Weekends are like mini-vacations for my wife and I. We walk around as though visiting some quaint New England town, perusing the Housing Works Thrift Shop on East 77th Street as if it were a clandestine, highly sought after antique boutique. During a recent Sunday afternoon visit, the shop was having one of its frequent “All Books for $5” sales.
“The last thing we need are more books,” my wife said, not even having to look in my direction to know where I was sneaking off to.
But it was too late. I had already found a pot of gold. The kind of amazing find you hope for at a place like The Strand. I held the massive 10-by-12-inch, eight-pound book in both hands and kept repeating the title to myself, over and over: The Joys of Wine. This was a true tome—but of what? Published in 1975, the book’s table of contents jumped around from subject to subject like a savant child with ADHD. There was a section on the Burgundy region. Then a piece about a wine museum in Mouton. Then an essay about a dinner party by…Roald Dahl?!
I hugged the book close to my chest as I rushed past my wife, whose eyebrows rose suspiciously when she saw the girth of my would-be purchase. I simply shook my head at her. She knew the look I was giving. It was the, “usually you’re right and I’m wrong, but don’t try to stop me from making this purchase or there will be a scene,” look.
I have a number of vintage and/or antique cookbooks in my modest library. Some I’ve found at thrift shops, like the 1960 Gourmet Cookbook, where the recipes are written old-school style without an ingredient list. Others I’ve acquired more organically, like the 1945 Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book that was my grandmother’s. It is stained with food and stuffed with recipes clipped from ancient issues of Good Housekeeping and The Kansas City Star that look like props from Mad Men. It, along with her 1974 Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book are my two prized possessions (I also purchased the 2005 edition of the same cookbook, and looking up the same recipe in all three at the same time to observe generational ingredient variations is a favorite rainy-day OCD game of mine).
This was to be my first vintage book on wine, however. And there were some interesting revelations I made when flipping through my newest acquisition. The first was that I never realized how obsessed the wine world is now with putting everything in a category. Every book on wine now is meticulously organized by grape, region or style. “And why shouldn’t it be?” I thought. Any other way would be confusing, as I was finding this book to be—at first.
Then I made my second realization, which is that wine books now have absolutely, positively no sense of humor. By that, I don’t mean a Dave Barry-like book of “hilarious” anecdotes about wine or winemaking. Simply a more light-hearted, less obsessive approach to something that is, in the end, supposed to make us feel more light-hearted.
The book’s strange layout started looking less messy and more jovial the more I paged through. Sort of like talking to a half-tipsy, world-class vintner after hours. Half information, half tall tale. None of it in any fastidious order. All of it captivating.
Today, there is no place in the world of wine for a book like this. Its size and reckless use of page spacing would be considered wasteful (the book dedicates dozens of pages to glossy pictures of different arcane-looking feasts one might indulge in when drinking wine from a jewel-encrusted goblet). No “serious” wine enthusiast would put up with the lengthy prose, and the structure would drive said enthusiast equally mad.
The general public knows too much now to be entertained by something as fun and lighthearted as this relic. It’s just as well, I suppose. That makes the book even more enthralling for me every time I dive back in.
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