely no knowledge about cookbooks when she started out. I THINK most bookdealers are maintaining an income by selling online. will check your blog – feel free to write anytime. Sandy

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