My First Cookbook and What it Taught Me … and Maybe You, Too

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

First edition, 1955 (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I still have my very first cookbook, now wearing a faded gingham cover, much like a well-worn and well-loved apron that used to belong to the archetypal American grandmother, possibly one with British antecedents like mine. A three-ring binder for all practical purposes, the book allowed fledgling cooks like me to add recipes, ideally from the parents’ magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, to augment the basic offerings of the book’s authors. The lists of recipes at the beginning of each chapter sound good, but most call for some sort of highly processed food. On the list for Chapter 2, “Breads and Sandwiches,” Gooey Rolls stand out.But turning to page 40, I see “1 package brown-and-serve rolls” among the ingredients. To be sure, the little cook learned to make a sticky glaze with from-scratch ingredients, but that is all.

Stuck in between the simple, “little kid” recipes, French Onion Bread, Pumpkin Meringue Pie, Flaky Danish Crescent, and other such delicacies now crumble under my fingertips as I try to find a date for these gems. 1961. Oh.

The basic message of the book seems to have sunk in:

Cropped shot 2 rs

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

I do still love to cook. But now as I examine the book and the inserts I made, I see messages that scream, in subliminal hindsight, “Watch out, you will get what you wish for!”

Push-button cooking, the title of one insert, suggests that “When time’s flying and the family is ‘starving,’ let a can opener be your best friend. This combo is as delicious as it is quick –

Tuna Jackstraw Casserole

1 4-ounce can (4 cups) shoestring potatoes
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 6 1/2- 7-, or 9 1/4-ounce can tuna, drained
1 6-ounce can (3/4 cup) evaporated milk
1 3-ounce can (2/3 cup) broiled, sliced mushrooms, drained
1/4 cup chopped pimiento

Reserve 1 cup of shoestring potatoes for topper. Combine remaining potatoes with the other ingredients. Pour into 1 1/2-quart casserole. Arrange reserved potatoes on top. Bake uncovered in moderate oven (375) 20 to 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Trim with a sprig of parsley. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Mrs. Virgil Neher, LaVerne, California

If that weren’t enough for me to thank Alice Waters for breathing, I find gender-specific illustrations throughout the book. No surprise there, of course, but still, a chilling reminder of how things were. And unquestioned. Even though the book’s subtitle indicates that it’s aimed at the hosts and hostesses of tomorrow, the emphasis reflects more the female side of things, with the woman in the kitchen.

Gender issues rs

Cookbooks, I think we’d all agree, convey far more than just recipes.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.

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  1. Nancy

    I learned to cook from my grandmother and my mother so I have no cookbooks when I was young. I did inherit my mom’s American’s Woman’s Cookbook that she was given as a wedding present in 1947. It had such great sections as Victory Gardening and cooking for the war. I remember lots of things she cooked from that book including the incredible burnt sugar icing she used to put on spice cakes. I still use it for those recipes that I need once in awhile (stewed tomatoes). I would have loved the Junior cook book.

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