December 17, 2010

“It’s a cookbook!”

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays,MiscellAnnia — Ann @ 12:02 pm

The American Woman's Cook Book

I’ve always loved books, so naturally it would follow that I’ve always loved cookbooks, starting with the 1939 hard-cover American Woman’s Cook Book which I grew up with and which still lives in my mom’s kitchen. (I just called her to talk about it and she said, “Ooh, I just opened to a great picture of shrimp cocktail!”) My grandmother gave it to my Mom and Dad when they were first married back in the 40s. I’d gaze at the front for long hours, dreaming of making those petits fours someday.

When I was a bright-eyed bride of 19, someone gave me the orange-bindered Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, which became my education into the world of kitchen wizardry. I still remember the deep sense of power that would wash over me as I’d flip through its pages — I could make Black Forest Cherry Cake! I could make Steak Diane! I grew up in a home where every night’s dinner was standard 1950s fare; my Mom is a whiz with these dishes and, hearty and good though they are, they aren’t exactly adventurous.

So when Betty Crocker came to live in my old-fashioned San Pablo kitchen — I had to get down on my hands and knees to ignite the pilot light whenever I used the oven — I was positively light-headed with possibility. (In retrospect, perhaps the light-headedness was from inhaling all that natural gas.) In that kitchen I turned out Stuffed Green Peppers and Chicken Breasts Tarragon and Classic Hollandaise Sauce. Chicken Tetrazzini became such a hit with friends and family that the page long ago fell out and I keep it in a folder marked “Favorites.”

Over the years I learned that everyone had his and her go-to kitchen tome. Some swore by Joy of Cooking. Some preferred a separate cookbook for each cuisine. But I stuck with Betty — in more ways than one. Whatever Betty Crocker didn’t offer up in the orange binder, my mom — also Betty — provided in terms of her own recipes. To this day I’ll still call her and ask things like, “Mom, what was the recipe you used for that killer gingerbread you used to make me on rainy days?” Pretty soon, a copy will arrive in the mail. God I love my Mom.

Today I turned to the Betty-binder once more. You see, a few weeks ago Neal started bringing home Safeway pound cakes to snack on. I tasted one and made a noise like “bleh” and “oof” blended together. I told him, “You, good husband, need to partake of a genuine, homemade pound cake and I, good-wife that I am, shall prepare same for your gustatory pleasure.” (Except I think I said, “This tastes like crap. I’m going to make one.”)

So today’s the day. I’ve got the cookbook, the flour, the sugar, the real vanilla extract, eggs, baking powder, shortening, salt, and will. As soon as the butter softens to room temperature (oh, we all remember the day we got too impatient and tried to make our cakes with butter that was still chunky, don’t we?), I’ll get out to that kitchen and make my man a pound cake. I’ll tell you one thing, he’ll never eat another Safeway version.

The funny thing is, when I opened Betty Crocker to that recipe this morning, I noted some oil or butter stains mid-page. Don’t all treasured cookbooks have those? Was it from the time I was making something for company and knocked over the canola? Did I accidentally set the frosting spoon there when I was excited about my cake?

Cookbooks are filled with much more than recipes; they are filled with stories. Today, I’m continuing the saga.


  1. I OWN the orange Betty Crocker hardcover (from my Mom). What nice memories you’ve conjured! I just made Noodles Alfredo out of there last week–it’s the best alfredo recipe out there…still. Enjoy your pound cake!

    Comment by Heidi — December 17, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  2. Left a comment. What great memories you conjured!

    Comment by Heidi Koch Frazer — December 17, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  3. I remember my Mom getting it for Christmas in the 70s and the pictures are fantastic! I’m making fruitcake tonight with my daughter from a 1960′s Holiday cookbook.

    Comment by Heidi Koch Frazer — December 17, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

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