A Forgotten Food Writer

August 31, 2016


Searching through my cookbook collection the other day I came upon this book by Helen Evans Brown, who was, in her time, the authority on West Coast cooking.  Long before anyone was talking about “California Cuisine” Helen Brown was writing about it. And writing well. Why has she been so neglected by history?

Helen Brown and her husband Phillip were close friends of James Beard; Beard’s letters to Helen are collected in a book called Love, Kisses and a Halo of Truffles (published in 1995.)

Was Brown forgotten because she died young, before the great cookbook revolution of the seventies?  Perhaps.  Or has she been been overlooked because she wrote about American recipes with a seriousness that was ahead of its time?  Listen to Brown discussing what kind of recipes she’s included in her 1952 West Coast Cookbook, and why:

The first group are those of the early settlers- recipes that were brought from various other places, and which proved to be so right for the new world that we now think of them as natives. There were those brought to California by the Spaniards and the Mexicans; and they weren’t new even then – they’d been favorites in Mexico since the days of Cortez.  There were the recipes of the pioneers of the Oregon Territory, which included what is now the State of Washington, recipes brought over the plains and changed to suit the supplies of the new land. Many of these have a Yankee flavor. Then there are those that show their origin to be of other lands – favorite dishes brought by the many people who came to this new country to dig gold, or build railroads, or to seek adventure or security. Of all these, I have admitted only those that have been generally adopted or adapted by us. 

That “us” stopped me short. Who is this “us?” and was it really “us” who did the adapting?

Still, when it comes to food Brown is on solid ground.  In the early fifties, when this book was published, I’d bet that few people in this country had ever tasted fresh coriander.

IMG_6035 copy

Next up? Garlic – which was still viewed with suspicion by the majority of Americans.  (In the seventies, when some friends moved to South Dakota, they begged me to send them garlic; there was none, they said, in the entire state.)

Note, incidentally, Brown’s different use of “us” in this instance. IMG_6035

Now that we’ve overcome our fear of garlic, we can make these fine-looking popovers Portland: IMG_6036


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  • Jean says:

    If only more people would more often “use it [garlic] subtly! Thank you, Ruth, for this introduction to a food writer I did not know.

  • Joy Bryden says:

    I too must thank you for telling us about Helen Brown, who indeed writes well—had not known of her, and appreciate finding her! Will look into her further, and also check out Beard’s book of letters to her. Another great article Ruth!! Love reading these.

  • Regine Ibold says:

    I still think of the Julia/James Beard collaboration in the 70’s. Their saying: “40 cloves of garlic may not be enough.” I then proceeded to make chicken with 40 cloves. The next day our son was born. The entire hospital nursery reeked of garlic. The doctors came in to have a look at the mother of the “garlic baby.” Hans is now 46 years old and still loves garlic.

  • Kathy Strahs says:

    Thanks for bringing her work to light! The way we eat in California has roots in so many cultures, as “we” have such diverse origins. I didn’t realize garlic wasn’t always so embraced elsewhere — I live a short drive from Gilroy, garlic is definitely a fact of life here. I would love to read more of her 1950s perspectives on West Coast cooking.

  • Anne stacey says:

    I’m 75 and have been cooking from Brown’s West Coast Cookbook since I was 10.

    My father bought me my own copy in 1965 when I got my first apartment while in college.

    It is my Go to” for spaghetti, Sheephearder’s potato’s and many comfort foods.
    Over the years I have bought six other books by her.