Saturday, February 8, 2014

Betty and me

I’ve been reading my way through my mother-in-law’s copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook (circa 1950’s) that she received as a wedding gift. Both covers are now gone, and there are multiple pages missing but it’s still a family treasure. Some of the advice, for instance that you should “Refresh Your Spirits: Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and your family’s too!” And don’t forget to have your crinoline pressed, high heeled shoes polished and always be smiling or the neighbors will gossip! The prescription, “Think pleasant thoughts while working and a chore will become a “labor of love,” likewise seem quite comical in a contemporary context. Refresh my spirits, my ass! Refresh my drink! 

It is, however, still a kind of Holy Grail of cookbooks, teaching the reader to plan ahead, be organized, make meals that make other meals (leftovers) and combine overlapping jobs in the kitchen: all good advice no matter what decade you live in. There are clear and concise instructions for proper measuring, a glossary of common terms and emergency substitutions, and each section contains basic information about the techniques the cook will need to apply in that section. The poultry section, for instance, contains a chart outlining how long to cook a chicken or turkey by weight, and approximately how many diners you can expect to feed.
Advice concerning formal table service, for families who have servants, or the three course breakfast recommendations, is probably best ignored. As are the cartoon drawings of Eskimos, complete with seal pelts, in the freezer section which seem stereotypes at best. But there is plenty of information in old cookbooks such as this, that can be applied in any contemporary kitchen. Many of the recipes contained within its 454 pages, are the recipes that my husband and I still use today. The buttermilk pancakes I make for my nieces are, after being standardized by weight, the exact same basic recipe from this book. And at Christmas time, when I need a recipe for cut out cookies that will hold up to long storage, the decorating talents of a four and six year old commis, passed dinners, and holiday parties, it’s “Ethyl’s Sugar Cookies,” that I make.  

Up there with Fanny Farmer; Betty is part of our culinary heritage, even if she never really existed. Yes, our ideas of both nutrition and sophistication have changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse, but there is a core of solid recipes to be found in its pages. When it comes down to it, books like this are the fundamentals of American cooking and the family meal. The final word, here, still belongs to Betty.  

“Make mealtime a special time in your home by serving appetizing food in a relaxed, happy atmosphere. The buoyant health and feeling of well being that results will be reward enough for the care and loving through you give to your family’s meals.”

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