Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The I Hate to Cook Book

Nearly a half century ago, Peg Bracken, an advertising copywriter with an aversion to household duties wrote "The I Hate To Cook Book," which went on to sell more than three million copies.

It also spawned the follow-ups "The I Hate to Housekeep Book" and "I Try to Behave Myself," an etiquette book.

In The New York Times obituary of Ms. Bracken (10/23/07), Margalit Fox wrote:

“The I Hate to Cook Book” emphasized speed, and if speed happened at the expense of the rubbing and rolling and stuffing and tying and long, sensuous, self-congratulatory simmering that James Beard was just then making de rigueur, then, Ms. Bracken strongly suggested, so much the better.

In Ms. Bracken’s culinary canon, ingredients should be cheap, common and above all convenient, ideally frozen or tinned. Canned soups loomed large in her recipes. So did crushed cornflakes, powdered onion soup mix and Spam of the pre-electronic type. So did alcohol, though in many cases her instructions called for it to bypass the cooking process entirely and proceed straight down the cook’s throat.

Keep in mind that this was three years before Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" and many women felt chained to the stove.

In the introduction to "The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book," Bracken wrote:

Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them. This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.

Pretty subversive for 1960.

And I can still relate in 2009.

But the truth is that while the wit of Ms. Bracken's writing withstands the test of time, her recipes do not.

Her recipe for "Skid Road Stroganoff" suggests that you "add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink."

Poignant and hilarious prose, but I don't think I'll be whipping up that recipe or the one for her Cancan Casserole anytime soon:

Cancan Casserole
Beat 2 eggs and add a small can of evaporated milk. Then add:
2 cans cream-style sweet corn
7 oz. can tuna fish, broken a bit with a fork
1 green pepper, chopped
1 middle-sized onion, grated

Pour it all into a buttered casserole dish and bake it, uncovered, at 325 degrees for 1 hour.

What is it that Moon Unit Zappa used to say? Gag me with a spoon!

Unlike Ms. Bracken, I came of age in a time when young girls were told they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up (I always said I wanted to be a bear).

I certainly couldn't complain that I am chained to the stove. Instead, I have a husband who does most of the cooking.

So, perhaps I need to re-adjust my thinking. Instead of viewing cooking as an unpleasant necessity on par with paying taxes, I should try seeing it as an opportunity to enjoy myself and nourish my family.

I bet even Peg Bracken, a savvy pragmatist and a smart cookie, would agree with that.


rt said...

You always wanted to be a "bear"? Admit it, you always wanted to be a Baer! I will consider making you an honorary one if you never make me a single dish out of the Peg Bracken oeuvre.

Undomesticated Me said...

Okay, it's a deal!

Bernie Bernstein said...

IMM - Was it a bear or a teddy bear? Quite a difference. One is menacing and one is cute and cuddly. You must mean the latter.

When you get here we'll be cooking up a storm. Relax, it'll be fun! Don't worry, we'll leave time for other things also. Avo will be very proud of another one of your accomplishments when we're finished. But before you take on the cooking chore, I would make a bargain with him so that he does the clean-up if you cook. After all we wouldn't want him to faint thinking you're now super mom, super cook AND super cleaner-upper.

Undomesticated Me said...

Don't worry -- Avo is happy to clean up if I cook. No bargaining necessary.

Alma Schneider said...

i believe Peg Bracken also said don't change your dishes to accommodate your guests, just invite new people and keep serving the same dish. This is a great way to practice one dish over and over again without making your friends sick of the same meal! I often talk about Peg Bracken at my workshops and the truth is that she was a very good cook.