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The Domestic Goddess
Before Thanksgiving, I was sent my grandmother’s second edition (1956) Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (Revised and Enlarged!) from my aunt in Maine. A mainstay in Minnesota since the 1920s, Betty Crocker’s legacy is richly intertwined with the state and with the ever-evolving story of homemakers and home cooks. The Minnesota Historical Society has a page dedicated to Betty and her “origin story” is detailed on the Betty Crocker website:
We got our start in 1921 — and thank you, we do look good for our age. Who could have guessed that a simple contest by The Washburn-Crosby Company would give birth to an icon? The contest called on home cooks to solve a jigsaw puzzle for the chance to win a pincushion in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour (cute). Washburn, a flour-milling company and predecessor of General Mills, Inc., was surprised to find themselves suddenly inundated with questions from home cooks who used the competition as an opportunity to ask for expert baking advice.
Betty went on to radio, informing housewives on the proper cooking techniques and latest recipes through the local station WCCO and her red spoon was the unofficial seal of approval emblazoned on mixes and convenient goods in Red Owl grocery stores far and wide. Now I even work in an office building located near Betty Crocker Drive and General Mills Boulevard.
But what struck me about laying eyes on the same book that served my grandmother Joan — who married a farm boy that went on to fight in Okinawa during World War II, herself going to Seattle to help the war effort with her best friend Esther as “Rosie the Riveters” in the shipyards, who raised a family in Minneapolis and was a ticket-taker at the old Met Stadium, sewed all the clothes, made all the meals, had no time to suffer fools or gossips, and was a social hostess to many games of 500 — was just how worn and fragile it had become.
Every chapter tab, from “Special Helps” (Save time…Insure sanitation: Rinse dishes with boiling water, leave on rack to dry. Wipe glasses, silver. Some prefer to wash dishes only once a day. Saves soap, time. Rinse and stack, then cover.) to “Vegetables” (Asparagus in Ambush was intriguing: Roll cooked stalks of asparagus in thin slices of boiled ham or dried beef. Broil. Serve with Cheese Sauce or White Sauce.) was frayed to the nub. Scotch tape, layered and yellowed, bound the edges of the front and back cover, which still didn’t keep it from being broken at the spine. Pages throughout were splotched and blotted with various remnants of whatever sauce had been boiling on the stove (hot tartare, perhaps?), layered into a baking dish (Scalloped Chicken Supreme, which required a topping of Wheaties), or delicately poured into a pie (Butterscotch Cream — new to me that I decided to make for my family’s Thanksgiving feast as a kind of tribute).
I imagined my grandmother paging through it, planning for the next meal or a larger family gathering. Maybe she and my grandfather would have company over on a Saturday night and something special was in order. “Main Dishes” came with this warning, “Poorly made main dishes have come to have a bad reputation, especially among men, as a substitute for meat. But a well seasoned, well cooked main dish can be as interesting and satisfying as a good steak.” And Betty Crocker knew her audience. As the head of a working-class family, my grandmother read about buying meat with a frugal eye, how to stretch leftovers, buy canned goods, and cook everything properly (hence not to waste) from squirrel to squab. Readers are enlightened by the little insights and encouragements found by nearly every recipe. Under Spareribs and Sauerkraut on page 317: “Choice of one of Hollywood’s most exotic movie stars of all time.” Exotic! Earmark that for Friday night supper.
Now, by the time I was old enough to join her in the kitchen I never once saw her open a recipe book or dive into her box stuffed with index cards on which were written in that cursive — the type that every adult of a certain generation seemed to have carbon copy — a recipe from one of her girlfriends or a sister-in-law. And when I look back on it now, for as wonderful and versatile a cook as she was, she hardly had anything in her kitchen. There were the nesting glass mixing bowls, covered hotdish ware, a hand mixer, and various wooden spoons and rubber spatulas — which probably got as much use paddling the fannies of misbehaving kids as mixing ingredients.
And now if you walk through a Target store or turn on the television, there’s an endless stream of gadgets and multi-cookers that promise to dehydrate your meats, fry your chicken, steam the vegetables, fluff the rice, walk the dog, and help the kids with their homework. But with all the modern conveniences, the time savers, the quick cooks, and the self-cleaners, it seems like we live in a world with a perpetual shortage of time and an overabundance of frayed nerves.
