23 October 2007

Peg Bracken

I never met Peg Bracken, the humorist and frozen-food pitch- person who died on Saturday. But if it is true that “you are what you eat,” then up until the age of 18 or so, I was a Peg Bracken recipe.

She’s best remembered for the I Hate to Cook Book, a collection of “quick and easy recipes” that strike fear in the hearts of folks today, yet struck a blow for liberty when they first appeared, in 1960 — the very year my parents wed. America was still in the vicious clutches of the 1950s, described by no less an authority than my English professor, Carolyn Heilbrun, as the worst decade in human history. Women, who had entered the American workforce in great numbers during World War II, were ripped from their riveters and thrust into the kitchen. They were expected to be deferential to their men, devoted to their children, and absolutely nuts about cooking.

Bracken realized that she wasn’t the only woman in America who hated to cook. The 1950s had seen the rise of “time- and labor-saving devices” in the kitchen, and a number of prepared foods came on the market: ingeniously, she came up with dozens of recipes that exploited the innovations, took little time and less effort. This begged the question of what, precisely, the American housewife was supposed to do with all the time she saved. Alcohol, tobacco, adultery, and obsessive involvement in the P.T.A. were only short-term solutions. But soon enough, the American woman figured it out. She ceased to be Laura Petrie, and she became Mary Richards.

Today the American economy depends on two-income house- holds, and you’d think that Bracken’s advice would find even more eager audiences now. However, the true American revolutionary in food burst on the scene at almost the same instant as Peg Bracken: Julia Child was as funny (and less sarcastic) in her kitchen as Bracken was in hers, and Child added a gloss of intellectualism (next- door to Harvard) and culture (French, always tony) that Bracken couldn’t rival and didn’t want to.

America rose to Julia’s challenge. We grew to like things other than steak and potatoes. We grew to enjoy fresh (even organic) ingredients. And although Julia, bless her, always emphasizes the importance of technique, and although some of her recipes do appear quite time-consuming, it’s perfectly possible to succeed with her recipes even if you are clumsy and refuse to watch the pot. I know: I’ve done it. I do it all the time.

But I am the son of a father who cooked perhaps three times — and much to our stupefied surprise — while I was growing up, and of a mother who truly, deeply, desperately hates to cook. My father was, for his generation, broadminded, and my mother worked outside the home, yet there was no question of sharing the kitchen duties. Since both my parents were children of the Great Depression and firmly convinced that poverty was just around the corner, there was no question of dining out every evening. And no serious question of allowing my brother and me to starve. Though I’m sure the thought occasionally crossed their minds.

Peg Bracken’s books answered prayers that my mother may never before have dared to voice. Her recipes proposed functional food: it kept you alive, it tasted okay (though it frequently looked … strange), it required no skill and little patience. And the recipes were funny enough to keep your mind off what you were doing. Tranquilizers were hardly necessary.

This is not Peg Bracken, and that is not a can of Spam.

I should underscore that my mother did not succumb to the temptations of drugs and drink and illicit sex. I’m not sure she was aware that such temptations existed. She was entirely virtuous. That’s why housework was driving her crazy. She needed an outlet — and she found one, in teaching.

And so with the torch of Bracken, the spark of my mother’s feminist liberation was lit. The ensuing flame never rose high enough to burn her brassiere, nor even to singe it much, but it warmed her heart. She struck out in new directions, and she crooned along with Helen Reddy: “I am woman, hear me roar.”

I never owned any of Peg Bracken’s books, and I wouldn’t have dared to bring them with me to France. (Can you imagine the reactions?) I can’t quote or recall with specificity any of her recipes, although I can cite some that are Bracken-esque, such as the Thanksgiving classic:

Take two cans of French-cut green beans and one can of mushroom soup. Mix together and dump into a baking dish. Cover with a can of fried onions, being careful to remove the onions from the can first. Bake until congealed and hot, then serve.

Don’t deny it. You know you love that stuff. There’s also the recipe that Jimmy Swenson’s mother recommended when he went off to college:

Make some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Spray a baking dish with Pam. If desired, cut the sandwiches into triangles and remove the crusts. Then arrange the sandwich pieces to line the bottom of the dish. Open a can of chicken noodle soup. Do not add water. Pour the undiluted soup on top of the sandwiches. Bake until it looks like a casserole; serve and eat while it’s still hot.

I admit, I’m nostalgic for some of this stuff. There was a chicken recipe, very sweet, that I remember fondly, though I can’t recall the name. I think my mother prepared the immortal “Skid Road Stroganoff” several times, until she found a recipe that was even easier. Bracken gave her recipes funny names and sprinkled her instructions with jokes. (The New York Times cited this: “Let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”)

This much is certain: if it hadn’t been for Peg Bracken, I’d never have discovered Julia Child, or French cuisine, or the pleasures of cooking for myself. The reason is simple. I’d have died of hunger shortly after I stopped breast-feeding.