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Wendy MacNaughton’s eyes—and hands—traveled across cracked and greying spines. She sifted through books at San Francisco’s California International Antiquarian Book Fair; behind each cover lay forgotten histories, untold stories, words that begged to be read, to be spoken aloud. It was in this trove of aging titles that MacNaughton discovered Cipe Pineles, the woman who would shape the next years of her life.
It was borscht that initially did it, an energetic illustration of that deeply hued soup caught MacNaughton’s eye. The print stretched across the page of a sketchbook that sat behind a glass case. She asked the bookseller for a closer look. MacNaughton, an illustrator by trade, beheld pages of recipes, each frenetic with color and refreshing design. The book was dated 1945. And the woman who penned it became an instant fascination.
She immediately called Sarah Rich, her friend and editor, who was en route to the book fair. The book’s vendor told the women that the professionalism of the pages was no coincidence—Pineles, the author, had been an art director at Condé Nast in the 1930s. She had led a successful career as a designer in New York, but why hadn’t either Rich or MacNaughton heard of her? They wondered how a woman, whose style resonated with them so intensely, had remained a mystery to them. They resolved to change that. With the help of their friends in New York, Maria Popova and Debbie Millman, the duo walked out of the book fair with Pineles’ original sketchbook in tow. Emblazoned across the cover, in her signature type, was the book’s title: Leave Me Alone With the Recipes.
The reverence that Rich and MacNaughton developed for Pineles sustained their project and propelled deeper investigation. They met Cipe’s stepdaughter, contacted her contemporaries, plumbed archives to fill in the blanks left by her splashy signature style. Over the course of three years, Rich and MacNaughton set out to bring Cipe Pineles' story and her unpublished cookbook to life.
Cipe Pineles was born in Vienna, Austria to Orthodox Jewish parents at the turn of the 20th century. Her family immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, and while Pineles eventually caught up with the mores of her new country, the memories of Eastern European flavors proved hard to forget.
As a teen, Pineles won a partial scholarship to study at Pratt. A peek into her college portfolio reveals a series of soft, colorful strokes in her signature medium, watercolor. A quote that appears next to her senior portrait evinces both the budding artist’s talent and priorities: “The most remarkable water colorist in our class. Boys, it’s too late: Cipe is wedded to her art—and they’re both happy.”
MacNaughton and Rich quickly noticed Pineles' devotion to her craft in the manicured and spirited pages of their new discovery. In Pineles they found a kindred spirit, a woman who channeled her energy into her passions, who found solace on the page, in the pen, and with a paintbrush. They began to dig deeper into her past and unearthed a storied career that places Pineles in the halls of Condé Nast, working at Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Home and Garden. In 1941, she took the helm at Glamour as the creative director. Then in 1950, Pineles transitioned to become Charm magazine’s artistic director. With authority and responsibility, she began to come into her own as an artist and designer.
“She was really so instrumental in getting magazine illustration to be something that emerged from the artist's mind rather than a directive from someone on the editorial side,” I spoke to Rich who described Pineles’ unique managerial approach. “That really created a fundamental change that affects all of us who work in that arena—either editorial or art.”
Leave Me Alone with the Recipes is as much an homage as it is cookbook. In the first third of the book, a series of essays—penned by Maira Kalman, Mimi Sheraton, Debbie Millman, and Paula Scher among others, all women who lived in the lineage of Pineles whether or not they knew it—pieces together her origins and her indelible impact. As Rich so succinctly states in the book’s introduction, “Cipe Pineles is the artistic great-grandmother we never knew we had.”
What follows is fifty pages of some of the most extravagantly presented and aesthetically meticulous recipes I’ve ever encountered. Each page is hand printed and illustrated with Pineles’ trademark whimsy. The colors are brash, unforgiving; the type is playful but purposeful and all done by hand. Each individual page begs for minutes of close investigation. A recipe for goulash comes with an illustration of a grandmother lining up her mis-en-place, another for lamb stew falls below a cartoon rendering of an A&P supermarket. I lose myself in the detail of a parsley root.
Like most things, the delight is in the details. Pineles' hand is felt in the wiry bushel at the bottom of an onion or a cursive "D" where the pen bleeds just a little too much and fills in the letter’s white space. I sense her in the shading of a pepper mill or in the directions that tell the reader to add hot water while cooking only if “absolutely necessary.”
In the original manuscript, Pineles lists her mother as the author and herself as the illustrator. The recipes hearken to a bygone era, the traditional kitchen of her Austrian upbringing. There are recipes for stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, potted liver with hardboiled egg. Paprika features prominently and her chicken stock calls for the unlikely addition of short rib.
In the last portion of the book, Rich revisits some of Pineles' recipes, modifying them to the modern palate. She updates a recipe for fishkalacha, a simmered meatball, by adding breadcrumbs and fragrant herbs. The meatballs emerge spongy and tender, resting in a pool of jammy caramel-colored onions. I imagine Pineles testing the dishes of her youth, conjuring the flavors of a childhood lived an ocean away.
And then I imagine Sarah and Wendy, who encounter Pineles and her recipes decades later. I imagine their initial surprise upon opening her sketchbook and the burgeoning admiration they develop for a woman whose influence they had already unknowingly felt. I imagine the tinge of excitement they must feel anytime they now encounter borscht, that beet soup that once gave way to so many stories untold.
Cipe Pineles' Fishkalacha
- 3 ounces day old bread, crusts removed
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 4 onions
- 2 tablespoons chicken fat or butter
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 pound ground beef (85-percent lean)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 dashes pepper, or to taste
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, minced
Learn more about Leave Me Alone With the Recipes: The Life, Art and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles here.