I’ve spent a lot of nights lately lying awake, staring into the stillness of a house asleep, just the streetlights and static hum of various gadgets and plugs and screens mocking me that there really isn’t anything like silence in a connected world — in which I pretend I control all those things rather than the other way around.
But my restless mind hums along with the electronic mod cons to a time I don’t know firsthand but for which I feel a particular nostalgia. And my grandmother’s cookbook rekindles such a halcyon spark especially when I’m now a wife and mother with a household full of duties and responsibilities that always seemed to be so far into the future but now have me longing for days long past. When I have the unbelievable good fortune to be born into the modern West with its medicine, wealth, and opportunity — yet the trappings of society can leave a void that no gadget or email will fill, nor Google search will answer. What makes a modern working mother? I have all the technology to save hundreds of hours on cleaning and cooking, yet I never seem to have enough time to fold the laundry or sort out the junk drawer or unpack the last boxes from when we moved eight years ago.
I look at this cookbook and see women balancing their family roles, keeping house, shopping, mending clothes that they made, cooking wholesome meals, and spending real time with their families, uninterrupted by screens except for the one television in the den that didn’t have a remote, and wasn’t filled with an endless stream of blaring faces and brain garbage. I think of the famous scene in the 1942 Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film Woman of the Year, in which the careerist political reporter Tess Harding (played by Hepburn fresh off the classic The Philadelphia Story) attempts to make breakfast for her husband, despite her obvious ignorance of how anything works in a kitchen. It’s a great scene and feminists have criticized it as an appeasement to domesticity (*oppressive patriarchy).
Three or four generations removed from the feminist revolution and society has undoubtedly benefitted from the advances and opportunities for women. But there still seems to be a portion that keeps fighting some invisible fight against inequality without realizing what the cost is in such a tradeoff. Because nothing happens without consequences. We have more women who feel unfulfilled by an identity that relies exclusively on their careers. We have more women delaying marriage and children. We have more women who are affected by depression and anxiety and who feel confused about their role in society. We have more driftless men and anxious children. There is a breakdown of security, happiness, meaning, and fulfillment — all things that start in the home and rely on a strong family foundation.
We are told that women can have it all without telling us what it all is. And I have a feeling I could find it in the pages of an old, worn 1956 cookbook than my Google Assistant.
Published in General
Dang, I knew the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book had a long run at #1, but didn’t realize it was that long!
(1956) Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook Hearty Corned-beef Salad. My wife intuited what it must be, and she was right. You know they say famine makes the best sauce, so this is looking pretty good.
That Homemaker’s Creed is beautiful and inspirational.
I breathlessly await a full, detailed review!
It is so refreshing. And maybe it speaks more to the media gunk I consume, but after reading it immediately thought of all the “feminists” who would rush to condemn such archaic and oppressive statements. But here it lives on!
The wife who made this and expected it to be horrible, said it was “not bad” but too sweet (maybe she used the sweetened lemon jello). Her husband said he loved it. Both didn’t like the “creepy” “sucking sound” of serving it up.
From Mid-century Menu:
The Verdict: Good
From Tom’s Tasting Notes –
From Ruth’s Tasting Notes –
I suppose this means I should make this for Sunday supper. But how to sell it to the husband…
Yeah–this just doesn’t work. Raw onions and sweet jello? No thanks. Reminds me of a fruit salad I was once served that used mayo as the binder (as opposed to corn starch-thickened fruit juice or yogurt). Not a favorite, to say the least.
My grandfather would say, “Maybe it’s an acquired taste…”
I know that your post is about more than cooking and recipes, so I’ll say that I have a 1963 Joy of Cooking that my mother actually bought for me as a present, and I think it has terrapin soup in it as well.
But as far as salads go, Salade Niçoise is great! but as I remember tedious to prepare. I once made about ten quarts of Dean and Deluca’s recipe and I took it to a company cook-out, and everyone really loved it. Several people asked for the recipe. As I remember, one woman asked me how I made it and when I told her, her eyes glazed over, and she walked away.
But it is very good.
I have my 1970’s Betty Crocker cookbook – and actually just used it to remind me how to quick cook my turkey last Thursday (in foil – super moist!). I also have my grandmother’s Larkin Cookbook – fourth edition 1921. Those are recipes submitted by homemakers in a paragraph format, often with comments regarding their deliciousness.
My maternal grandmother never missed the (annual?) Cooking School put on at the Rialto Theater in Joliet, IL. She would come home with new recipe booklets, sponsored by some meat council or something (I know one of the booklets featured lard), and often a door prize as well.
