July 20, 2010

The I Hate to Cookbook, revisited


Years and years and years and half a lifetime ago when I had only just started this blog*, I brought up the subject of Peg Bracken’s classic of the culinary art, The I Hate to Cookbook,** as a result of having just read her obituary***.  Now I started teaching myself to cook at the relatively tender age of thirteen, and discovered I liked it, but I still have pretty much always agreed that ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’†.  And when I was thirteen life was serious and the idea of having a family to feed every day—and in the midsixties girls were growing up with the idea that that was their future:  this may be what we rebelled against, but that’s precisely because it was what was in our way—was pretty overwhelming.††  Peg Bracken was hot in those days, her recipes worked, and furthermore she was funny.†††  Hey!  It’s not all June Cleaver!‡  Pass it on!

            And, thinking back to those days, the paragraph that caught my attention in the obituary, and which I probably quoted the last time‡‡, was this:  ‘Bracken received short shrift from the first half-dozen editors, all men, whom she approached.  They neither sympathised with [her cookbook’s] subversion nor thought American women unhappy with their lot.  Similarly, when she showed the manuscript to her second husband, the writer Roderick Lull, he remarked:  “It stinks.”‡‡‡  Its value was not appreciated until she found a woman editor [boldface mine] at Harcourt Brace.’ Um-hmm.  And it sold over 3 million copies.

            My original mid-60s paperback disappeared or disintegrated long ago.  It probably went with one of my early purist purges.  But the obituary reminded me what a hoot she was, and while my diet these days is so holy it hurts§, I started trying to track down a copy of the then-out-of-print cookbook.  And found one:  yaay.  Which happened to be a reprint of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, with an Introduction to the Introduction which begins:  ‘When they informed me that twenty-five years have elapsed since The I Hate to Cook Book appeared, I was astonished.  Only think!  Twenty-five long years, some longer than others.  Well, some of them shorter than others too, come to think of it.  But anyway, twenty-five of them, all kinds, and it just goes to show what can happen when you’re not paying attention.’

            ::Blink.::  Why does this feel so familiar?  So, I’ve spent the last two and a half years thinking ‘I should blog about this again.  Because I have found a formative influence.  When I started the blog, was I thinking, Anais Nin? §§  Virginia Woolf?§§§  May Sarton?#  No.  Clearly I aspired to the dizzyingly high standards of frittery and piffle of Peg Bracken.  And here’s the clincher:  she uses footnotes.  Yes!  Footnotes!  I admit she doesn’t use as many as I do## but she uses them in a stimulating manner. ###

            So imagine my pleasure and delight when this appeared on my Twitter feed yesterday: 

PublishersWkly The “I Hate to Cook Book” turns 50 with a new anniversary edition http://bit.ly/bGPTEG 

            Will I buy it?  Probably.  I hope they kept the Hilary Knight illustrations.  Of their time?  Sure.  But so is Bracken.  Not all of it will translate—and I wouldn’t miss it, for example, if they edit out the peanut butter and ketchup canapé spread~—but I feel that a paragraph like this is timeless:  ‘Some people, so they tell me, can’t make good pastry.  I see no reason to doubt them.  Some people can’t keep their eyes open under water, either.  We all have our mental blocks to play with.’~~ 

* * *

* That would be September 2007.  A very long time ago.  I wasn’t even ringing Stedman yet.  Well, at least not successfully. 

** I did blog about it.  I did.  But lj’s search is refusing to find it for me, and I don’t feel like wrestling with its extremely uncooperative calendar.  Thanks, lj!  I so don’t miss you! 

*** Gods, I looove the internet when it works.  Here’s the link to the one I read:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/dec/10/guardianobituaries.mainsection 

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/lifes-too-short.html   Also quoted in the Bracken obituary.  I don’t know if Shirley Conran read Peg Bracken, but I would like to think they’d have got on like a house on fire.   Or like two women who knew they had better things to do than stuff mushrooms.^ 

^ Although, yes.  I have.  I have gone through occasional phases of (pretty strictly culinary only) domestic goddesshood in which I not only read but applied chapters of cookbooks that during more stringent eras I wouldn’t have gone near.  The crucial word in that sentence however is through.  There are all kinds of things you might want to try once or twice for the experience+ even if you aren’t going to make a habit of them.  I haven’t stuffed any mushrooms since I started bell ringing, say.  And really if I’m going to be silly in the kitchen I’d rather be silly with icing and cookie cutters.  

+ Driving 1000 miles in three days on a 350cc two stroke motorcycle with no windscreen, for example.  Not sleeping (or breathing, much) for seven days while waiting to see if that English bloke was going to figure out that I was his future or not.  And stuffing mushrooms. 

††  Did you ever see Audrey Hepburn in a kitchen?  Okay, there are a couple of passing references to cordon bleu omelettes in Sabrina, but did she ever make one?  

††† Sample chapter titles:  The Leftover, or Every Family Needs a Dog^;  Potluck Suppers, or How to Bring the Water for the Lemonade;  Stealing from Knowledgeable People, or I Seen Her When She Done It But I Never Let On. 

^ Not a hellhound, clearly 

‡ Or Miss Moneypenny!  Or Nurse Chapel!  Or any other subservient, hero-fixated girlie!  You can cook and have kids or YOU CAN BE PATHETIC AND UNFULFILLED!  Having a profession DOES NOT COUNT!  Grrrrrrr. 

‡‡ But that was a long time ago, so you won’t mind. 

‡‡‡ I’m glad she divorced him.

 § Except for the tea, the chocolate and the champagne.  Thank you, gods, for this loophole in my undesired and unenjoyed salubriousness.   

§§ NO. 

§§§ NOOO. 


## She wasn’t writing a daily blog, okay?  I’m sure she would have if she had been. 

### This one, for example:  ‘The recipe calls for “good mayonnaise,” a term that always makes me feel truculent as well as defensive.  What kind do they think you buy? . . .’  This reminds me of one of my favourite cookbook comments, which is nailed in my memory to Bracken, except I can’t imagine her ever telling you how to make yeast bread, protesting the standard yeast-bread instruction to cover your rising sponge ‘with a clean towel’.  You’re going to cover it with a dirty towel?  Indeed. 

~ Yeccch.  Even if it did appear in a footnote. 

~~ Or this paragraph, plus footnotes, which appears at the end:  ‘Like a love affair, a cookbook is probably easier to get into than out of.  At the end of both, sins of commission and omission loom large. . . . Is the chocolate sauce really that good?^  . . . Shouldn’t there have been some mention of brunches? ^^ . . .’ 

^ Yes. 

^^ No.


Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.