Updated Friday, November 30, 2012 at 04:10 PM
SOMETIMES, THE most cherished gifts arrive in an old box, unwrapped, no strings attached.
Mine came from sisters Camille Kariya and Erika Sweger. A pair of loose-leaf binders belonging to their late aunt and uncle, Violet and Charles Schafer, it was a carefully curated collection of research on ginger.
In this time of instant online answers and cookbooks as smartphone apps, this was a culinarian's treasure. Like unearthing your grandmother's secret scrapbook.
"You've probably never heard of them," Camille said when she called from her View Ridge home. The Schafers, she explained, were authors of a series of long-out-of-print cookbooks, most illustrated by celebrated artist Win Ng. Among them, "Wokcraft."
"Wokcraft!" I cried, recalling the Chinese cookbook that came packaged with my first wok, purchased in my teens from the housewares company Taylor & Ng (yes, that Ng).
"Wokcraft" was my introduction to Chinese cookery. But the ginger books became my introduction to Chuck and Vi Schafer, whose love affair with the printed word, the creative arts and one another could fill the pages of a rich historical novel.
Chuck was a manager for Pan American World Airways when the company's Clipper craft were pressed into military service during World War II. He was in Hong Kong when it fell to the Japanese and was taken prisoner, the family says. The couple met at Pan Am in San Francisco, where Vi was a technical editor. She left to work for Sunset magazine in 1947. They married a year later.
Childless, the Schafers built a house in Corte Madera, Calif., where they lived and worked until Chuck's death in 1995, followed by Violet's in 2001.
In storage for years, their "gingeries" as they called their unfinished work, represent two decades of research:
Ginger-related articles and recipes culled from publications; the last, a 1990 New York Times clip introducing readers to Seattle's newest hot spot, Wild Ginger.
Notes, scripted in Vi's careful hand. Typewritten reflections on a 1928 science text.
Subject dividers double as repositories for envelopes stuffed with postcards and index cards noting types of spice grinders and recipes. Brochures tout pudding molds and ginger jars; photographs illustrate the couple's 1979 visit to a Hong Kong cannery.
Best of all was the correspondence. Charles begging the pardon of a British bookseller, to whom he owed money; Violet begging House of Holland in Seattle Center's International Bazaar for a wood cookie mold.
Within weeks she received one, along with a handwritten recipe for "Speculaas Koekies."
That cookie mold resides, along with others, in the Whidbey Island home of Violet's sister, Irene Christofferson, 91.
Christofferson's daughter, Erika, recalls living with her aunt and uncle in the summer of '69 and '70, doing clerical work for Charles. Their frequent dinner parties were a cross between a theater production and a salon, Erika told me, with artists, beautifully presented food, and tables dressed with a mix of beatnik pottery and crystal from Charles' wealthy aunt.
"They got old, they got ill, they weren't able to go forward" with their book, says Erika, who cared for Vi in her dotage. But "they never stopped adoring each other."
She didn't need to tell me. My unpublished gift has a dedication page:
"For Charles," Vi wrote. "I do! I do! I do!"
Nancy Leson is the Seattle Times food writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is the Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.
BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Wooden cookie molds and handwritten recipes were among the many treasures that reveal the lives and loves of Charles and Vi Schafer.
COURTESY OF IRENE CHRISTOFFERSON
Violet and Charles Schafer were authors of a series of long-out-of-print cookbooks, most illustrated by celebrated artist Win Ng. Among them, "Wokcraft."