Thursday, January 03, 2008

Betty Friedan, wielding a spatula and a sharp kitchen wit

Two musty old fifty-cent paperbacks that have followed me around since college, probably lifted from my mother's kitchen, are Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book and the Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book. This past Sunday's Times Magazine tribute to her as one of the notable deaths of 2007 puts her work in context.

The men who ruled the world in the late 1950s, or at least six of the men who ruled publishing, rejected Peg Bracken's manuscript, "The I Hate to Cook Book." It would never sell, they told her, because "women regard cooking as sacred." It took a female editor at Harcourt Brace to look at the hundreds of easy-to-follow recipes wittily pitched at the indentured housewife and say, "Hallelujah!" Since its publication in 1960, Bracken's iconic book, which celebrated the speedy virtues of canned cream-of-mushroom soup and chicken bouillon cubes, has sold more than three million copies. That helped lift her spirits, her daughter, Jo Bracken, said, about her $338 advance.

Bracken had the nerve to say what so many women felt: they liked cooking fine, as long as they didn't have to cook all the time. There was scant takeout in postwar America, no prepared foods, certainly no men rushing home from the office to don an apron and help out. The job of a wife and mother was to put food on the table, three times a day, seven days a week, and not just like it--live for it.

I can't remember ever making a recipe out of these cookbooks, not even in college when I was much more of a cook. They were too interesting as little bites of laugher. For example, a two-page dissertation on "The Leftover" speaks to me again today, timelessly:

Some women can keep a leftover going like an eight-day clock. Their Sunday's roast becomes Monday's hash, which becomes Tuesday's Stuffed Peppers, which eventually turn up as Tamale Pie, and so on, until it disappears or Daddy does. These people will even warm up stale cake and serve it with some sort of a sauce, as some sort of a pudding.

But when you hate to cook, you don't do this. You just go around thinking you ought to. So, much as you dislike that little glass jar half full of Chicken a la King, you don't throw it away, because that would be wasteful. Anyway, you read somewhere that you can put spoonfuls of it into tiny three-cornered pastry affairs and serve them hot, as hors d'oeuvres.

Actually, you know, deep down, that you never will. . . . But you still can't quite bring yourself to dispose of it! So you put it in the refrigerator, and there it stays, moving slowly toward the rear as it is displaced by other little glass jars half full of leftover ham loaf and other things. And there it remains until refrigerator-cleaning day, at which time you gather it up along with its little fur-bearing friends, and, with a great lightening of spirit, throw it away.

When I read this passage out loud to Paul, he reminded me that it's more often he who throws away the little fur-bearing friends, and moreover, that it was he who had just made a delicious caldo verde soup as well as a perfect pan of cornbread, smartly finding a recipe that used the masa harina I'd gotten him to buy (it only comes in large quantities) for a dish I once made that I can't even remember any more. (Nobody needs large quantities of masa harina unless they are in the tamale-making business.)

We've come a long way, baby. Happy new year.

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