This year we said no presents. My mom and my sister. My aunt and my uncle. My cousins. It’s not that we’ve been taking humbug lessons. All year we give each other “presents.” When we see something someone in the family might like, we buy it and send it along. Now, for the holidays, we’ve imposed a ban.
So I was a little surprised when the doorman handed me a package from my mom. It had all the suspicious markings of a gift. When I opened the box I was even more perplexed. It was my mother’s oldest cookbook—the one I remember seeing as far back as the 1950s, as far back as our Brooklyn railroad apartment before we moved to Long Island when I was just seven.
Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. Why had she sent it to me?
Then I saw a note peeking out from between the pages: “I found this at a flea market yesterday. I paid 25 cents for it. Thought you might enjoy it. It has some pages that mine doesn’t have because you ripped them out when you were two years old. Every time I open my book and see those pages, I think of you. It happens to be a very good cookbook. Love, Mom.”
Ah, not a present. An irresistible flea market find, and one that zooms me back to my life lived at three feet tall. I hold the book in my hands. It has a reassuring heft to it. The glossy pages slip against themselves when I squeeze together the red canvas cover adorned with Pennsylvania Dutch patterns. Didn’t my mother paint these same designs in red on my child-sized white furniture? I recall sketchy images of my little-girl life. How big my parents looked; how small the world seemed. I take a look at the copyright: 1950. The year after my parents were married; the year before I was born.
When I was growing up my mom never pushed me into cooking. She thought there’d be plenty of time when I’d eventually have to cook. I did spend many hours in the kitchen with her—not cooking but chatting away, about the mystifying mores of junior high school, high school, and society, in general. My mom listened attentively while, seemingly without effort, she created my favorite dishes. I never watched what she was doing too closely. It wasn’t until I moved out on my own and was faced with my own personal kitchen that I started calling her from Manhattan to Long Island with new and puzzling questions. Like what exactly do they mean by a “large” egg? Or, how can you tell when the roast beef is done? Or, do asparagus really have to cook standing up?
Now, as I thumb through Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, black-and-white photos show a woman’s pair of hands kneading dough, boning chicken, icing a cake. The hands have short, darkly painted nails that look both strange and familiar. I remember one of my mother’s wedding photos featuring her hands holding a bouquet, spotlighting her wedding ring and short, darkly painted nails.
As I read further, familiar recipes pop from the pages. I remember those cinnamon rolls and that sponge cake my father loved. Those stuffed artichokes—I had assumed they were an old family favorite passed down through generations, but, no, Betty Crocker’s recipe is identical to my mom’s.
I gaze at each chapter opening with its eye-widening yet slightly faded Technicolor photo—full-page spreads of glistening meats, frosted cakes, ornate holiday cookies, and voluminous breads. That crispy pork chop and those strange shiny string beans match a picture permanently imprinted on my brain, along with the unusually droopy salad items in concoctions like Avocado-Grapefruit-Tomato Salad. I remember the thick and sculpted cake frosting popping three dimensionally from that page. And that small black-and-white drawing of a merry-go-round birthday cake. I’m not even sure if my mother ever baked it, yet the familiar sight makes my adult cares subside.
But then, in between these pictures of food and pages of recipes, another component of the book surfaces. A philosophy, an approach, not only to kitchen management but household cleaning, and family and life management, too.
Betty Crocker advises:
“Your mind can accomplish things while your hands are busy. Do head work while dusting, sweeping, washing dishes, paring potatoes. Plan family recreation, the garden, etc.”
“If you feel tired lie down on the floor on your back, put your hands above your head, close your eyes, and relax for 3 to 5 minutes.”
“Notice humorous and interesting incidents to relate at dinnertime.”
“A clever wife has a simple appetizing cocktail ready for her weary husband when he comes home at night.”
This last tip is accompanied by an illustration of a wife, in a flare-skirted dress with an apron tied at the waist, bending over with a small cocktail-laden tray to serve her business-suited husband, who is seated in a comfy armchair, foot propped on an ottoman, reaching for the refreshing cocktail with one hand while holding a newspaper in the other. The illustration along with the tip seems to say: if you think maintaining a household is hard work, you should see what this guy has to go through!
Betty Crocker suggests that, for women, whole days are structured around cooking and cleaning. A cheerful disposition is also a requisite to a happy household and family — all in service to one’s husband and children, essentially portrayed here as her wards. A woman’s attention to herself amounts to smart organization and moments of relaxation so that she can be the recharger of the rest of the family. What she may be as an individual, apart from her family, is neatly swept under the perfectly vacuumed rug.
This is more than just a cookbook. It’s a how-to guide to perfect housewife-dom.
Just what was going on back then? Did my mom really take this advice seriously? Did every reader of Betty Crocker? Was the entire ethos of the ‘50s Betty Crocker’s fault? Maybe, in my infinite instinctual wisdom as a two-year-old, I tore out those very pages holding these housewifely messages and therefore saved my mom from their presumptuous influence.
Through many discussions with my mother I have understood that her selfhood was always a shared enterprise. She was her family. A couple of years after I got out of college, however, I remember there was an assertiveness revolution happening inside both of us at the same time. We considered it lucky for me that I “found more of myself” earlier than she did. If my mother was influenced by the customs of her day, she didn’t pass them on to me. She was directing me against the tide, and I grew up believing my options weren’t confined to maintaining a household and family.
I began to believe, even at a very young age, that taking care of a family was a path to self-obscurity. Although it is an all-encompassing experience, I imagined I would miss something sacred. I wanted a voice. An individual stake in the world. Not just a voice through my family. These two voices may not be mutually exclusive, but my desire was too strong to risk compromise.
What did my mother give up for her family? A big part of her personal self-expression? And what am I giving up by not having a family? A big part of my personal self-expression?
Betty Crocker has her own brand of advice on self-expression:
Handling yeast dough is more fun than any other cooking. You are dealing with something alive. The dough springs to life in silky elasticity as you knead it. There’s a centuries-old satisfaction in molding it into attractive shapes…watching the dough rise to a puffy lightness…then taking the brown beautiful breads from the oven. Best of all, there’s the rich reward of seeing the beaming faces of the family as they enjoy these fruits of your homemaking.
As I imagine preparing bread, my shoulders instantly relax—the same shoulders that brace when pressure and anxieties sweep through. Something in my genes grows nostalgic for keeping the home fires burning, for kneading dough, instead of carving out my singular place in the world. My mom acquiesced to that nostalgia. I have to believe both of us followed our own ideal of fulfillment, and that we’ll continue borrowing strength from each other.
It’s one of those gifts we can give all year long.