Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Farewell To Peg Bracken

I was surprised and saddened to read Peg Bracken’s obituary in yesterday’s New York Times. Peg Bracken wrote the “I Hate To Cook Book,” a huge bestseller that became a staple in the kitchens of early 1960s housewives. I guess I never knew that Bracken was a) a real person, unlike that other figurehead, Betty Crocker, who was a fake; and b) still alive, at least until this week.

The “I Hate To Cook Book” and the follow-up, The “I Hate To Housekeep Book,” were the kind of pre-feminist guides that let suburban ‘60s housewives know they weren’t alone in resenting “women’s work,” and that their suspicion that Donna Reed-style domestic bliss was a crock was, in fact, correct. These guides were “a taste of liberation,” as the Times obituary writer noted; I like to think they heralded the coming “women’s lib” movement.

With a barbed wit and jaded perspective, Bracken was the antithesis of Martha Stewart; IHTCB was for the kind of women we now see portrayed on "Mad Men,” pre-feminist housewives who seasoned a pot roast between drags on a cigarette and swigs on a martini, all the while wondering if this was it, this was the best life had to offer?

What other cookbook offered such advice as:
Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.


When you arrive home in a dead heat with your family, it’s a good idea to set the table immediately. Then the children may stop screaming, and even your husband may relax a little believing things are further along than they are.

Ha! I’m sure my mother pulled that one on us more than once. When we got older, and we had to fend for ourselves, the IHTCB was indispensable for fast, easy dinners that didn’t involve tearing tinfoil off a plastic tray.

Sadly, IHTCB is out of print today. I understand why; the recipes call for large amounts of butter, cream and salt; they’re the kind of meals that have most people dialing their cardiologist after dinner these days. It was another era, a less heart-healthy one, to be sure. Still, in honor of Bracken and the out-of-print IHTCB, I thought I’d share one of her recipes here:

Peg Bracken’s Saturday Chicken

4-6 pieces of chicken
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup cream (don’t cheat and use milk; the cream makes a lot of difference)*
salt and garlic salt
chopped parsley

Take your chicken and salt and garlic salt it a bit, then paprika it thoroughly. Next, spred it out, in one layer, in a shallow baking pan. Dilute the soup with the cream, pour it over the chicken, and springke the chopped parsley preettily on top. Bake it, uncovered, at 350F for 1 1/2 hours.

* For the record, I did cheat and used 1/2 and 1/2, and also substituted fresh garlic for the garlic salt. It was still plenty rich, almost too rich, though Mr. Beale still says its one of the best meals he’s ever had.