Peg Bracken’s 1960 cookbook embraced the joys of convenience, mediocrity, and a well-timed shot of whiskey
Once upon a time, back when Julia Child was perfecting the recipes that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Betty Friedan was seething over the notes that would become The Feminine Mystique, a group of women in Portland, Oregon, known to themselves as the Hags, met regularly for martini lunches to commiserate about the trials of their lives as wives and mothers.
They weren’t plotting a revolution. They had always expected that this would be their lot in life. Everything in society and pop culture had told them so, and they’d never questioned it. But they had never anticipated that feeding their families would be such a goddamned ordeal. Breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner, day in and day out, without exception. Were they ever thanked? Did they ever get any reward besides grocery money? Even Betty-fucking-Crocker would start to despise the kitchen under these conditions — or she would if she existed. A woman that thrilled by cake mix could only be a figment of an ad executive’s imagination.
Among the Hags was a writer named Peg Bracken who had worked as an ad copywriter before she married. After her youthful illusions of domestic bliss were shattered, she’d developed a national reputation as a humorist thanks to an essay she had published in the Saturday Evening Post called “My Husband Ought to Fire Me!” The essay poked fun at a recent study that attempted to calculate how much women’s household labor would be worth if housewives were paid by the hour. “From my own computations,” Bracken wrote, “one salient fact emerges loud and clear: all my household skills together wouldn’t earn enough to maintain one small-sized guppy.”
Bracken actually did like to cook. But only when she felt like it. The other Hags were of like mind, and when Bracken started asking about their favorite time-saving recipes, they produced what she described as “batter-spattered file cards belonging to people who had copied them from other batter-spattered file cards, because a good recipe travels as far, and fast, as a good joke.” She combined those recipes with many of her own, gave them snappy names like “Chicken-Rice Roger” and “Lamb Shanks Tra-La,” and organized them into chapters with commentary and helpful advice, plus tips for housekeeping and entertaining. Then Bracken wrote an introduction that has one of the greatest opening lines of any American cookbook: “Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them.”
But, as The I Hate to Cook Book proved after it was published in 1960, a lot of women hated to cook. The manuscript, which had been picked up by a woman editor after being rejected by six men, would go on to sell 3 million copies.
Condensed soups figure heavily in I Hate to Cook. So do canned and frozen vegetables, as well as Parmesan cheese, paprika, and parsley because, according to Bracken, “even if you hate to cook, you don’t always want this fact to show.” Using garnishes, she reasoned, “still shows you’re trying.” All of the recipes could be prepped in 15 minutes or less, something they had in common with the dozens of other convenience recipes popular at the time.
What distinguishes I Hate to Cook — and makes it such an absolute delight, even 60 years later — is Bracken herself (the drawings by Hilary Knight, best-known as the illustrator and co-creator of Eloise, also help). From that memorable opening line onward, she is sardonic and funny, issuing instructions like “let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink,” or “just shut your eyes and go on opening those cans.” She’s the friend who suggests “the girls” go out for cocktails instead of having a sedate Ladies’ Luncheon at home, who cheerfully dismantles food-world pretensions (never say “hot,” she advises, when you can say “piping hot”), and whose Hootenholler Whisky Cake recipe begins, “First, take the whisky out of the cupboard, and have a small snort for medicinal purposes.”
In other words, she understands that the best way to fight the despair of domestic servitude is to laugh about it and get other women to join you (and to take a snort of whiskey when you need it). That was the reason for the enduring success of I Hate to Cook, the food historian Laura Shapiro writes in her book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. Bracken was able to let women who hated to cook know that nothing was wrong with them and that they were not alone.
“Do you know what the really basic trouble here is?” she asked her readers in I Hate to Cook. “It is your guilt complex. This is the thing you really need to lick. And it isn’t easy. We live in a cooking-happy age. You watch your friends redoing their kitchens and hoarding their pennies for glamorous cooking equipment and new cookbooks called Eggplant Comes to the Party or Let’s Waltz into the Kitchen, and presently you begin to feel un-American.” Substitute “Instagram” for “new cookbooks” and this could also apply to the present day.
(And what of men? What of their very important thoughts and feelings? “The average man doesn’t care much for the frozen-food department,” Bracken wrote. “He wants to see you knead that bread and tote that bale, before you go down cellar to make the soap. This is known as Women’s Burden.”)
It wasn’t revolutionary, exactly, since someone still had to make dinner and I Hate to Cook assumed that that someone was Mom, but telling women they could settle for mediocrity when it came to the sacred task of feeding their families still feels pretty subversive.
