Peg Bracken, author of the recently re-released The I Hate to Cook Book, was always forthcoming about her feelings on cooking. “This book is for those of us who… have learned through hard experience that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” So begins the 1960s classic that helped make canned cream of mushroom soup and frozen carrots grocery list staples for decades. (The book was such a success that Birds Eye Foods hired Bracken to be their frozen peas and carrots spokesperson for several years.)
That quick-and-convenient focus hardly sounds like a cookbook for those who actually enjoy ferreting out the best farmers market heirloom tomatoes. But as Bracken's daughter, Jo, points out in her introduction to the 50th anniversary edition, her mother, who died in 2007, was actually a pretty decent cook — just simply one with “too few hours, not enough days, and never enough time” between her job as an advertising copywriter and mom.
And so began Peg's obsession with easy, shelf stable and freezer-friendly recipes (canned mushrooms and frozen spinach make frequent appearances) like Let 'er Buck, broiled French bread spread halves with cheese, tomato sauce, any leftover meat you have on hand, and of course, those canned mushrooms. Sure, that French beef casserole (beef stew in a carrot-heavy tomato sauce with those canned mushrooms) is hardly the sort of thing you want to tote to a dinner party at Alain Giraud's house. But the home economist-turned-humorist angle during an age when cooking was considered a household chore (to be taken as seriously as ironing the wrinkles out of the bed linens no one will ever see) is what makes this book a must-have classic.
The I Hate to Cook Book is organized by type of dish, as in the “Vegetables, Salads and Salad Dressings” and “Spuds and Other Starches” chapters, as well as by entertaining themes, such as “Potluck Suppers” and “Luncheon for the Girls.” What's within each chapter seems to depend largely on Bracken's mood, like the toss-it-all-in-a-pot “stayabed stew” (beef stew made with cream of tomato soup) for “those days when you're en negligee, en bed, with a murder story and box of bonbons….” Or “hurry curry” (shrimp and rice curry) after that sheer hell supermarket shopping trip when “you finally end up with a glazed look… [to] commit Hurry Curry.”
Yes, the cookbook's corny references are highly entertaining (and make for an addictive read), but the real fun of flipping through this book is peeking into American kitchens of half a century past — or at least those that weren't quite as enamored as Wally with Ward Cleaver's view of a woman's role in the kitchen. It's hard to imagine June Cleaver embracing a book that includes a chapter called “Desserts, Or People Are Too Fat Anyway,” in which Bracken notes that “this chapter… contains no pastries, no soufflés, no fabulous meringue-chocolate chip-cashew nut tortes. Should you ever want to make one, your big fat overweight cookbook contains all kinds.” Turn the page and you'll see Bracken's handful of sugar-heavy and hardly healthy cake frostings, including one rather clever rendition made from store bought jelly emulsified with a whipped egg white.
That Bracken seems to relish in her hypocrisy is half the fun. As are the household tips, such as keeping a powder puff in the flour bin for efficient cake pan dusting. And so this weekend, we'll be making Bracken's fake hollandaise recipe simply for the opportunity to listen to Billy Holiday on a “Gloomy Sunday” and for the first time actually laugh, not cry. Because even for all of her kitchen bitching, Bracken reminds us that cooking — whether you're making elaborate 5-course meals or one-pot wonders — can actually be a hell of a good time.
From: The I Hate To Cook Book by Peg Bracken.
¾ cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup milk
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1. Cook the mayonnaise and milk together on top of your double boiler for five minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the other things and stir just long enough for one good chorus of “Gloomy Sunday,” and it's done.