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Pinch of luck saves cookbook project

A writer's lost collection of 70 years of recipes is found by a teacher who turns amateur sleuth.

December 28, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It was a recipe for disaster for Malibu writer Monika Guttman.

The two boxes stuffed with a lifetime's work that she hoped to turn into a book had disappeared. Making matters worse, the contents were family heirlooms that had been entrusted to Guttman by a longtime friend.

Gone were hundreds of Old World recipes that Sylmar artist Evelyn Gebhardt had carefully collected and cataloged by hand over seven decades.

But in a bizarre turn of events that even a mystery writer might not have conjured up, the lost treasure trove of cookbook material was returned by an amateur detective before Guttman even realized they were missing.

A Pacific Palisades schoolteacher out for a stroll found the battered cardboard boxes lying in a Santa Monica Canyon street with all of Gebhardt's recipes intact and undamaged

Gebhardt, who died last year at 93, was a sculptor and potter as well as a skilled, Old-World-style cook. During the Great Depression she ran the federal government's Works Progress Administration sculpture program in Wisconsin. She later married one of the artists who worked for her in the WPA.

Harold Gebhardt went on to become a well-known Los Angeles sculptor who for half a century taught sculpture at the Otis Art Institute, Occidental College and USC. He and Evelyn raised three children -- including sculptor Peter Gebhardt -- at a sprawling compound that once was part of a historic 1860 Sylmar olive orchard.

It was a Bohemian-like place, with artists such as pioneering modernist painter Peter Krasnow, photographer Edward Weston, designers Charles and Ray Eames and architect John Lautner frequent guests.

When she wasn't doing sculptures commissioned by Walt Disney or organizations such as the Braille Institute, Evelyn Gebhardt loved to cook.

Old family recipes from her German-born farmer ancestors were faithfully chronicled on 3-by-5 cards and scraps of paper. Special cooking instructions for her favorite olive-based dishes -- including olive-seasoned popcorn balls -- were written in old-fashioned, flowery script.

Peter Gebhardt, whose fanciful sculpture has been seen in movies, has sold his work to collectors for 33 years through agent Gisela Monika, Monika Guttman's mother. He has known Monika since she visited the Sylmar compound with her mother for the first time at age 8.

"My mother had talked to her, and Monika always liked her recipes," Peter Gebhardt said. "Since she had an interest in them I gave them to her. I think the book will be a nice tribute to my mom."

Monika Guttman was delighted with the writing proposal.

"Evelyn was an incredible cook as well as an artist. She helped teach me when I was a girl how to bake," she said.

Although she specializes in writing about health issues, Guttman figured the book could honor Evelyn Gebhardt's remarkable life and serve as a chronicle "of old-fashioned, traditional cooking for people who like solid farm food."

She planned to start work on the book Nov. 30, using a laptop computer during down time when she ferried her 7-year-old daughter, Claire Robertson, and her second-grade classmates to a field trip to Temescal Canyon to study Chumash Indians. So she placed a paper bag containing the two recipe boxes in the back of the family minivan along with the laptop.

But Guttman got caught up in looking at Chumash artifacts and never had a chance to work on the book.

On the trip home, one of the children apparently accidentally knocked the bag with the recipe boxes out of the van and into the street. Someone scooped up the boxes, only to abandon them later.

Four days later, Pacific Palisades resident Marilyn Stein found them in Santa Monica Canyon, miles from Guttman's carpool route.

Stein, an English and science teacher at Paul Revere Middle School who works with youngsters with learning disabilities, walks in the canyon several times a week. She was quick to recognize the recipes' significance.

"There were thousands, all in alphabetical order. I could tell somebody had been collecting them for 50 years or so. I didn't want to leave them where they could get swept away. I didn't want to have to carry them on my walk, but I did," she said.

Back home, Stein found Evelyn Gebhardt's name on the boxes. There was no listing for her in Westside phone books, so Stein started sleuthing -- inspecting the recipe cards for clues to where Gebhardt lived.

When she got to the Cs she struck pay dirt. A recipe for glazed carrots was written on the back of an envelope mailed in the 1990s to Gebhardt at her Sylmar address.

"The recipes were not trashed at all. Whoever took them took one look and got rid of them. I think Evelyn's spirit had something to do with it," Stein said.

Peter Gebhardt was stunned when Stein called to tell him she had found his mother's recipes. Guttman was shocked when he called her. She thought they were still in her minivan.

The close call is prompting her to speed up work writing the cookbook, Guttman said.

"Now the pressure will be on. My first step is going to be to take the cards to Kinko's and copy them," she said.

"Then I'm giving them back to Peter. I'm afraid Evelyn will be floating around if I don't. My guess is Evelyn wasn't that happy with the pace of my work so far. She got her recipe cards a lot of notice to remind me."

The story of the wandering recipes will be included in the book, Guttman promised. It's a tale that no one could have cooked up.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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