And then there was this, from the chapter on dessert, where Bracken crisply dismisses the notion that adding an egg to a cake mix somehow satisfies the creative urge for women who hate to cook:
“We don’t get our creative kicks from adding an egg, we get them from painting pictures or bathrooms, or potting geraniums or babies, or writing stories or amendments, or, possibly, engaging in some interesting type of psycho-neuro-chemical research like seeing if, perhaps, we can replace colloids with sulphates. And we simply love ready-mixes.”
Maybe this was as far as you could go in 1960, at least if you still wanted to sell cookbooks.
I Hate to Cook helped women maintain the illusion that they were trying. Almost every recipe requires some sort of cooking, no matter how basic. It promises that there will be a hot meal by dinnertime — preferably with meat and a vegetable — and a sink full of dishes afterward. Even if dinner is fish sticks, it will be gussied up by a can of cream of celery soup. No one will ever be able to accuse the woman who hates to cook of not providing for her family! Who said it had to take her longer than 10 minutes?
I was raised and fed by a woman who hates to cook but who for 20 years nonetheless felt compelled to get a hot meal for four onto the table every night by 6. Many of the recipes in I Hate to Cook gave me a strong feeling of nostalgia, not in the dictionary sense of “sentimental yearning” but the Mad Men sense of “pain from an old wound.” (Is it coincidental that usage of the word “nostalgia” began to climb dramatically around the time Bracken was writing I Hate to Cook, as though a public longing for a lost collective past of families eating homemade dinners together — expressed through advertising and pop culture — could actually make it a current reality at the expense of women who hated to cook?) Dinners at our house ranged from uninspired to torturous, with a few exceptions like spaghetti with meat sauce and The Chicken That Everybody Likes. My mother’s beef stew was almost the same as Bracken’s Stayabed Stew, except that my mother managed to out-Bracken Bracken by using Lipton onion soup mix instead of a chopped raw onion.
I made Stayabed Stew one freezing cold afternoon when I was, in fact, a stayabed because I had the flu. I covered my cubes of stew meat (no browning first; that would require way too much effort) with a pile of chopped carrots, onion, and potato; sprinkled on some salt and pepper; dumped a can of condensed mushroom and garlic soup over the whole thing; and shoved it in the oven. As Bracken promised, it cooked happily by itself with no help from me and was ready in five hours, though it probably could have stayed in for longer if necessary. It tasted like my childhood: The meat was chewy and the sauce had a strong and uncomplicated savory flavor. It was fine, though not as good as I remembered. When I got to the bottom of my bowl, I decided I neither wanted nor needed any more, but that was kind of the point of Bracken’s method. Stayabed Stew was one of 30 simple, unexciting entrees that could be served over the course of a month without repetition. I could tolerate it for one meal a month if I had to.
A few days later, I made Pedro’s Special, a casserole with alternating layers of chile-spiced ground beef and Fritos. It seemed to have a vibe similar to that of Old El Paso tacos, another family favorite which, like the stew, I had not eaten in years but remembered fondly. Except that my grocery store, for some insane reason, did not have Fritos, so I substituted tortilla chips. When it came out of the oven, I filled two plates and gave one to my partner. There was a brief moment of silence as he took his first forkful. Then: “Euuuccchhhh! This is disgusting!”
I personally didn’t think it was all that bad. I mean, it wasn’t great. It was bland and it probably could have used some cheese. But prep had taken me all of 10 minutes. And it was dinner! Strangely, the more he complained, the more I started to feel slightly insulted, even though this was a one-time experiment and I have never been responsible for the daily care and feeding of another human. After all, I had shopped for the ingredients and I had been the one who did those 10 minutes of meal prep and then I pulled the finished product out of the oven, and he was reaping the benefits. Talk about ingratitude! And suddenly I knew firsthand the rage of Bracken, her Hags, and also my mother, to whom I have since apologized.
After Bracken finished the manuscript of I Hate to Cook, she showed it to her husband, who aspired to write short stories but churned out PR copy for his day job and was wildly jealous of his wife’s success. “It stinks,” he told her. That was the beginning of the end of that marriage, their daughter Johanna later told the New York Times. She didn’t say whether it was the jokes or the recipes that her father most objected to.
He may have had a point with the recipes. Even Bracken conceded they were more serviceable than great, and they haven’t really held up: Condensed-soup cooking is a style whose time has passed. (The book was reprinted in 2010 but had only modest sales.) And yet, 60 years after I Hate to Cook was published, statistics show that adult women in domestic arrangements with men still do the bulk of the grocery shopping and cooking. And so the jokes endure. As long as somebody has to cook dinner, we will need them.
Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.