Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

Esther Bradford Aresty: Her Booke

Esther Bradford Aresty was born March 26, 1908, in Syracuse, New York, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to the small town of Chariton, Iowa, where she and her siblings enjoyed a suburban life surrounded by a family that valued good food. Her mother was not only a talented pianist but a brilliant cook, who prepared delicious meals for family and friends. So enthralled was her mother by the art of cooking that in middle age she attended culinary classes offered locally by the gas and electric companies.

While working for Mandel Brothers Department Store in Chicago, Esther Bradford met and married Jules Aresty. Within a few years they settled in a large house in Trenton, New Jersey, where they worked, raised their two children, Robert and Jane, and entertained a circle of friends.

An admitted "foodie," Esther Aresty--an expert cook and eater--read and ultimately wrote books with similar talent and gusto. Her first effort was a work of fiction. Later she wrote books on the culinary arts based on her own collection and cooking experience. "I just loved books; I loved being busy with them." Books found their way into her kitchen and became the basis of a life-long passion for collecting and experimenting with recipes. Mrs. Aresty's meals were eclectic; she loved to try new foods because her family members were "easily bored" eaters and she did not want to limit her culinary repertoire to a single culture. In fact, she augmented the basic meat and potato fare of the 1940s with Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and French cuisines. The family and guests of the Arestys dined well in an atmosphere of elegance. Since she viewed cooking as an art and a source of pleasure, she prepared all of the food served at their table

Esther Aresty's professional life has been equally productive. Among her many achievements, besides a career in advertising and promotion, was her role as writer/producer of the Elsa Maxwell Show. As an accomplished woman in the thick of New York intellectual and cultural life, she developed friendships with the well-known cookbook and magazine writers of the day. These associations enhanced her already outstanding reputation and widened her circle of influence.

After World War II, Mr. and Mrs. Aresty traveled to Europe nearly every year and twice circled the globe. It was on these trips that Mrs. Aresty began her collection of varied and exquisite rare books.

Esther Aresty is herself the author of four books: The Grand Venture (1962), a romance novel; The Delectable Past (1964), a cookbook based on her own collection and one that delves deeply into culinary history; The Best Behavior (1970), a study of the evolution of etiquette and manners from the medieval period to the present; and, The Exquisite Table (1980), an account of the contributions to cuisine of the famous French chefs La Varenne, Careme, and Escoffier.

In each instance, Mrs. Aresty drew largely on the resources of her own collection as the wellspring of her creativity. Her scholarship and insight both foreshadow and contribute to a growing body of research in culinary and social history. Books on the culinary arts explore social history from the vantage point of food and cooking, from the perspectives of men and women whose writings focus on, but are not limited to, the kitchen. The books provide a sensate view from which to observe changes in language, culture, economics, and society from the fifteenth to the twentieth century.

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