As I was growing up, she rarely cooked for large family gatherings, as my two unmarried aunts who lived with her took over those duties. But she raised eleven children, as well as had boarders in the house, so I’m sure she knew her way around a kitchen. I do have a few of her recipes, and she just hooted when I (as a newly wed cook) told her I put in a tablespoon of pepper instead of a teaspoon when I made her chop suey. (More mistakes followed, to be sure.)
My paternal grandmother had a huge kitchen and was always cooking or baking for some event, often with four or five other Slovak speaking ladies helping out. (Yikes, could they talk!) She could also manage what I would call farm cooking – she knew how to butcher a pig, and could make several types of sausage.
They were always happy when you ate up and enjoyed their hard work. I think that is missing from the insta-pots and pre-chopped, pre-selected foods now available. I often feel like I’ve cheated when using a box cake mix, or stove-top stuffing. I have the ability to make this from scratch. Really and truly, I am not too busy. Thank you for this post Jenna, I think I will re-examine my homemaking just for the fun of it.
By the way, does anyone else remember that when she first appeared to the wider public, Roseanne Barr billed herself as a/the “Domestic Goddess?”
This particular example is from 36 years ago:
I love everything about this comment, Juliana. I do think there’s an intangible enchantment in watching loved ones enjoying a meal that required more than sloshing some ingredients in a gadget and they appear neatly assembled for consumption. My family seems to savor it and linger over the meal a little longer. Slower to make, longer to enjoy, perhaps. Maybe slowing down a bit is what we need. Thank you so much for sharing your memories!
Juliana, you could write a beautiful post around some of these ideas: the European influence, your family members, your cooking “challenges.” It would be such a colorful post!
I have my grandmother’s but hers was from the 60’s after they retired. I love that some of her bookmarks are store receipts with notes in her handwriting on the back. Some of the “convenience” ingredients are no longer available and sizes of some items are no longer standard but it is still a great reference. Mostly it’s a little piece of my grandmother’s life (born in 1901) that I get to keep with me.
Jenna, great post. I have a question for you (and anyone else who wants to chime in).
My impression is that the Home Legion lost the war. Our society is not the one described in that fine creed. Why do you think that this change occurred?
Welcome, Amy! First comment since joining back in Feb!
Great to have you aboard, Amy!
Try to ignore the goofballs around here.
I mean, the OTHER goofballs, of course…
Thank you so much for sharing this. Our grandmothers may no longer be with us, but I’m so grateful to have this connection to her and a time I never knew. I’m glad you’re here on Ricochet.
I’m going to respectfully disagree with you, Jerry. I think in a superficial way it may seem like it, but when I think about my own home, that of my working mother in which me and my brothers were raised, and scores of households across America that aren’t seen on CNN or preached to from network TV shows, the Home Legion survives. Perhaps bruised and searching for stronger footholds, but we’re here. We may not make every meal from scratch or have enough money to support a stay at home parent family, but we are invested in making happy homes, of teaching our kids fortitude, of supporting our spouses in their careers and dreams, of stubbornly insisting on household order, responsibility, kindness, and patriotism. Just because we don’t look the same as in 1956 we are still a legion of women unashamed of traditional women’s roles. In fact I’d say a lot of us take pride in it. I hope that offers some clarity. Thanks for the comment.
Thanks for this, Jenna. I hope that you’re right. Traditionalists seem to be in foxholes, at least where I live.
I just checked my Betty Crocker book but it has no date. It was my mom’s, I’m 83, it sits among some 30 other cookbooks, but I don’t use any of them any more. We had cooks for 30 years, but they couldn’t read English and only a few are in Spanish or Portuguese and none in Thai, (our best cook). My wife used them to guide the cooks for important meals. When we retired she cooked but she took too long. I started cooking when our house was being rebuilt with us living in the basement, the kitchen mostly open in cold Jackson Wy. Looking for Betty Crocker just now was a welcome piece of history.
No doubt the first entry would make feminists’ heads explode . . .
I love cookbooks! We must have over a hundred easily . . .
Yes, some of my old family cookbooks have little notes, and cut-out recipes in them. I wonder if the handwritten directions for “Canadian Cake” came from my grandmother’s cousin who moved to British Columbia in the 1920s. And there are some complicated and fancy recipes that I can’t really imagine anyone making, but which must have looked or sounded so good, people cut them out to keep (I do the same thing).
