So many cookbooks these days seem to simply capitalize on a trend, be it our obsession with celebrity chefs or home canning and preserving. But some, like The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, define an era — for better or worse.
The 15th edition, released this week, marks the 80th anniversary of the red and white plaid, ring-bound cookbook that was among the must-have books for multiple generations of home cooks. The new version contains more than 1,200 recipes, most of them new and “tweak-able” with glossy photo step-by-steps. Not exactly like the take-it-or-leave-it recipes and cartoon sketches of the earliest editions, and really less of a “revised” edition than an entirely new one.
Whether you absolutely must add the latest version to your cookbook library depends on how emotionally attached you are to the original or one of its garage sale, circa 1950 descendants: that “classic” sausage-ricotta lasagna is actually still pretty darn satisfying with a few fresh herb tweaks. Like so many things in life, it really all comes down to your definition of a casserole.
Your garage sale mid-century version, assuming you have a copy, is stocked with recipes like that “classic” (here, meaning 1950s American) lasagna, good old chicken divan (not surprisingly, with frozen broccoli), and spaghetti with meatballs (the chapter is dubbed “Casseroles and One-Dish Meals”).
The new edition is more into dishes like “baked risotto with sausage and artichokes” (a fancy way of saying a sausage-rice-artichoke casserole), beef-and-bean enchilada casserole (exactly what it sounds like), and “make-it-mine” recipes like a noodle casserole. It all sounds thoroughly modern, until you read the grid-like list of basic ingredients for your noodle casserole: several condensed soup “options” (broccoli cheese, cream of celery, cream of mushroom), your frozen vegetable and shredded cheese of choice, and a bonus “goodie” such as canned mushrooms or water chestnuts (for which you are instructed to pick just one… no cheating).
And that's why this cookbook feels stuck between decades. Why those soup options — essentially moisture for your casserole — don't include a well-seasoned homemade chicken, beef or vegetable stock thickened with flour or cornstarch, or why the green options all wind up under that rather specific “frozen vegetable” header (instead of something more broad that includes sautéed fresh broccoli florets — gasp), is curious in a book that touts its “inspiring variations on classics.” Add in the boastful new recipe headers in boldface type — low-fat, healthy, and fast among them — and it's impossible not to wonder exactly why freshly cooked (and quick to whip up) broccoli isn't at least suggested as an ingredient option.
Yes, the “Cooking Basics” chapter includes is a thoroughly modern illustrated guide to both cutting butter into biscuit dough and using fresh herbs — a nice balance between 1950s and 2010 cooking techniques. And the detailed guides in the grilling (called “Outdoor Cooking” in the original book), poultry and cakes chapters are much easier to follow than in early versions, so it's a solid resource for beginning cooks. So what's our hang-up? Maybe we're simply nostalgic for the frayed-edge, family-of-four original. Or maybe we really do like our farmer's market vegetables.