"I never knew a girl who was ruined by a book."
An unidentified employe of Random House publishers, an editorial assistant in the juvenile department, was nearly ruined last weekend by the explosive combination of a cookbook, a crock pot and a can of condensed milk.
The result was an instant mobilization to recall a book because of a defective part, perhaps the first such incident in publishing history.
Ms. X had been in her kitchen, loyally using her employer's "Woman's Day Crockery Cuisine," by Sylvia Vaugh Thompson. She was making the recipe for "Silky Caramel Slices" on pages 230 and 231, which the book describes as "a remarkable sweet, super-rich and exotic. No one will ever guess its origins."
The recipe advises the cook to put an unopened can of condensed milk in the crock, "Cover and cook 4 hours on High." The result was, in fact, both remarkable and exotic; the can blew up after two hours.
Mrs. X, fortunately, was in another room answering the telephone when the crock cracked.
Random House leaped into action as soon as the shocked employe gave her report. On Monday, a special bulletin was sent out to the communications media labeled (in capital letters): "URGENT NEWS: PUBLIC HAZARD WARNING."
"The condensed milk can could explode and satter the lid and liner of the crockery cooker," the bulletin warned. "Random House urges that the recipe be obliterated with crayon or black-ink marker. It will be omitted from the book in any future reprints."
As far as Random House knows, according to William T. Loverd, the company's director of corporate affairs, "This is the only incident of this kind." The book was published last November.
The company took action, Loverd said, because "we know that this is not just a theoretical possibility." The moment it was confirmed that the recipe was wrong, he said, "we moved immediately to warn the American consumer."
He also made clear, as a good director of corporate affairs should, that "we are not calling into question the safety or usefulness of crockery cooking."
Random House believes that approximately 10,000 copies of the book have been sold through bookstores and that most of the purchasers can be reached only through the communications media. Another 2,000 to 3,000 copies are believed to be unsold and the publisher has recalled them.
The easiest purchasers to reach are the several thousand who bought the book through various book clubs. "Our computer, of course, can tell us the name and address of every member who bought the book," reported Edward E. Fitzgerald, president of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the largest of several clubs that distributed it.
"We are sending out a letter by first-class mail to warn everyone who has bought the book from us," Fitzgerald said. Originally, BOMC had planned to send along a corrected recipe on a gummed label to be pasted over the defective recipe. But Woman's Day has decided not to print a corrected recipe, so the club is simply sending out a blank label to blot it out. The label will be applied to the recipe in all of the still unsold copies owned by the club.
According to Patricia Ahearn, a co-owner of the Quill and Brush, an antiquarian bookstore in Olney, Md., pasting a piece of paper over the recipe as suggested by the Book-of-the-Month Club or crossing it out as suggested by Random House would destroy the book's possible value as a collector's item.
It will be years before anyone knows whether the book has such value, she said; it will depend on the purchasers' demand, but the fact that it has a notable error and has received a lot of publicity make this a significant possibility.
"The market in cookbooks is very unpredictable," Ahearn said, "but it is unbelievable what has happened to them. Some stay in the $5 or $6 bracket, but others go up to $500 or $600.
The error that makes a book collectable is called the "point," she said; it is mentioned in catalogues and checked out by purchasers to make sure they have the right edition. To preserve its value as a collector's item, the book should not be marked in any way and the dust jacket should be preserved in good condition. Owners who wish to preserve its possible value might write out a warning on a card ("not in ball-point," Ahearn warns; "sometimes the ink bleeds onto the page") and put it into the book next to the dangerous recipe.
Random House preferred not ot indicate what omitted instructions made the recipe potentially dangerous. "Just blot out the recipe," Loverd said. "Otherwise, the book is fine."
Several cook suggested that putting water in the crock pot might in safe, but a physicist who was consulted on the question would not say for sure without testing. Everyone agreed that punching a hole in the can would prevent an explosion, though it might spoil the Silky Caramel Slices.
A consensus of people connected with the publication and distribution of the book was that the best thing was to obliterate and forget it. When it was suggested to Fitzgerald that his customers might have a collector's item on their hands, his reply was short and emphatic:
"We don't care about that. We just want to tell them not to blow their heads off."