Better Homes and Gardens

On these nights when it’s been too cold even for the pup, I’ve been curled on our sofa with a real treat – my mother’s 1953 edition of the “Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book.” This thing is like a time machine, although I have no idea what my mom was doing with it in 1953. She would not marry my dad for another three years, and I have it on good authority that she was deficient in the water boiling department for at least five years after that.

My mother became an excellent cook, but it took awhile. Even now, reverence for her memory forbids me to mention things like the hockey-puck episode, except to say that sometimes “light and fluffy baking powder biscuits” aren’t.

But her cookbook! Behind those cheery red-and-white checked covers is a world of American wholesomeness, delivered up in 1950s’ rhetoric that’s hard to believe, actually. On the first page of the “Special Helps” section, for example, it says “Science has taken the drudgery out of kitchen life.” The Waring blender is an example of this, for some reason. In the “Beverages” section, trendy readers are told that a milk drink “looks swish in glassware with a whipped topping.” We are left to wonder what it means to look “swish,” but presumably it has something to do with hot chocolate.

That’s about as racy as it gets. There is no booze in the Better Homes cookbook — just lots of boiled coffee and something called “Lime Tinkle.” (Lime Tinkle is made with lime juice and carbonated water, ingredients that came as something of a relief.) The part of wine in recipes like “Brown Stew” and “Beef In Onion Sauce” is played by condensed soups — tomato, chicken, celery, consommé.

In a section mysteriously titled “Bread, Vegetables, Coffee,” we find a recipe for “Sizzling French Fries” that starts with “Place thawed frozen French fries in a corn popper.” In that same section, which also includes “Outdoor Cooking Tips,” the cookbook suggests serving “individual jars” of milk or buttermilk that you put in “mayonnaise or pickle jars that you’ve been hoarding.” Yes, it says “hoarding.” It’s on page 292.

The kitchen of 1953 may have been scientific, but it wasn’t eclectic. “Hungarian Schrazy,” for instance, sounds exotic, but it’s just round steak with onions and green pepper. Everything else has a certain prosaic quality: “Dried Beef on Fried Noodles,” “Frozen Orange Prune Whip,” “Tuna Omelet,” and “Blueberry Eggnog Pie,” to name a few.

The chapter illustrations are cartoons, usually of a mom-type figure with an impossibly tiny waist and a pile of hair on her head, wearing high heels and an apron with a big bow. She is sometimes accompanied by her spouse, a narrow-tie-wearing person who smiles and occasionally smokes a pipe. In the “cooky” and candy chapters, she has two children — a boy and a girl, of course — who gaze delightedly on “Tutti-Frutti Snowball Cake.”

The rest of the cookbook is illustrated with black and white photographs of semi-horrifying food. In one illustration, a pair of impeccably manicured hands rests languidly on a loaf of bread in a position that indicates the holder might not have the strength to slice it. In another, there is a “pineapple” made from liver sausage and green olives. (A less-appetizing photograph can scarcely be imagined.) The “Crown Roast Dinner” involves spam. It’s been sliced to look like the ribs of a standing rib roast, if the looker is wearing sunglasses in a very dark room and not paying any attention.

Yes, 1953 was a time when the “Sunshine Salad Plate” could be “cool, refreshing and gay” and nobody batted an eye. The section on “Luncheons, Afternoon and Evening Refreshments” included instructions on how to make gingerbread and doughnuts for an entire “P.T.A. or American Legion.” It also suggested that, if you were saying goodbye to your date at 3 a.m. in the kitchen, you might do so with “Mustard Hamburgers on Toasted Buns” and plenty of hot coffee. Better Homes and Gardens explains correct table service in excruciating detail, while instructing hostesses to “Park dinner in the oven to look after itself while you greet guests, catch up on your mending or just relax a little.”

I am not going to make “Meat-za Pie” any time soon, nor will I be barbecuing any frankfurters or doing a “Tuna Bake with Cheese Swirls.” Chances are I will not be making a “Frosted Cocktail” with pineapple juice and egg whites shaken in a mayonnaise jar, but I might keep myself amused until spring with reading the pronunciation guide and figuring out exactly what that green stuff is in the “Pineapple Bavarian.”

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