Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The little book that led to "Poppy Crocker"

Today's book is pretty common, so it's not necessarily special to fans of old cookbooks, but this book is special to me. When I was a teenager, someone from my 4-H club knew I loved to cook and gave me a big stack of cookbooks. This one (Well, not this exact copy because I lost that one in a move, but I kept thinking about it and bought a replacement years later.) was older than what I was used to seeing and it fascinated me. I remember spending hours of summer vacation flipping through the pages, not quite sure what in those simple line drawings and "recipes" that were often merely sets of guidelines drew me to it. If I had to credit one book with planting the seed that would later grow into this blog, it would be this book:

I can blame the stacks of books threatening to take over my entire house on Betty Crocker and her 1954 Good and Easy Cook Book!

I think part of the appeal was the cooking ethos in this book. "Betty" seemed to get how I cooked. There were plenty of actual recipes, but there were also lots of suggestions that left room for home cooks to do what they wanted.

The vegetable section gives overall guidelines for cooking various veggies, then informal lists of "Ways to Serve."

Frankly, I would never want onions as a vegetable side. A little bit of well-cooked onion as a part of something else is fine, but I'm not the type who wants to see onions as the main feature of anything.

Something about this presentation makes me want to change my mind, though. I think it's the stuffed onion "recipe." It trusts cooks to figure out the details (no measurements or instructions for preparing the onions, bread crumbs, and/or ground meat and its seasonings, no baking time or temperature). Maybe it's the cute little line drawing with the crumb-topped onions in a pink glass casserole dish. I don't know, but I love this beyond all reason.

There was something about the early mix of packaged products and traditional ingredients, too, that drew me in. Here's a section on how to use what was then a cutting-edge new product:

It's the wonder of instant pudding given some homey touches. There weren't too many flavors, so adding bananas, pineapple, or coconut to the vanilla variety was advised for cream pie flavors; some malted milk powder in the chocolate would make chocolate malted milk pudding.

Good and Easy even has a few pages of color photos:

And those photos have the not-quite-polished look that I love. The top picture looks good in some ways-- a sunny burst of orange slices, a frosty glass of sherbet-- but it wouldn't make its way past food stylists now, with the white grapes blending into the lettuce, browning pear slices, and bananas that look more like pickle spears!

The veggie one looks more promising, although I don't think I'd put the dirty-looking mound of (marinated) cauliflower front and center.

The recipes for salads are as laid-back as the onion ones:

Slice up some fruits or veggies, arrange in lettuce cups, put a little bowl of something in the middle. Just in case it's not clear enough that the listed combinations are only recommendations, the Garden Patch Quilt recipe reminds readers that "Any selection of cooked or raw vegetables may be used."

I also love the practicality of the ideas for sides. The garden salad needs bread sticks, but no need to work too hard-- just toast some "cheese-topped wiener buns."

The page that really got my attention had no recipes at all, though.

I didn't know what to make of this chart of "lunchtime stand-bys of years ago."

Some sound fun, like dessert for lunch: milk, apple, and hot gingerbread; strawberries and cream over hot buttered toast. Many are clearly breakfast for lunch (corn meal mush or waffles with syrup, hot or cold cereals).

A few are bizarre (eggnog, grapes, and salty crackers?). Some are just sad. Only someone stricken with the flu could consider milk toast a sufficient (much less good!) lunch.

My teenage self stared at the page for a moment before it struck me that the "good old days" for readers of this book may very well have been the Great Depression. Suddenly, this odd little chart made a certain kind of sense. I can't explain the charge I felt in the moment of understanding that adults could feel nostalgic for times that may have been mostly bad. There was something so simultaneously happy, sad, mysterious, and unknowable about that moment that I couldn't get it out of my mind for hours. This book gave me one of my first inklings about how supremely weird it would be to be a grown-up. I didn't yet suspect that part of my grown-up journey would be writing about this book and dozens of others, but I did get the idea it wouldn't be as simple and straightforward as a teenage dreamer likes to imagine.

Happy Cookbook Wednesday! Thanks to Marjie of Modern Day Ozzie and Harriet for hosting!


  1. I have a couple of cookbooks from the 1950s, and do enjoy reading them. A couple of nights ago, my dearly beloved was telling our youngest son, the eternal fussbudget, that I'm a great cook by any measure, except maybe his grandmother's generation (born 1877). But I pointed out that cooking was hard, and food wasn't elaborate, except for those who had cooks to do the work. That came to me as I was cleaning up my pans and popping them into the dishwasher and wiping down my beautiful electric stove. Sometimes it takes the books that celebrate the wonders of box mixes to remind us how fortunate we are.

    I have linked you up!

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, it's funny how looking at old cookbooks can put things into perspective. We have it pretty easy!