Life-Changing Cookbooks: Betty Crocker's New Picture Cookbook Taught Me American Food

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Life-Changing Cookbooks: <i>Betty Crocker's New Picture Cookbook</i> Taught Me American Food

Back in the 1970s, elementary school students didn’t get assigned any homework. Like most kids, I spent my afternoons flopped on the shag carpet watching re-runs of the The Brady Bunch and I Dream of Jeannie. If I was lucky, there were some stale Chips Ahoy to munch on. Unlike most kids, I liked to read my mom’s old cookbook while watching TV and eating snacks. There were only a few cookbooks on our maple Ethan Allen bookcase: two volumes full of Chinese food and Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook. Of course, I was drawn to the strange and unfamiliar … Betty Crocker.

With her Mona Lisa expression, Betty looked out from her place at in the middle of the spine. She had the air of a home economics teacher: generally pleasant, but would probably shake her head in disappointment at the wrong setting of fork and spoon. The pastel Mondrian-inspired cover suggested that America’s favorite kitchen matron had gotten a groovy makeover. Published in 1961, the book was already somewhat dated by the time I was reading it. Glossy photo spreads were sprinkled throughout the chapters, featuring lurid Technicolor photos of petits fours the colors of Easter eggs, a sandwich loaf that looked like a tea sandwiches married to a layer cake, and shiny ham studded with pineapples and maraschino cherries. Everything was so shiny and color-saturated, carefully shaped and arranged.

The book would have been fairly new when my parents first arrived in America in the late 1960s. I imagine they bought it at Kmart in the South Dakota college town where they were graduate students, studying engineering and biology. Or perhaps it was a wedding gift from the older Swedish couple whose basement they rented. This was the America my parents landed in. It was the America I knew as a child, but where I never quite felt like I fully belonged. From visiting my friends’ houses, I glimpsed a peek that “real Americans” did not eat the way my family did. They did not huddle around an electric skillet that had been turned into a makeshift Chinese hot pot, swishing thin slices of beef into simmering broth. Their families did not await string-tied cardboard boxes from Taiwan filled with dried mushrooms and cans of pickled vegetables. Their mothers did not grow nameless greens in the backyard, which would be plucked and sautéed with whole cloves of garlic.

Elizabeth and Eileen — one sister a year older than me, one a year younger — lived down the street from my family. Their mother grew tidy rows of vegetables in the backyard. Before dinner, their mother would open the pantry door, revealing neat stacks of clear jars, filled with green beans, tomatoes, and corn. Sometimes, our games of Monopoly in the attic would be interrupted. “Would you like some fresh baked cookies?” she offered.

How could I attain this life complete with homemade cookies and a pantry full of pickled vegetables? Surely, Betty, with her competent smile and no-nonsense hairdo, would have the answers. I read the cookbook more than anyone else in our family. Occasionally, would my mother reach for it — to make a novelty like Swedish meatballs or Beef Stroganoff. Chipper notes at the beginning of each chapter offered tips on how to “serve with flair and seemed to assume the reader was female. But the few handwritten notes in the margins were in my father’s blocky draftsman’s print. “Too much sugar” was penciled in next to the ingredients for blueberry muffins.

By the time I was ten years old, I could follow the directions to bake Ethel’s sugar cookies. Unlike Mary’s sugar cookies on the next page, Ethel’s recipe could be dropped on the baking sheet — no rolling pin or cookie cutters necessary. In high school, I chose to make crepes for a French class project. I cracked open Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook — its pages slightly more yellow and its spine a little more brittle — to find step-by-step directions for what I was certain was a pretty good replica of what would be served in Paris.

By the time I had an apartment of my own as a young adult, I started amassing my own collection of cookbooks. I preferred recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, Williams-Sonoma, the San Francisco Chronicle. Nothing required a white sauce or food coloring. And my mother’s stir-fries or Taiwanese beef noodles were dishes I could recreate from years of watching her at the stove — no recipes required. Betty Crocker was relegated to holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, when my mother would reach for the crackly book to look up how long to roast the turkey. Then I would flip through the pages, lingering on directions for broiled grapefruit or Chicken à la King and wondering at how people could have eaten such things.

Then, on one visit home I glanced at the bookshelf and Betty Crocker was no longer there. She was the victim of one of my mother’s cleaning purges. I opened and closed drawers and banged cabinet doors, hoping that I would find my trusted friend had been misplaced but was still here. My mother, who is always looking for the newest fashion and the next trend, doesn’t even remember throwing the cookbook away. “That was so old!” she remarked, when I asked her about it. “I haven’t seen that in years.”

Of course, Betty Crocker cookbooks are still being printed — but they’re not the same. As Betty had been modernized for the 1960s, she has continued to receive periodic updates — her bouffant hairdo being replaced by a brunette bob. I’ve been tempted to buy a vintage copy of Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook from eBay. Worn copies sell for about $50. One ambitious seller is asking nearly $900 for a first-edition in mint condition. As I search for photos of the pages, I see things I didn’t notice as a child. Ethnic foods were like displays from “It’s a Small World”, with color photos featuring a Japanese kitchen finished in bamboo and teak, with a cherry tree in blossom just beyond the shoji screens. The recipe for spaghetti was illustrated with a line drawing of a gondolier wearing a striped t-shirt. But most of the drawings featured women in tiny-waisted, full-skirted dresses offering trays of canapés to men suited up like Don Draper.

And although I’ve been reminiscing about Betty Crocker as if she were an actual figure in my life, I’ve since learned that she was never a real person. According to the brand website, her name and face were created in 1921 by the advertising department of the company that produced Gold Medal flour. The original portrait of Betty was painted based on an amalgamation of the faces of the women who worked in the test kitchen.

What am I really seeking between those pastel covers? A recipe for Welsh Rarebit? A few kitschy laughs? A yardstick against which to measure my American-ness or my competency as a woman? If Betty never existed, maybe the life she was selling was never did, either.

Grace Hwang Lynch eats and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been published by PBS, PRI, NBC, Salon and xoJane. Follow her at HapaMama.com or on Twitter @GraceHwangLynch.

Image by Otto Nassar CC BY-SA

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