I have long believed that the opening salvo of second-wave feminism was fired in 1960, several years ahead of its time, by Peg Bracken, in The I Hate to Cook Book. Before Betty Friedan – and in a much lighter mood (!) – Bracken blew up the notion of the perky, apron-clad “happy housewife.” Maybe you had to be there, but rest assured, I Hate to Cook provoked a burst of hilarity and relief in those who felt guilty when they were bored by aspects of cooking and housework. You don’t love chopping and mincing and slicing – great! You’d rather be doing something else? It’s OK! True, Bracken tended to include sodium-heavy canned soup in almost every dish, but nobody’s perfect. And with regard to salt along with everything else, concerns about food and fashions in food have changed even more than most other things in my lifetime.
I was jolted recently, and slightly unnerved, to find an old-time neighborhood steakhouse closed. No surprise, really: last year the place was nearly empty and the lighting seemed more than usually dim. The waiter confided, sadly, that he wasn’t making enough to cover another year of community college, and even if that remark was designed to increase his tip, it sounded authentic (and it worked). We had already decided not to go there again for the annual trip down memory lane – too depressing, even for a glimpse of 1950s menu and decor – but still it was sort of upsetting to find it gone.
All that beef! The worst possible food for the arteries, the colon, and the planet, but who knew? My grandmother prescribed “a bit of beefsteak” for anyone who was “run down.” Middle-class households ate meat, or fish once a week, every night before and long after World War II; that’s why wartime “meatless days” and their odd menus were such a big deal. One especially odd “meatless” dinner in our house was known as “PM” because the recipe came from the 1940’s left-leaning New York City newspaper of the same name. It featured noodles, Campbell’s tomato soup, onions, Worcestershire sauce, cheddar cheese, and – of all things – hot dogs. Guess they didn’t count as meat. I made PM for my own children in the 60s and 70s, not a bit concerned about sodium, and we all sort of liked it, I think. (I’m sure they will feel free to comment, below, if they didn’t.) However, I would not dream of serving it to my grandchildren.
(In an attempt to fact-check the provenance of the “PM” recipe – which I concluded must have been published by Charlotte Adams, PM‘s Food Editor in the early 40s – I was pleased to stumble across at least a couple of versions of the dish that sound and look as though they must have the same “back of the soup can” parentage. Alternative preparations found in my research include a fancy locavore “Hot Dog Casserole” and a scary-looking “Mid-Century Curly Franks.”)
I grew up before most Americans were aware of pesto or pasta, cholesterol or toxic pesticides. There was no such thing as diet soda, and – wait for this! – no plastic bottles to clog up the landfills and the oceans. Frozen food appeared in the 1950s; Peg Bracken herself became the TV spokesperson for Birds Eye in the 60s and 70s. Frozen vegetables and frozen orange juice were much better than the canned versions, but what I don’t remember is why that meant we were unable to use the real things, when available. It’s possible that broccoli and Brussels sprouts were not flown around the country and the world to the extent they are now, but I think they were generally accessible in the 1960s. I have discovered, to my surprise, that they are not only better fresh, but no more difficult to prepare – although I feel I should apologize to Peg Bracken for saying so.
Bracken died in 2007, when The I Hate to Cook Book was out of print; in her witty and delightful New York Times obituary, Margalit Fox calls its disappearance a casualty of the “Age of Arugula.” (Good news: it has reappeared in a 50th anniversary edition.) Fox was right about Bracken’s place in proto-feminism, and she was right about the Age of Arugula. My elder daughter is a fabulous cook and works in a variety of sustainable agriculture and locavore undertakings. Two of my four grandchildren are vegetarians: one announced at the age of four that she loved animals and didn’t want to eat them, and she never has. The third is a near-vegetarian and an excellent cook, like her mother, and the fourth makes Key Lime pie from scratch. None of them would know what to do with a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup, unless it was one element in a still life.
Most of the time, I recognize and appreciate how much things have improved. I don’t really want to make Bracken’s “Ragtime Tuna,” but on occasion, as I make my way through the vegan, organic, gluten-free, low-fat, low-sugar aisles of the supermarket, I yearn for a simpler, funnier time, and I wish Peg Bracken were there to pitch cans of soup into her cart and exit, laughing.