I have a habit of sticking photos in cookbooks as bookmarks. I like coming across them myself years later, and hope that those who inherit my favorite cookbooks–and perhaps even strangers at second-hand bookstores–will enjoy them too.
You’re right. It was Fannie Farmer.
Remember, though, that they were all friends. It was sort of a movement. :)
I just wrote a very long comment and then erased it. That’s the best way for me to write: don’t. :) :)
But we’re having our kitchen redone completely–my old beloved kitchen was removed two weeks ago in pieces, and it has gone to the construction dump. I’ve been taking my mind off the project with a work project, but my work project is now done. I guess I will work in the garden for the next few weeks to take my mind off the kitchen project. :)
It’s bittersweet. My family is all about our family dinners and joyous times at our dinner table. It is very weird. I’ll miss my old kitchen.
On the other hand, I’m about to enter the modern world of cooking. After the construction crew leaves in the afternoon, I’ve been poking around the new things this space age kitchen will have. I am getting a little bit excited. It is has every toy in the modern world.
I wish I had thought to take a lot of pictures. I could have written a fantastic coffee table book. The left-hand pages would have huge photographs of the old kitchen and the right-hand pages would be the new kitchen. And how we have turned the rest of the house upside down to store the old kitchen contents and how we are making do with no kitchen. It would make a fantastic book. Lots of fun.
It has been a six-month adventure. Our designer is a dear friend of my husband, and they are both Italian and love family and food. That’s what gets them out of bed in the morning. :)
When the Fannie Farmer cookbook was last revised significantly in 1979, the publishers turned to Marion Cunningham to do the work.
Marion Cunningham (1922 to 2012) is kind of a hero to me. She went around the country promoting home cooking and family breakfast, brunch, and dinner gatherings. I can’t find the source of this remembered quote at the moment, but I once read that she lamented the introduction of the microwave oven into the home kitchen. It encouraged eating by oneself. So very very true.
I have a wonderful collection of cookbooks–all the greats: Julia Child, Craig Claiborne (an old Navy guy who went on to become the New York Times food editor!), Rombauer-Becker, and my favorite, James Beard. And all the old ones from my parents and grandparents and my husband’s parents and grandparents. My husband’s Italian aunt and her husband owned and operated a hugely successful Italian bakery in Malden, Massachusetts–just outside Boston. In fact, my husband used to help out in the bakery, and he taught me how to roll out a pie crust! :)
We inherited all of Aunty Betty’s recipes from her bakery. She made wonderful scali bread–there was always a line assembled in the morning at the bakery door, and her bread sold out by 8 or 9 every day. When I was sorting through her recipes, I got the biggest kick out of finding hundreds of little slips of paper with just the ingredients listed for her chocolate cake or other baked goods. Obviously, she would quickly jot these lists down–on tiny scraps of paper–three by five inches–and hang them around the bakery in the morning while she worked. She wrote out these lists over and over. I think she wrote them out at the end of the day to get ready for the next day. She had a tiny desk in the bakery. It was just something to check to make sure she didn’t forget anything.
How exciting! You should still post the pictures of the new kitchen when it’s complete, because I’m picturing The Jetsons.
I’m getting excited about it. David, our designer, kept all the hard-wood warmth of my old kitchen and incorporated a lot of modern lighting and helpful features. To his staff, he has said, “We are building a kitchen for a baker.” :) I will have a six-foot-long expanse of cold marble-like counter to roll out pastry. All lit up with bead lighting under the upper cabinets. And the mixing bowl will be stored on “bowl lift” that will go under the counter when I need those six inches for rising bread or cooling cookies. :) The design is truly a work of art. :) The cabinets were made in South Dakota. It took six months. They’ve been in our garage for the past two weeks. It looks like a massive jigsaw puzzle. The cabinets are quarter-sawn red oak. Just gorgeous. Each one an elegant piece of furniture. My husband is a woodworker in his spare time, and the cabinetry was really important to us. It will be beautiful!
But I will have no more excuses for my kitchen flops and failures. :) :)
Mrs. Spring loves cookbooks and some of our favorites are the ones (usually self-published/xeroxed) by local women’s groups. They have each contributor’s name and include local favorites passed down through the family.
A good example is “Charleston Receipts” and its follow on “Charleston Receipts Repeats”
You can always tell the best parts by the grease spots!